A few weeks ago, an Oregon resident called the police to report suspicious behavior.
It was the kind of behavior many of us would consider to be not even noteworthy, but it makes other people nervous – two black, male teens who “didn’t belong there.”
We see complaints like these all the time when we compile police reports for our papers in Oregon, Stoughton and Verona. A group of teenage boys is huddled together or hanging out by a car, and a caller assumes they’re dealing drugs. Or someone who looks like he’s breaking into houses turns out to be a legally permitted salesperson.
Occasionally, police find a low-level crime being committed out of these stereotype-driven calls. Other times, the caller makes a wildly incorrect assumption, such as the time a person reported another individual was aiming a rifle at passing cars, but it turned out to be just a camera.
But this one-sentence report we printed was a bit more direct, and it quickly inspired a variety of responses from readers on social media and one office phone call.
Some were upset at the caller. Others were upset with us for printing the police report. One person defended the caller as possibly having honest, yet unclear motivations, and some said this is just the tip of the iceberg for what minorities deal with.
Personally, I’m happy to have been able to report the call, as it started a community conversation that needs to be had.
There are certainly good reasons to alert police about suspicious behavior. And the police department isn’t going to tell you to stop calling, because they know that for all the dud calls that come their way, a few lead them to solve or stop crime – such as the occasional spate of garage burglaries, car thefts and car break-ins all of our communities get.
But let’s be honest – people often don’t stop to think about how they sound when they complain that something isn’t right.
One of our reports we’re publishing soon in another community was a complaint about loud music from people who “didn’t quite fit the neighborhood” for a family cookout at 8:30 p.m. Another complained a pizza delivery driver had used the person’s driveway to turn around.
Some of the reports we read amuse our reporters and readers. The raccoon that fell through the ceiling of someone’s bedroom onto a bed as they slept and the woman riding her horse to Kwik Trip while intoxicated are just a couple good ones from the past few months.
To a point, even clearly racist calls to the police department can make us snicker because of how incomprehensible it seems that people could go so far as to involve the authorities without recognizing their own inappropriate behavior.
When someone claims a neighbor in a burqa is letting her dog poop in the nearby park, as was the case in one report in another community this fall, it sounds bad and yet somewhat legitimate. But when officers arrive and there’s no poop to be found, it’s pretty obvious racism and a sad commentary about the person who called them.
This is an insidious part of a systemic problem in our society that must be illuminated whenever we see it, or it won’t ever change. We all remember the sudden rise of the #MeToo movement – its power was in bringing to light things people had known about, but were kept quiet for years, even decades, because it was the status quo.
We can all look the other way because it’s more comfortable to do so, but the only people who benefit are the ones behaving poorly.
Now, we should not invoke race without reason, and we don’t do so with our police coverage unless the situation immediately calls for it. While the police always take descriptions of people, we aren’t going to describe a person by their race or color unless it’s a person police are looking for and there’s a complete description to go with it (6 feet, 180 pounds, hooded sweatshirt, neck tattoo).
But we also want to make sure to provide a clear description of just what kind of calls the police department gets from citizens. That shows us all both how our tax dollars are being spent, from the perspectives of both what we are asking of the department, and how the department handles calls.
When people use the department in questionable ways, whether that’s for trivial matters, personal vendettas or to advance bigotry, we’re going to show you. Because our job is truth, and the last thing we want is for people to blithely think those things no longer exist.