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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

 

"A mindset is not a fact"

by Tom Sullivan


Tonya Jameson

Chief Rausch said that when investigating complaints, it is essential to understand an officer’s mindset to determine the facts. A mindset is not a fact.

My wife traveled from North Carolina to a private residence in the Knoxville, Tennessee area last summer to pick up a used truck she bought from the owner days earlier. There is absolutely no way — none — that she would have experienced what happened in May to Tonya Jameson. My wife is white.

Jameson traveled there from Charlotte and Jameson is black. A week later, the former Charlotte Observer reporter published this account on her blog:

I was putting my license plate on an Isuzu SUV that I bought on April 28 from a nice lady in Jefferson City, TN when it happened.

I rented a one-way rental from Charlotte, NC to Morristown, TN, and took an unmarked taxi to the woman’s house on May 3. I talked to her the day before and told her that I would be coming to pick it up and she could remove her license plate because I had NC plates. The car was parked in the same spot in her driveway as it was the previous week when I purchased it from her.

After the cab dropped me off, I got the plate and my screw driver out of the duffel bag to put my plates on. I was screwing in the license plate when I heard: “Hands up, I’m an off duty officer.”

I turned slowly with my hands up. I explained that I bought the car the previous week. He didn’t lower his gun. He’s the seller’s son-in-law, also a Knoxville cop, and lives across the street. He said he saw me get out of a car, which sped away.

It was a taxi, I explain. From where, he asks, still holding the gun on me. Morristown (about 20 minutes away), I reply.

He’s incredulous. I tell him the registration and bill of sale (signed by the woman) are in my duffel bag. I tell him the keys are in my pocket. He tells me not to move. I ask if I can put down the small screwdriver that I’m sweatily holding in the air. He says yes. I ask if I can put my hands down, and he says yes.

He’s still pointing his gun at me as he calls 911. He reports a suspected auto theft. He finishes the call and holsters his gun. I exhale and lean against the truck. He tells me to sit on the step beside the house.

I again invite him to check the registration in my bag. I share various details about his mother-in-law. He tells me he knew she was selling the car, but she didn’t tell him she’d sold it.

A Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputy arrives. I’m thinking this should finally be over, and I can be on my way back to Charlotte. The off-duty cop tells his side of the story. I tell the deputy I have the registration in my bag. Does he check it? Nope. Does he run the plates? Nah. I offer him the signed bill of sale and keys. Not good enough.

He tells me to call the cab company and tell the taxi to return to the house. The dispatcher says “sorry honey,” but is willing to talk to the deputy. He doesn’t want to talk to her. He wants to talk the woman who sold me the car, which no one can reach by phone. She’s not home. She’s out cutting the grass on a hill, and she isn’t answering her cell. We’ve been over this already. No one can get her by phone.

I tell the deputy again that registration is in my bag, and it matches the VIN on the car. Or he can simply run the plates. He asks for the title. I tell him that I don’t have the title with me.

He asks if I have the phone number of the woman who sold me the car. Yes. He asks for her number. I read it to him from my phone. He compares it to the number on the bill of sale. It matched. (I’m not sure what that proved). He still doesn’t run the plate.

Since I was finally allowed to pick up my phone off the ground, I text a friend: “Cops here. They don’t believe I bought the car. Just stay on the line ... gonna call.”

Finally, the off-duty cop gets the seller’s daughter on the phone. She confirms that the car was sold to someone in NC. Did I mention that the off-duty cop was the seller’s son-in-law, and knew she was selling the car?

They let me go with a weak apology, and the typical, “There’ve been a lot of burglaries in the area.”

The deputy thanks the off-duty cop, who’d held the gun on me.

All of that talk about police de-escalating situations hasn’t reached Jefferson County, TN. The Knoxville cop’s first inclination was to point a gun at me. I was kneeling down with my back turned to him screwing in a license plate. It was broad daylight. I wasn’t fleeing nor was I threatening him in any way. He could’ve just asked me what was I doing without drawing his gun first. Then instead of following common sense by simply running the plate, the Jefferson County deputy asks me a bunch of nonsense questions.

I filed a complaint with the Knoxville Police Department’s Internal Affairs regarding the officer who drew his gun on me. I talked to Jefferson County Sheriff G.W. “Bud” McCoig about how his deputy handled the call. McCoig said his deputy acted appropriately despite not running my tag or looking at the registration (the deputy denied that I told him I had the registration). Since the deputy only stayed for 11 minutes, McCoig didn’t think it was a big deal. I explained that after one cop pulls a gun on you, and then the law enforcement officer who arrives won’t follow common sense and simply run the plate, but instead interrogates you, 11 minutes is an eternity. I told him his officer created an even tenser encounter. McCoig was unsympathetic and concluded the conversation with, “I’m glad everything worked out and as far as I’m concerned this is closed.”

I’m waiting to hear back from the KPD’s Internal Affairs. They needed additional information from me today. I’m not sure what if anything I can do about the ineptitude at the Jefferson County Sheriff Department.

