Color Blind

Imagine you’re driving with your four young children in the car—maybe on your way home from the grocery store, or from picking them up from school or swimming lessons—when out of the blue you see a police car behind you with its lights flashing and sirens blaring. Imagine pulling over wondering if you’ve blown a brake light or forgotten to signal a lane change, or maybe knowing you were going a few miles per hour over the speed limit and hoping the officer will let you off with a warning.

Now imagine, having pulled over, seeing two or more officers jump out of the police car with their guns drawn as they order you to exit the car and everyone else in the vehicle to put their hands outside the window. Imagine getting out of the car, placing your hands on your head, and being shackled and cuffed in front of your children while trying to explain to the officers that the other occupants are all ages ten and under, and worrying about how frightened they will be in the car by themselves surrounded by people with guns.

This is exactly what happened to a woman in Forney, Texas last August after police responded to a report of four black men in a beige or tan Toyota brandishing a gun out of the window. According to the article in the link below, not only were their no black men or guns in the car, the car wasn’t even beige or tan—or a Toyota. On top of that, if you watch the video, you’ll hear an officer—falsely–explaining to the distraught woman that they were responding to a report of a car matching the location and description of hers, and with the exact same license plate, whose occupants were brandishing gun.

As was mentioned in the last post, we all make mistakes. But as was also mentioned in the last post, we expect more out of people in certain occupations, like those whose mistakes have the potential to kill or maim. Because the stakes are higher, so too must be the standards.

So maybe the stakes in the cases I’ve highlighted so far aren’t so high. After all, no one died as a result of these errors. But several people were traumatized, including four children and a mother who, knowing she had done nothing wrong, and knowing her three youngest kids were incapable of putting their hands out the window, must have been terrified that they might be killed if the police took their inability to comply as aggression and started shooting. And let’s not forget about the Georgia retiree who stood by helplessly as a SWAT team swooped in to confiscate his okra, or the folks up in Alaska who were not informed of their son’s death in a timely manner because the authorities thought they had already been notified. All of these events are, to use a technical term, so not cool.

Others may disagree. But what I keep coming back to is how this sort of thing happens. How do you mistake a black woman and four little kids for four armed black men? How do you mistake a burgundy Maxima for a tan Toyota? Are certain members of the Forney police force color blind? Or are they simply unable to distinguish one Japanese vehicle from one another?

And what does it say about these officers when, upon realizing their mistake, one of them takes the woman aside and—as can be heard on the video—instead of simply apologizing for pulling over the wrong car, invents a story about a report someone made about her specific license plate, and then asks if she may have had an altercation with someone on the road, as if the call they were responding to had been made by retaliation for something she did to offend another driver, thereby suggesting it was her OWN fault they pulled you over, not theirs?

To be honest, on that point I am not at all unclear. I’m 99.99% sure the officer by then was in CYA mode. After all, no one ever wants to look like an idiot. It’s just a shame he wasn’t man enough to admit they had jumped the gun. My only hope is that afterward one of the officers made an attempt to explain, in terms that small children can understand; that their mother had done nothing wrong; that they were looking for some bad guys; and they just wanted to make sure the bad guys weren’t in their car.

In this respect, invention is not only acceptable but warranted, and not for the sake of allowing these cops to save face, but to mitigate the damage done to the children’s ability to trust in the police as their friends and protectors. The alternative, of course, is to let them grow up in fear of the police, which does no one any favors.

At least the cops where we live didn’t try to blame their actions on the Jarhead. There are no videos available of the incident, but according to the Jarhead himself, the police who detained him didn’t attempt to cover their butts by inventing a report about an armed intruder. Nor did they claim that the neighbor who called the sheriff had said anything about a robbery, or suggest that the neighbor made the call do so in retaliation for something HE had done.

As I stated two posts ago, I don’t like to pick on the police. By and large they are decent people and literally every one of my personal encounters with law enforcement have been positive. But because, like surgeons, their work requires them to carry tools that can maim or kill, it is reasonable to expect them to know the difference between beige and burgundy and to distinguish marijuana from okra. Above all, we should not allow them to lie their way out of their mistakes, or otherwise conspire to cover their butts.

