Police prowling indiscriminately
October 30, 2007
Julien Williams ’06 doesn’t look like a criminal. Wide, frameless glasses perch at the end of his rounded nose, framing the heavy cheeks that are almost always creased by a smile. He is known for his generosity, his proclivity for breaking into French — which is perfect, save for a slightly Basque accent — but mostly for his dry, bold sense of humor, which he often directs at himself. He plays the guitar, is an alumnus of Kappa Alpha fraternity and works at a medical nonprofit in Alexandria, Va.
p. But, upon his return to Williamsburg this weekend to see old friends and to visit his girlfriend, who is an undergraduate, all of the things that make Williams who he is were reduced to a single attribute: his race. He is black, and in Williamsburg that is often enough to look like a criminal. This Friday, it was certainly enough to be treated like one.
p. Williams was sitting in front of his girlfriend’s apartment on student-dominated Wythe Lane, drinking a glass of water and smoking a cigarette when the police cruiser first drove by. His girlfriend and her friend were sitting with him and saw it too, the slow laps as it passed back and forth. It was late, almost 3 a.m., and Williams and his friends were about to go inside when the cruiser finally stopped and the officer emerged, flashlight in hand, and began asking questions. What was he doing? Where had he been?
p. Soon, more cruisers arrived — six in all — crowding the tiny, suburban lane with a small flashlight-wielding army. When they told the two girls to go wait inside, Williams began to get nervous.
“It was just me, alone, and these eight cops,” he told me. “No one else to see what might happen. They still wouldn’t tell me why they were there. I was asking, ‘Why exactly did you stop me?’ and he said I ‘had fit a description.”
p. Williams had no way of knowing it, but a robbery had just occurred a half-mile away at the intersection of Rolfe and Jamestown Roads. A female student at the College had been hit and her purse had been stolen. Owing to the lateness of the hour (and, one imagines, to the mental state common for College students on late Friday nights), she was able to describe her assailant only as a black male in a white T-shirt and jeans.
p. The absence of key descriptive features, such as height, build or face shape, would discourage most police officers, especially late on homecoming weekend, when the streets are filled with students (many of them wearing white T-shirts and jeans). But the Williamsburg police knew all they needed to know.
p. What is most troubling is not the Williamsburg police officers’ willingness to detain Williams without telling him why — police are required to explain detention, and you better believe that “you fit a description” doesn’t cut it. What is most troubling is how flippant, how careless the officers were in pursuing that description.
p. If the suspect had been described as white rather than black, would every “white male in a white T-shirt and jeans” within a half-mile of campus have been interrogated by eight of Williamsburg’s boys in blue? I doubt it. Though it is true only one in seven Williamsburg residents is black, our black population is still some 1,600 people, as of the 2000 census. If half are male, that leaves 800 suspects within Williamsburg’s meager nine square miles.
p. That the Williamsburg police were so ready to question and detain the first of those 800 they saw is worrisome, especially given all the signs that Williams had nothing to do with the crime.
p. The suspect had left the scene of the crime just minutes before, sprinting at full speed, yet when the police found Williams he was relaxed, neither breathing heavily nor sweating, smoking a cigarette and wearing glasses unmentioned in any report. But the suspect was a black male, and Williams is a black male, and in Williamsburg that is enough to justify six police cruisers and a half-hour of questioning.
p. Williams is unhappy with the way he was treated, but, true to his nature, is reticent to condemn the police.
p. “I don’t think they were malicious or anything, but I think they were bullheaded in what they thought would be the solution to the problem,” he said.
p. “I don’t hold it against the cops, because I realize their job is to find people who did wrong and bring them to justice. But I don’t think they handled it in the way best they could. I think six cop cars was probably half of the Williamsburg police force. I fit a profile.”
p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__