I took a deep breath and dialed 911, while I readily call the police when the situation is out of my control, I know that with the push of 3 numbers I give up control and invite in an intervention. I have also had my share of negative experiences with the police, I have seen that the intervention the police bring may or may not align with the story I would like written. I know, calling the police was the right thing to do, yet I kept wishing there was a better way. I told dispatch to have the squad meet me in the alley, behind our house, I went out back and prepared for a long wait.
I was surprised by how quickly they arrived, they took down basic information and then they asked if I wanted to go with them to the house where the kids lived. I welcomed the chance to stay engaged, and so climbed into the back seat for the 3 block ride.
Once we go there it all happened quickly, family came out of the house, police were asking questions both of me and the family, eventually Jeffery (not his real name) was sent out of the house by the family and the police asked him a few questions and then put him into the squad. No hand cuffs, no loudness, no crazy frisking or intimidation. The cops asked for the gun, the family gave it up. I have to admit I was very impressed with how the police interacted with the family. I’ve seen some officers behave badly, escalate situations by their own arrogance and rudeness, this was not one of those times, squad #410 and office 3772 deserve to be commended.
At one time an officer told Jeffery, his mom, brother and some other onlookers, “Do you have any idea how lucky you are? If that BB had hit him in the neck, or if it had been a bigger gun, you all would be laying here handcuffed on the grass and we would be kicking in every door, searching your house from top to bottom.” That was the extent of the tough talk, and it was truthful.
I asked an officer if I could speak to Jeffery before they took him away. He said, “Sure, You know you can’t hit him or anything, but go ahead.” I opened the door, he glanced at me and then looked away. “You know why I stopped to talk to you and your friends in the first place?” I asked. “Because I did NOT want this kind of thing to happen to you.” He nervously stared straight ahead, “Look at me Jeffery, I know there are programs for community service and victim restitution, and if there is some way we can do something like that together, lets try to do it, ok?” He shook his head, “ok,” his eyes were wet.
A second squad had arrived and they took my info, a picture of the two, bruised holes in my back, and drove me home. I knew I had to talk to someone, but was at a loss. Janeen listened and encouraged me to reach out to some friends. I knew a post on Facebook would only minimize a very complex situation. There was too much to say and too much I didn’t understand for a status update. Instead I sent a text message to my sons and a few friends, invited them to call or stop by the back yard, I needed some brothers to help me process.
I talked to a few family members on phone or in text. I had a good conversation with my co-worker, who has lived the street/gang life, and his quiet concern was reassuring. The first person to arrive in my back yard was my long time north-side friend Nate. In the past we had led a church and raised our children together. He and his wife were our first African American friends in the community; additionally they were our teachers and cultural guides. A couple other dear friends came by to offer their encouragement, share in frustration, and just be present in the moment.
The following days were a strange mix of normalcy and the surreal. I know it was just a BB gun. Yet, I wondered if he had a choice of which gun he would grab when he went in the house. I questioned how I handled the situation, yet I know I will not let kids run my neighborhood. I felt slightly betrayed, my neighborhood had never treated me so poorly, yet in the same moment, I felt so richly embraced by a community that poured its love out to me. I Intentionally rode my bike that very night, and several times in the next week past the same house. I could not let fear begin to rob me of basic joys of my neighborhood.
Two weeks after the event was when Jeffery was scheduled for court. I was given the opportunity to give a victim impact statement, I was grateful I still had a part I could play in the drama I had surrendered my rights to with that call to 911.
in case #13-22836, Jeffery was being given the option for a plea deal. I was actually quite impressed at how thoroughly his public defender was in explaining to him what rights he was giving up by accepting a plea, He explained how he could have a full trial; with witnesses, questioning, evidence and all that, all he needed to do was to say, “No” to the plea. He was a small figure between his mother and his attorney. His boyish voice was being pushed to speak up in full “yes or no” answers. “How did we get to this place,” I asked myself.