Instead, they should admit their mistakes and dissect them. That way, they may be less likely to repeat them.


Pot Luck

I don’t like to pick on the police. I believe most of the folks in law enforcement are on the job for the right reasons, and that they handle most situations as best they can under the circumstances. They have a tough job and because of a few bad apples and some high-profile errors, they get a bad rap despite their willingness to put their lives on the line for their communities day after day.

That said—and in the spirit of sparking humor rather than hostility—I want to discuss a handful of events that made the news recently and which have me questioning the skills and judgment of some of those whose job it is to protect and to serve.

I’ll start with the seizure last week of a portion of a Georgia man’s okra crop by the State Police. According to various sources, including Christopher Ingraham with the Washington Post, the okra was seized during a raid on the man’s property after an aerial crew from the Governor’s Task Force for Drug Suppression observed “suspicious-looking plants” growing on his land.

Now I’m no botanist, but even I can tell the difference between a cannabis plant and an okra bush having seen the former only twice in my life and having seen the latter exactly never. It’s not even my JOB to look for pot from a fixed wing aircraft but from just the photos of the okra bushes included in Ingraham’s story I can see they’re not pot plants.

But it’s easier, you may be thinking, to tell its okra when you’re looking at a photograph and/or up close than it is when you’re looking down on it from a helicopter several yards in the air. Okay, that may be true for some of us, but apparently it’s not true for certain members of the Georgia State Police. Because even after they raided the property, realized what they’d seen was not cannabis, and apologized to the home owner, they still took samples of the plants with them for further analysis, stating that “we’ve not been able to identify it as of yet. But it did have quite a number of characteristics that were similar to a cannabis plant.”

Hmm. Let me see if I have this straight: These guys are trained to identify and seize cannabis for a living, but they need to take okra back to their lab to make sure? In exactly what context have they been sampling the things they seize? And have they, perhaps, been sampling it a bit too much?

Then again, a lot of plants do look alike—both up close and from far away. So who can blame them for making such a mistake?

Actually, I can. Because if you can’t tell the difference between marijuana plants and garden-variety flora, you probably should not be paid to look for them, and you most definitely shouldn’t be paid to strap on automatic weapons and seize them.

Nobody’s perfect, you may be moved to say, because we all make mistakes. And you’d be right. Lawyers. Software engineers. Garbage handlers. They all make mistakes. Even I *gasp* make mistakes. The thing is, when I make a mistake it usually involves a comma, and no one gets shot or goes to jail. Usually.

But in other fields where the stakes are higher, we tend to have higher standards. We expect, for example, for a doctor to know the difference between cancer and pneumonia. And while their symptoms are somewhat similar, we don’t expect our physician to treat us for one when we have the other—and vice versa.

So I don’t think it’s asking too much for those who hunt cannabis to know what is and is not cannabis. After all, if a real estate agent couldn’t tell you the difference between a rambler and a colonial, he or she wouldn’t be in business very long.

Unfortunately, in addition to calling into question the abilities some of those employed by the Georgia State Police, this event also leads me to wonder if these folks have enough to do. Especially when you factor in one of the statistics in Ingraham’s report:  That 98% of the cannabis seized in marijuana eradication programs in the United States last year was uncultivated, non-psychoactive ditchweed. Add to that the fact that, according to Ingraham, most of these programs and their activities are funded by “asset forfeiture programs, which allow law enforcement officials to seize property from citizens never even charged – much less convicted – of a crime” and you now have not only means and opportunity, but also motive.

I’m not suggesting that these folks are deliberately abusing their powers to make a profit or harm innocent people. I’m just wondering if this isn’t a case of people seeing what they want to see. After all, if we started paying doctors a dividend for every case of cancer they diagnose we would likely see a spike in the number of screenings performed in certain markets, as well as an increase in the number of people undergoing chemotherapy.

That’s it for today. Tune in next week when we travel to Alaska for a serious case of Mistaken Identity…