Santa Monica’s police chief, a black woman, is defending her officers and a 911 caller after a black executive said she was detained as a burglary suspect in her own home because of her race.
Fay Wells wrote in an article published by the Washington Post that she locked herself out of her apartment late one night in September and called a locksmith to get back inside. A neighbor Wells described as white called 911 to report a burglary in progress, triggering a response by at least 16 officers who detained Wells at gunpoint, according to her article.
Wells identified herself in the Post as a vice president of strategy for an unnamed California company. The Santa Monica Police Department corroborated Wells’ basic account in a statement issued after her piece was posted Wednesday, and a spokesman said the department was investigating its officers’ response, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Santa Monica police Chief Jacqueline A. Seabrooks says she could see all sides.
“As a black woman born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, I empathize with Ms. Fay Wells and how the experience made her feel,” Seabrooks said in a statement. “On the other hand, as an experienced law enforcement executive, I understand the Police Department’s response and the need for that response.”
Seabrooks said she could not fault the neighbor for reporting what he believed was a burglary.
“Put yourself in his place,” Seabrooks said in her statement. “Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does. Put yourself in her shoes. And, the Santa Monica Police Department’s response was not wrong. Put yourself in the officers’ shoes.”
Wells wrote that when the police arrived, she was inside her apartment.
“Peering through my blinds, I saw a gun,” she wrote. “A man stood at the bottom of the stairs, pointing it at me. I stepped back and heard: ‘Come outside with your hands up.’ I thought: This man has a gun and will kill me if I don’t come outside.”
After going down the stairs, “I told the officers I didn’t want them in my apartment,” she wrote. “I said they had no right to be there. They entered anyway. One pulled me, hands behind my back, out to the street. The neighbors were watching.”
Wells wrote that the police overreacted because she was black.
Below is the full statement from Seabrooks:
For the past 34 years, I have been a public servant, a police officer. For over eight years, I have been a police chief in two quite different communities in Los Angeles County; today, I am the Police Chief for the City of Santa Monica’s Police Department.
On September 6, 2015, our officers were dispatched to a 9-1-1 call reporting an in-progress residential burglary, a serious felony crime. In the call, which came in at 11:16 p.m., it was reported that three subjects, two women and a man, were breaking into an apartment; the subjects were described as “a Latino male wearing a dark hat and dark shirt and two girls, possibly Hispanic, wearing dark clothing.” Because of factors such as the time of night, the number of possible suspects, and the nature of the call, multiple officers responded directly to the location and to the general area. Although fewer officers were actually dispatched to the call, because of what the neighbor reported to the 9-1-1 operator, two supervisors and fifteen police officers responded. Based on the information provided by the 9-1-1 caller, in smaller communities, like Santa Monica, a response of this type is not uncommon.
From those officers who responded, a smaller subset of uniformed police officers, including a police K-9, went directly to the apartment where the burglary was said to be occurring; two officers in this smaller group responded with their guns drawn. The other officers remained in the general area, away from the apartment, setting up containment, restricting pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and otherwise preparing for the worst while likely hoping for the best. The officers at the apartment, initially encountered a woman who later was determined to be the apartment resident. She was detained even as she asserted that she was the apartment’s resident. The officers concluded the investigation taking the actions necessary to verify that no burglary occurred and that the woman, Ms. Fay Wells, was the apartment’s resident. What the officers learned was that Ms. Wells locked herself out of her apartment and had called a locksmith to let her in. The neighbor and 9-1-1 caller, who did not recognize Ms. Wells, her companion, or the locksmith, believed a residential burglary was occurring; he called 9-1-1 to report what he thought was an in-progress burglary.
When the scene was stabilized and the officers learned that Ms. Wells was, in fact, the apartment resident, two police supervisors and two police officers, including the K-9 handler, spent considerable time explaining what brought the police to Ms. Wells’ door. We were making an effort to help her understand what happened. Even the neighbor who called 9-1-1 came over and tried to explain why he called. Unfortunately, none of these efforts worked.
As a Black woman born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, I empathize with Ms. Fay Wells and how this experience has made her feel. On the other hand, as an experienced law enforcement executive, I understand the Police Department’s response and the need for that response. This seeming dichotomy may be difficult for some to accept, particularly given the national dialogue. From my perspective, the 9-1-1 caller was not wrong for reporting what he believed was an in-progress residential burglary. Put yourself in his place. Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does. Put yourself in her shoes. And, the Santa Monica Police Department’s response was not wrong. Put yourself in the officers’ shoes. I have chosen to share the post-incident audio recording so you can listen and draw your own conclusions…
This incident is reminiscent of those Rorschach-style images where it depends on your perspective whether you see a blob of ink, the image of an old woman, or you see the beautiful woman’s profile. Some will see this circumstance as an indictment of law enforcement while others will see it as further proof of the breakdown in police-community relations. For me, I don’t see this incident as either of those things. Instead, this incident presents a clear and present opportunity for all facets of our community and this Police Department to continue to work together, to engage in on-going conversations about the realities and myths of the protective function inherent in policing, and to emphasize the importance of community, particularly in terms of knowing one’s neighbors. I hope we can all to be more thoughtful before we rush to condemn the actions of a group of police officers who were doing their best to keep our community safe. I welcome the opportunity to engage our community in these all- important conversations.
Jacqueline A. Seabrooks, Chief of Police
Santa Monica Police Department
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