Updated: Feb 25
The video below is the body cam footage released by the Plano Police Department of an incident resulting in the arrest of a young man, which resulted in his arrest, at approximately 11:00 PM last Tuesday night during the historic freeze we experienced last week. Someone called in a welfare concern about the young man, who was walking alone at night wearing only a T-shirt, when temperatures were in the teens.
The Plano Police Department posted about this incident, along with the body cam footage above here, and the City of Plano has released this statement. This was brought to my attention Friday night. I watched the body cam footage first, before I read any comments. My thoughts are below.
I won't claim to know what was in the minds of anyone involved that night, but I always try to put myself in other peoples' shoes. It's easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback, but it's much more difficult to thoroughly evaluate an uncertain situation when you're in the midst of it; that goes both for Rodney (the young man who was arrested), and for the officers.
For Rodney, I don't know why he was walking alone, late at night in temperatures well below freezing, wearing only a T-shirt. He had to be beyond cold and extremely uncomfortable. If that were me, I'd desperately want to get to someplace warm.
He was obviously very uncooperative with the officers, and it's reasonable to assume it's because he was scared. It's bad enough he was walking home without adequate clothing in such conditions, but seeing the red and blue lights had to have sent his his stress level soaring. It's also entirely possible he was scared because for nine months he'd been persistently told the lie that police are systematically hunting down and executing young black men in America (yes, it's an abject lie, but if it's all you hear week after week, it could be easy to believe). If that's indeed what he was feeling, that he was made to feel that way is absolutely unforgivable.
When I was a boy, I was bullied pretty relentlessly, and to be honest, watching the body cam footage, I could see in Rodney a fair bit of my own behavior when being followed by the boys who bullied me. It was persistently evasive, with minimal dialogue. Short answers, not at all cooperative, but he was trying not to provoke or antagonize. He appeared to just want out of that situation. Even without the police, he was in an unenviable circumstance, and I feel for him.
Switching perspectives to the police officers, they received a welfare call. We don't know what occurred before the beginning of the body cam footage, but it was evident there was some interaction. Presumably they located Rodney after the call, and pulled up alongside him and tried to talk. Because he was evasive and uncooperative, they eventually stopped and got out of the squad car. Here's where it's important to see things through the officers' eyes as well.
Remember that cops have a tough job at the best of times. All they know at that point is what was reported by dispatch, and police always have to be on alert for potential danger or anything suspicious. It's a required part of the job. It doesn't mean the young man did pose a threat or did anything wrong--the point is the police don't know.
What they do know is that Rodney walking down the street in that horrible weather in a T-shirt is odd behavior to begin with. Sure, there could be a dozen legitimate reasons for it, but Rodney wasn't talking. They offered him a ride home. He declined. Here's where things get pivotal, and perspective is crucial:
Police have to weigh not only potential consequences of various actions, but also of inaction. The young man wouldn't communicate in any meaningful way; he wouldn't answer questions with any substance; he kept walking away from them; he refused to let them give him a ride home. Even well into the incident they asked his name, and he said, "I don't know." Of course, he's not obligated to do any of these things, but if I'm one of those cops, I'm thinking that if I just say, "Ok dude, your call. Peace out," and I left, what if something terrible happens that I could have prevented?
They don't know if he's intoxicated, or under the influence of drugs, or mentally ill, and Rodney didn't do anything to assure them none of these were the case. Maybe none of them were the case, but again, they don't know. So then what if the call came from dispatch in the morning when someone found his body frozen stiff? I wouldn't want that to happen, and so I wouldn't want to simply leave either. That doesn't mean arresting him was the right move, but I believe the officers were right to not simply abandon him. If he were dressed adequately, or it were warmer, it would be different, but not in those circumstances.
After they made the arrest, they could have simply dropped him off at home to get him out of the cold if they knew where he lived, but Rodney said he didn't have ID, and wouldn't talk. In the end, yes, the infraction the officers used for arresting Rodney--walking in the street--is a silly thing to arrest someone for, but watching the entire footage, I believe it was just a pretext to get him out of the cold. Again, that doesn’t mean the law should be used as a pretext to further another goal, but it does speak to lack of malicious intent—quite the opposite, in fact.
The officers weren’t cruising the streets at night in the middle of the most destructive weather event in Texas history looking for young black men to harass. They were responding to a welfare concern, and the concern they showed in the beginning was obviously genuine. Things got more tense the longer it went on, and they were just as obviously starting to get frustrated, but it still appears that their goal was simply to get him out of that situation the only way they could think of, which, ironically, was most likely what Rodney wanted himself, just not that way.
Hindsight is 20/20, which is why I try not to criticize people who make a snap call in a stressful situation. In hindsight, the officers could have tried to follow Rodney from a distance and then intervened only if he were in trouble. Maybe there were some other reasonable options. Adding such scenarios to the Police Department‘s crisis management training repertoire might make a good focus for the policy and procedure examination Chief Drain is conducting.
I've seen some people suggesting things like they should have found him a jacket. Really? At 11:00 PM? At which store? I drove all around the city trying to buy supplies for the warming centers in the daytime and four out of five were shut down. The fact is if they simply left the scene, even if they attempted to come back, there's no guarantee they would have found Rodney, or whether he'd be alive if they did.
The Plano Police are the finest in the nation. Plano is annually ranked among America's very safest cities, and the professionalism, diligence, and concern of our Police are an enormous part of that. As the Mayor said last night, we've done much to forge trust of our Police with our community. Obviously there is more to do, but it's something we all want. I urge all of us to just spend a minute trying to look at the world through one another's eyes, or put ourselves in one another’s shoes (or T-shirt, or badge), before we draw conclusions. This will go a very long way toward building and rebuilding trust.