I live in a nice neighborhood of single-family homes. There’s a market down the block where you see a few homeless people, but the market always has rather burly guys working security, which is enough to discourage a crowd. And to get from there to me is an uphill walk, which homeless people rarely take. Or so I thought.
It was early evening, still pleasant, and I was in the backyard with my son. His girlfriend texted to say the police were out front. A neighbor had seen a man squeezing through my driveway gate and trying to get into my trunk. By the time the police arrived, he had run away.
The description: a Black man in a baseball hat. It was a walking, talking (as it turned out, ranting) example of the stereotype that leads to police profiling, and to overreactions and abuse.
No such stereotypes for me. I checked my Ring camera that is aimed at the gate, and it didn’t show anyone breaking in. So firm was I in my belief that nothing happened that I didn’t even go out and lock my car.
Today, my gardener rang the doorbell to tell me there was a Black man in my garage rifling through my boxes. I was craning to see into the garage while my assistant called 911. Asked by the dispatcher for a description of the man, she said, with some discomfort, “Black.” I couldn’t see anything. It was all we had from Mario, himself Hispanic.
Officer Gonzalez — who, by the way, arrived in less than five minutes — handled what could have been an ugly situation calmly, treating the man in the garage, a ranting drunk, with respect, giving him every chance to explain himself or to just act like a human being. Trust me; he gave him more time to do that than I would have, and I was the board president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Finally, when the guy repeated his threats in more vulgar language, threatening to come back for the officers and the neighborhood and kill us all, he was handcuffed and put in the back seat of the police car.
“We’re going to book him for public intoxication,” the officer told me as I ran through in my head the various more serious charges that technically did apply — breaking and entering, grand larceny for his theft, assault for his threats. I was glad to see the officers treating the man peacefully, even with respect. I was not glad about the charge, which seemed way too lenient for a guy who squeezed through the gate with the intent to steal and who knows what else. In many houses, the garage connects to the house; I had always wished mine did.
But I knew the answer before I asked the question: If they were to book him for anything else, he would be out before the ink was dry on the paperwork. That is how it is right now with COVID-19: Bail has been eliminated, which means that all but violent criminals are in and out the same day. At least with public intoxication, they would keep him until he was sober, and none of us would have to show up for a hearing that would leave us even more frustrated.
Obviously, punishment should come after you’ve pled guilty or been convicted, not before. But that’s just not how the system works. The prisons are hopelessly overcrowded; the explosion of mandatory sentences has led to a growing, aging prison population. Finally, some of the crude laws enacted by politicians fighting to not be labeled “soft on crime” are being reexamined as part of the effort to “defund” the police by allocating resources from the police to those who can provide needed social services.
Which is all well and good, except for this: I wasn’t looking for a social worker when I heard there was a man in my garage. I wanted the police, the men and women who risk their lives every day by going into the garage while we huddle behind closed doors.
They came and did their job as best they could, no thanks to the system. My thanks to the Santa Monica Police Department.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.