Then the prosecuting attorney called me forward, I was given a microphone invited to sit, or stand and told to address the judge and speak of Jeffery in the 3rd person.
“Your honor, I wonder if Jeffery remembers the last thing I said to him when he was in the police car? I told him I had stopped to talk to him and his friends because I did not want this to happen. He and his were trying to scare bikers, they kind of stomped and threw up their hands as I biked by. I was going to just go on and ignore it, but then I though, “No, its not fair to anyone in the neighborhood to just let it go.”
I continued, “It’s not fair to the bikers to get scared or intimidated when all they want to do is bike down Emerson. But also, like I told Jeffery’s friends, its not fair because too many people already have enough negative images and stereotypes of young black men which they believe. Why give them more reasons to believe the negative, prove them wrong Jeffery. I told them that it is not fair to you and your friends to live out other people’s negative ideas. Don’t be a stereotype, don’t become a statistic, enough kids are dying.”
“Your honor I stopped because I saw a young man, a neighbor, a person not a threat.” I looked at Jeffery who was nervously playing with the microphone and paper in front of him. “The detective told me that Jeffery said that he shot me because I, “pissed him off” I want him to know I did not mean to piss him off, but to call him out, to call him out to be more!”
“Jeffery missed most of the conversation I had with his friends, because he had said he was going in the house to get his gun. I didn’t believe him, I thought he was playing, but when he showed me the handle of the gun in his waistband; he proved me wrong.”
“I shook hands with your, I mean his friends as I left.” I said trying hard to keep the statement in 3rd person. “As I turned and biked away I thought maybe I should turn and watch, but I thought “I don’t want him to think I’m even a little afraid, besides he wont shoot me in the back, he proved me wrong again.”
I shared with Jeffery and the court, “Over the following days I thought a lot about what would have happened had it been a “real gun” Jeffery was a pretty good shot, I likely would have died. I would not have watched my granddaughter grow up, been at my son’s wedding in November. My daughter most likely would have NOT moved out and instead stayed with her mom, my wife who would need her support.”
I was surprised by the emotion those words wretched from my soul, the Probation Officer shoved the tissue box my way, I continued. “It all would have been changed forever.”
“Jeffery, has great power, he has great opportunity, he can make his life what he wants for good or he hold the power to destroy the lives of others and his own.”
I ended by reminding him of the second thing I told him in the police car; that I was willing to meet with him as part of his probation, community service if needed.
The judge thanked me for my words and then told Jeffery, “You are very lucky as well it was Mr. Jensen and not another person or a police officer who saw you with that gun, because the truth is they could have shot just for having the BB gun tucked in you pants.” She went on to challenge Jeffery more before sentencing him to a unique kind of “intensive foster home.” It turned out that I know his probation officer from other neighborhood meetings, and she was excited to try to work with him to create a community service and reentry plan in which I can be involved.
So now I wait to see where the next chapter of this drama will lead, and what part I will be called on to play. I have no dreamy ideology that this is a “happily ever after” tale, yet I do have hope the story line will develop in a way that is positive for Jeffery and his family.
I am more aware of the role we can play in “community justice” and have seen the importance of staying engaged and not just retreating and calling 911. However it seems that in partnership with the police and the justice system there is more we can do to create fairer and more balanced systems and processes.
Some people have been critical as to why I did not call the cops sooner, yet I fail to see what good that would have done. In fact I believe that part of the reason the interaction with the cops and Jeffery’s family went so smoothly was because the conversations Roxanne and I had had with the family earlier had prepared them, and the delay between incident and arrest reduced the officers sense of urgency or threat.
Finally I am more aware of my power and privilege. Had I not been a white male, how would have the situation have played out differently? I’m quite certain it would have. Roxanne and I discussed on the day of the event how hostile the world is for most young black males. I cannot personally know or feel that struggle, yet I can choose to engage with it, and simultaneously both deny and lend my power to it, and pray that with love and faith, shared tears and laughter we can move towards the creation of the “Beloved Community”