Should I Call the Police?

woman's hands making a call on cell phone

Should I Call the Police?

I didn’t want to be that White woman

My husband Gene and I were on our way to hang out with our nearby kids and grandkids, who live in a neighborhood that I would guess is more than 99% Black. We take the interstate because it gets us there quickly, even though we’re rattled when we arrive. If you’ve ever driven on I-285 in Atlanta, you understand why we’re always relieved when we pull off onto the exit ramp.

After I exited the freeway, I came to the stoplight at MLK Drive, where we turn left to get to our son’s house. The light was green, and traffic in the right-turn lane was moving forward. But the traffic in my left-turn lane was blocked by what I assumed was a stalled car at the front of the line. I was afraid that we’d be rear-ended by a car or truck coming off the interstate too quickly to stop in time.

Eventually the drivers ahead of us got tired of honking and drove around the car on the left shoulder. I followed, and we got to the intersection just as the light turned red. I was right next to the stalled vehicle.

The car’s windows were wide open, and we could hear music coming from the speakers. A middle-aged man was leaning back in the driver’s seat. His eyes were closed, his mouth open, and his head fell slightly to the side. A teenage girl was curled up in the passenger seat, and I could see just the legs of another teenager or child in the back. This could have been a Black family taking a nap in their car on a warm spring day, and at first I really thought they were all just sleeping.

But it was too odd; clearly something was wrong. I opened my passenger-side window and we both called out to the man, “Hello, sir, hello — do you need help?”

Nobody in the car stirred. We called louder and my husband tried to touch the man’s arm that was resting on his open window, but it was too far to reach. We could see that the man was breathing. There was no blood, no sign of violence. “Do you think they all passed out for some reason, right after pulling off the freeway?” Gene asked.

“That makes no sense,” I said. “We have to do something.”

Then the light turned green and immediately people were honking. I knew the cars coming up behind us were exiting the interstate at high speeds, and I was nervous about blocking traffic, so I drove through the intersection.

I wanted to park somewhere, walk back to the car and try to rouse them. But even if I found a place to pull off the road, there was no safe way to get there on foot. I had no choice but to keep driving.

While I drove, frantic voices were shouting in my head.

You have to call 911!

NO! They’ll get in trouble. They’ll get roughed up and dragged off to jail. Maybe they’ll get shot. You know that sometimes cops shoot first and ask questions later. They might be killed. We can’t call 911!

What if they need medical help urgently?

But we’re White. You know what happens when White people call the police on Black people.

But they might die if they don’t get medical care right away! What if no one else stops to help them? You have to call 911!

Yes, but what if our call ends up with them getting arrested?

The police won’t hurt them — the police force here is probably all Black.

But that’s no guarantee . . .

Finally I called our son, who lived on the South Side of Chicago before moving to Atlanta, who knows racial dynamics at a much deeper level than I ever will, who’s had experience with how cops — both White and Black — behave in Black neighborhoods.

He told me to stop dithering and call for an ambulance. So I did.

I could tell by her voice that the dispatcher was a Black woman. She asked me a lot of questions and I told her all the details. Then I said, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to them.”

“Don’t worry ma’am,” she said, “I’m sending someone to check on them.”

“But I don’t want my call to result in them being harmed by the people who are supposed to help them. Do you know what I mean?” What a ridiculous question to ask a Black woman; of course she knew what I meant.

Then she said — God bless her — “Yes, I hear you and I understand exactly what you’re saying. Please don’t worry ma’am. It will be okay.” And I believed her.

That evening, and for several days after, I called the nearest precinct and tried, in vain, to find out what had happened. I clung to the hope that because the dispatcher was a Black woman, she could make sure everyone was safe. I never found out, and it still rests heavy on my mind.

I don’t know what it feels like to be Black and be afraid to call the police. As a White child, I was taught — and I believed — that police officers were my friends. They would protect me when I was in danger and help me when I was in trouble. That’s been true for me all my life.

So I should have been able to call the police that day without fear. But even though I know that the vast majority of them are good cops, I was still terrified for that family — terrified that my call could result in their death.

This is how racism works. It messes with our minds and makes us doubt our own instincts. It renders us helpless when we should be powerful. If we’re not paying attention, it can rob us White people of our humanity while it is robbing Black people of their lives.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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