I do know that I’m thankful that I survived that day. I understand how easily a police encounter can escalate. Some cops are willing to draw guns first and ask questions later. It also showed me how they protect each other. We’re expected to be thankful they didn’t kill us, beat us or lock us up in the name of public safety. The system isn’t set up to protect us. It’s set up to protect them when they abuse their power.

“I told the chief point blank, I don’t think the officer would’ve reacted the same way if he saw me as a white female or a white male,” Jameson said.

Knoxville's Internal Affairs concluded in late June that Officer Matthew Janish’s actions "were lawful and proper":
"In this case, even though he was off duty, the investigation showed that Officer Janish acted within the bounds of his training and appropriate police work in investigating a situation that appeared suspicious to him," reads a statement from Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero.

"Any of us can imagine what it would be like to be alone in an unfamiliar area, having done nothing wrong, and suddenly be confronted by a man with a gun," Rogero's statement continues. "Ms. Jameson had a terrible experience, and she was understandably upset by it."

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch flew to North Carolina on Tuesday to "meet with (Jameson) to explain the situation, to explain the results of the investigation, and to allow Ms. Jameson the opportunity to ask questions," said KPD spokesman Darrell DeBusk.
But in mid-May, former Knoxville Police Chief Phil Keith told WATE Janish had a better option than approaching Jameson with a weapon drawn:
“The smart thing, and what he’s trained to do, is to notify the jurisdiction just like anybody else, call 911 or if he had a police radio and it was in reach of Knox County Communications District, he could have gotten on the radio and said something. Unless there was some aggression or threat, he was not trained to flash his weapon.”
On Saturday, Jameson was back writing for the Charlotte Observer:
My case is another example of how the system is broken. Although my encounter didn’t end tragically, it could have, as all too many have (Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Michael Brown and others), and his actions likely would have still been deemed “lawful and proper.”

The system is designed to exonerate police officers, not provide justice for their victims. My incident, however, gives me new insight into just how much the law values police lives over the citizens they are supposed to protect.

Chief Rausch said that when investigating complaints, it is essential to understand an officer’s mindset to determine the facts. A mindset is not a fact.

Here are the facts that Janish appeared to focus on – the unmarked cab, a black person, the duffel bag and the license plate.

Then here are other facts that he ignored – he knew his mother-in-law was selling the car, it was broad daylight, and I knew her first name, but not her last name. I offered to show him the keys, registration and bill of sale signed by his mother-in-law.

Those are the actual facts. Officer Janish’s mindset was the scenario he created in his head. His fears weren’t facts.
Jameson told the Knoxville Mercury, “He painted this whole picture where he felt threatened. And if they feel threatened, the system’s going to let them off. And that’s crazy.” The transcript of the 911 call, Jameson asserts, shows Janish was "amped."

She concludes her Observer column describing the ludicrousness of the encounter:
I fought every impulse to do anything that would make him feel threatened. I don’t have de-escalation training. I’m the one being held at gunpoint. I’m the one thinking my life could end if he panics. Yet, I’m the one expected to remain calm.
But Janish didn't shoot her, so it's all good:
"He didn't do anything wrong, and he apologized," said Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch. "It was just one of these unfortunate incidents that happen," he added.
Just not to white people, he didn't add. As Jameson said, if police feel threatened, the system’s going to give them the benefit of the doubt before the people they are supposed to protect.

Two weeks ago, another off-duty cop in St. Louis, but black like Jameson, came out of his house to assist fellow officers with a stolen car that crashed down the street. No screenwriter would write this. It's too cliché:
According to a department summary of the incident released later Thursday, two officers who encountered the armed off-duty officer ordered him to the ground. He complied. When they recognized the off-duty officer, they told him he could stand up and walk toward them.

Another officer just arriving at the scene saw the off-duty officer get up and, not knowing he was an officer, fired his weapon once at the man. He hit the off-duty officer in the arm, the department said.
The police first claimed their off-duty colleague had been hit in crossfire between officers and suspects.

Mindset indeed. Is "shoot first" a must-check box on police academy applications these days or do they simply train that into them? "We're the only country in the world that polices like this," a critical Sheriff Mike Chitwood of Volusia County, FL told the Tampa Bay Times. I've written about this again and again, yet we seem still to be training and arming police for war, not for peacekeeping. For resolving situations with force, not for deescalating them. It's racial profiling, but it's more than that. It's a culture. Let's call it "Code Blue."*

Recall this scene from A Few Good Men in which Capt. Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) tries to undermine the defense by demonstrating that "Code Red" ritual beatings appear nowhere in the Marine Corps manuals:

You can bet Code Blue is not in police training manuals either. "Stop going for my gun!" is not in there. "He was reaching for his waistband" is not in there. "Stop resisting!" is not in there. Nor other "cover-your-ass" justifications for excessive and deadly force by police. Nor deleting crime scene video. Instituting implicit bias training to reduce racial profiling is not enough. Implicit means unconscious. Code Blue is a culture. It is something learned.

* Not to be confused with the police scanner Code Blue.