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The Dorothy Bland Story Shows How Narratives About Police and Race Often Outrun the Facts

We’ve seen this before: An encounter between a black citizen and police is framed as an example of racial profiling. The story spreads like wildfire on social media and is pointed to as evidence of the need for immediate cultural change.

And then the facts come out.

Days after the claims of bias by police have spread, we discover the real story is different. In fact, parts of the story we thought we knew were factual aren’t true at all. This pattern of media-fostered racial outrage played out for months after the Trayvon Martin shooting and then again with the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson. And despite all of the evidence which comes out months later, some people never get the message. Some remain convinced that the early claims, about who assaulted whom or who had their hands up, were true.

Over the past week, the whole pattern played out in miniature in the case of Dorothy Bland. Ms. Bland (no relation to Sandara Bland) is a professor of journalism at the University of North Texas. On October 24th, Ms. Bland was walking in her neighborhood when she was stopped by two police officers. A few days later, she wrote about her experience for the Dallas Morning News:

Flashing lights and sirens from a police vehicle interrupted a routine Saturday morning walk in my golf-course community in Corinth… Like most African-Americans, I am familiar with the phrase “driving while black,” but was I really being stopped for walking on the street in my own neighborhood?

That’s a good question. Was she stopped because she’s black? It’s clear from the rest of the piece Ms. Bland has made up her mind that she was.

Knowing that the police officers are typically armed with guns and are a lot bigger than my 5 feet, 4 inches, I had no interest in my life’s story playing out like Trayvon Martin’s death. I stopped and asked the two officers if there was a problem; I don’t remember getting a decent answer before one of the officers asked me where I lived and for identification.

I remember saying something like, “Around the corner. This is my neighborhood, and I’m a taxpayer who pays a lot of taxes.” As for the I.D. question, how many Americans typically carry I.D. with them on their morning walk?

The fact that Ms. Bland doesn’t remember exactly what was said ought to make her cautious about assigning motives to the police, but it doesn’t. Instead, she concludes she must have been stopped because she is black.

I guess I was simply a brown face in an affluent neighborhood. I told the police I didn’t like to walk in the rain, and one of them told me, “My dog doesn’t like to walk in the rain.” Ouch! I didn’t have my I.D., but I did have my iPhone, so I took a picture of the two police officers and the Texas license plate. One of the officers told me I should walk on the sidewalk or the other side of the street for safety’s sake.

As we’ll see in a minute, there was a good reason for the stop and Bland is insinuating officers insulted her when they clearly did not intend to do so.

Although I am not related to Sandra Bland, I thought about her, Freddie Gray and the dozens of others who have died while in police custody. For safety’s sake, I posted the photo of the officers on Facebook, and within hours, more than 100 Facebook friends spread the news from New York to California.

How did posting the image on Facebook enhance her safety exactly? Is she suggesting the police might come back later to endanger her life? Is she saying she posted the photo in case she turned up dead?

For anyone who doesn’t think racial profiling happens, I can assure you it does happen. For a sanity check, I stopped by the mayor’s house and asked him, “Do I look like a criminal?” Mayor Bill Heidemann said no and shook his head in disbelief. I appreciate the mayor being a good neighbor, but why should he need to verify that I am not a menace to society?

I refuse to let this incident ruin my life.

At this point, most readers must be imagining a shocking display of overt racism, possibly some verbal abuse and threatening actions by police. After all, Ms. Bland is saying this incident could have the power to ruin her life.

Police Chief Debra Walthall wrote a reply to Bland’s account which included the dashcam video of the encounter. And, just like media coverage of the shooting of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, we learned that Bland’s account of the incident was not an accurate portrayal of what happened.

My officers, a field training officer and his recruit, observed Ms. Bland walking in the roadway wearing earbuds and unaware that there was a pickup truck directly behind her that had to almost come to a complete stop to avoid hitting her. The driver of the truck looked at the officers as they passed and held his hands in the air, which implied “aren’t you going to do something about this?” The officers turned around and drove behind Ms. Bland.

Police didn’t initiate this encounter because they felt like harassing a black pedestrian. They were prompted by another driver who was stuck behind Bland on the road. She was creating a problem, albeit a very minor one, and police stepped in to speak to her about it.

They activated their in-car video camera, which shows her again walking in the roadway impeding traffic. They activated their emergency lights — no siren was ever sounded — they exited their patrol vehicle and contacted Ms. Bland.

There were no sirens. That’s mentioned because it shows the 4th word of Bland’s account is false. She made the encounter sound more dire and alarming than it actually was.

They immediately advised Ms. Bland about the pickup truck and the fact that it was safer for her to walk against traffic so she could see the cars and jump out of the way if necessary. The interaction between Ms. Bland and the officers was very cordial and brief.

Remember, Bland claimed she asked what the problem was and never heard a “decent answer.” But the video shows the officer immediately told her what the problem was. He said, “The reason why we’re coming her to talk to you is when you were walking up this way, make sure you walk on this side of the road because, I don’t know if you noticed but there was a truck that pretty much had to go to a stop…” Ms. Bland’s entire piece is premised on the idea that there was no reason for the stop. Not only was there a reason, that reason was explained to her immediately.

As for asking for her ID, officers are allowed to do this. When Ms. Bland said she didn’t have it the officer replied, “No, that’s fine.” He then asked for her name and date of birth so he could add it to the record of the stop and he called in the information on his radio.

Ms. Bland explained that she usually walks earlier in the day but was walking later that day because of the morning rain. The officer appeared to smile as he asked in a conversational tone, “You don’t like to walk in the rain?” Ms. Bland said no and the officer replied, “Some people do… My dog doesn’t like the rain.” At worst it’s an awkward comment, but there’s no suggestion that the officer was trying to offend Ms. Bland or call her a dog.

At this point Ms. Bland says, “I’m a perfectly law abiding citizen,” and puts her hand out to the police officers. Nothing about the encounter seems remotely life-threatening. Both Ms. Bland and the officers comport themselves like responsible adults. They are polite to her. She is polite to them. After a grand total of 3 minutes, everyone is on their way.

The evidence, in this case the video evidence, doesn’t lie. Just as there was no evidence Mike Brown was shot with his hands up, there is no evidence race played any role in this encounter. Bland later told the Denton Record-Chronicle, “I wrote the column to share my perception of my experience. This happened to me. It was my opinion. I respect law enforcement and respect they have a difficult job.”

Chief of Police Debra Walthall said the response she received has been mostly positive. She told the Denton Record-Chronicle, “Some people see it as racial profiling, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive. They thanked the officers and myself for handling it professionally.”

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