Imagine the following scenario: Several motorists on a busy Los Angeles freeway call 911 to report a woman walking along the shoulder and acting strangely. The California Highway Patrol responds to the calls, sending officers to investigate. The first officer to arrive is alone in a marked patrol car. He gets out of his car and talks to the woman, ordering her to stop. She refuses, and instead turns and walks away as traffic continues to pass.
And now this officer must make a decision: If I pursue her, he says to himself, she will very likely resist my attempt to restrain her and I will have to subdue her by force. The ensuing altercation may be captured on video by people in any of these passing cars, video that will soon be posted on YouTube and, if deemed sufficiently inflammatory, picked up by television news stations.
And should this occur, the officer thinks, I will surely not be cast in a favorable light. The woman is black and I am not, a fact that will be pointed out endlessly should the encounter turn violent. I may even be viewed as a villain by those whose experience with such encounters is limited to reading about them or watching them on television, a group that may include some of my own superiors in the Highway Patrol. My home, my livelihood, even my very freedom may be jeopardized if I take action on my own here.
No, the officer says to himself, the more prudent course is to wait for backup to arrive, maybe even a supervisor. That way, should things go awry, blame can be shared with others, or perhaps even shifted entirely onto the supervisor. And besides, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
So the officer watches and follows on foot as the woman continues on her way down the freeway’s shoulder. And as she walks facing the oncoming traffic, she sees more patrol cars approaching and realizes her avenue of escape will soon be closed. But she sees that the freeway traffic has now slowed, the passing drivers braking so as to take in the spectacle unfolding at the side of the road. Sensing her last chance for freedom, the woman runs into the traffic lanes, hoping to make it to the opposite side of the freeway before the arriving officers can assemble and stop her.
She finds success, if only briefly. She weaves between cars and across all five lanes of eastbound traffic under the startled eyes of the passing drivers, but she sees that the Highway Patrol officers, too, are making their way through the snarl and coming for her. She jumps over the wall on the center divider and runs into the westbound lanes, where she finds to her momentary horror that these drivers have not been distracted and this traffic has not slowed. She is struck by one car and then another and another, and by the time it’s all over, there are bits and pieces of the woman scattered over a quarter-mile stretch of the freeway, which is closed for hours in both directions as the Highway Patrol and the coroner clean up the mess.
And then come the questions, the accusations, and of course the lawsuits. Why, it is asked, did the first Highway Patrol officer on the scene not take more aggressive action to stop the woman? Didn’t he know she was at risk from being run over and killed? Was he unconcerned to her fate because she was of an ethnicity different from his own? “He should have tackled her, even hit her,” says the lawyer representing the woman’s family. “He should have done whatever it took to keep her from running into traffic. Anything would have been preferable to what happened to her.”
Yes, a sad story, but that’s not quite the way it came to pass.