In August 2014, Washington University law professor Kimberly Norwood explained to the world why she feared for her sons.
It was the height of the Ferguson protests, and in an op-ed on the CNN website, Norwood explained that being black in St. Louis - even as a middle-class professional - means preparing your children for a different reality than that facing white families when dealing with police officers.
“A few years ago my husband and I went on a cruise. My older boys were teenagers at the time and were taking summer enrichment classes at a school about a mile from our home. They planned to walk to school in the morning,” Norwood wrote. “At the top of a long list of things to do before we left for our trip was e-mail chief of police.’”
The Norwoods live in a mostly white neighborhood in a suburb. She took her boys in to meet the police chief so he would know what they look like.
Such extreme measures are standard for many black parents. Among the advice they give to their children when they go off to college? Keep your receipts.
When 10 black Washington University students were stopped by Clayton and Richmond Heights police officers July 7 after a late-night meal at IHOP, some of them had their receipts. Even that didn’t stop the officers from detaining the students for a three-block walk back to the restaurant before being released when the manager said they were not the four males who had apparently left without paying a $61 bill.
It took nearly two weeks, but last week, under intense pressure from Washington University and community outrage, the City of Clayton apologized for the actions of its officers that night.
“In hindsight, it is clear to us that we mishandled the interaction with these 10 Washington University students and lacked sensitivity about their everyday reality because of how racial bias affects their lives. For that, on behalf of the City of Clayton, we sincerely apologize,” Clayton City Manager Craig Owens said in a statement.
For Norwood, who teaches the law, this was an entirely avoidable event.
“Police should and must respond to crime. I think people all understand and appreciate that,” she said. “But stopping people just because they are black is the problem. If a store says four black people just did a ’dine and dash,’ police should be looking for four black people who fit the description. The group stopped here was a group of 10, casually walking to the MetroLink and they had on Washington University paraphernalia. They did not fit the description. Why were they stopped?”
They shouldn’t have been, said Heather Taylor.
A sergeant with the St. Louis Police Department, Taylor is the president of the Ethical Society of Police, an organization that represents police officers in St. Louis. The failure of the incident at IHOP begins with stopping young black students without probable cause, she said, speaking on behalf of ESOP.
“Clayton officers stated there was a dine and dash with African-American males in white shirts, black pants, and one individual was wearing red. That is a very vague description to use as the basis to detain someone. . There’s nothing distinguishing about that description, but race, and even that has layers that need to be investigated before you stop someone because black males don’t all look alike. Some officers can’t tell the difference, and some don’t care. Using vague descriptions to stop anyone isn’t good policing, it’s biased.”
It’s also a violation of the students’ Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable search or seizure, said Mae Quinn, a visiting law professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, and a former law professor at Washington University.
“I’d like to say this is unusual - but in my experience it happens all the time in the St. Louis area,” Quinn said. “You are young, you are black, you are near the scene - you will do. That is, close enough. And frequently this results in someone being booked, processed, and detained pretrial - adults and children alike. A lot of this is racial bias. Some of this is learned ignorance about the law. Many local officers can’t even articulate controlling constitutional standards. And supervisors allow unlawful actions to continue.”
In the case of the Washington University students and IHOP, the City of Clayton now admits that its officers acted inappropriately. Police Chief Kevin Murphy said he’ll investigate and consider more training. The city has apologized.
It is progress, perhaps. But not so much that Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton still doesn’t lament the reality that parents of next year’s incoming black freshmen will have the same talk this year’s set of parents likely already had - the same one Norwood had with her sons.
“I do not know, in my lifetime, if I will see a day when young African-Americans aren’t counseled by their parents to be cautious of the police out of fear that something could go wrong,” Wrighton wrote in a letter to the community.
Tony Messenger is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.