Profile surprise: How I made CPD's hit list
After one encounter with the Charlottesville police, the last thing I expected was another visit over the same issue [Essay, August 23: "My crime: 'You fit the description'"]. Yet here it was all over again.
This afternoon, two Charlottesville police officers showed up at my door, waving a clipboard and a DNA swab kit.
"We don't know how it got there, or how it was submitted," one officer politely explained, but "your name is on our list."
Momentarily stunned, I pulled it together and almost smiled. This has to be a joke. I looked around for a hidden camera and a mischievous group of friends yelling, "Surprise!" But this joke is not funny anymore. There's a serial rapist on the loose out there, and no black man in town is above suspicion.
"Sir," one of the officers began earnestly, "the search for this man takes a lot of manpower, puts a huge strain on the department. One of the easiest ways to lighten that load is to eliminate people from the list, and we have a chance to do that here."
The officer went on to explain that the test takes only a moment, that I was welcome to claim the DNA and the kit after the results come in. The officers took turns explaining the positive benefits of taking the test. It was like watching a tag-team of good cop/really good cop.
Submitting to the DNA test would be great for me, one officer explained warmly, as it could mean no more contact with the police and getting my name off "the list."
The officer doing most of the talking was black, the other white. Perhaps the thinking was that brother to brother we could iron this thing out. Between the two of us, we could overlook an illegal search and seizure.
Well, maybe our ancestors came over in the same ship, brother, but we're in different boats now.
The first time I was asked to submit to a DNA test was last August, in the middle of a sweep of black males, a response to public and political pressure to solve a six-year old rape case. As a black male, I supposedly fit the description.
I was unhappy, but I tried to put the incident in perspective. It's the police department's job to examine everything. Now, I'm angry. This feels like harassment. Even as I write this, my hands are shaking because my name is on a list somewhere in the Charlottesville Police Department. I don't want to play good cop/good cop anymore. I don't want to engage in another Constitutional debate. I want my life to go back to how it used to be.
After the first time I was asked to submit to a DNA test, I wrote "...every time an officer pulls me over, I want him or her to run a check, hold my life up to the harsh glare of red and blue flashing lights. Maybe in some small way it will help them remember not everyone who "fits the description" is a potential perpetrator, but is instead a real person, with a real life, someone who has faith in God, country, our Constitution and yes, even our men and women in blue. "
I don't have that same faith in the Charlottesville police now, and that revolutionary fire has gone out of me.
Again I said, "No." And I said it emphatically and louder than the last time.
"I would just like to know why," one officer demanded. "Is it because it is your right to refuse and..."
"Yes," I cut him off, "because it is my right to refuse."
Last time around, the officers explained, almost 300 black men in Charlottesville had agreed to submit to the buccal. I can understand why they consented. Even if you've done nothing wrong, the urgency of the tag-team of officers pressing you can be overwhelming.
I have nothing but sadness and a sincere sense of grief for every woman who was assaulted by the Charlottesville rapist. I could not imagine what it felt like to be assaulted in your own home, to have the security and peace of the place in the world where you live violated and irreconcilably shattered. Until now.
Please don't misunderstand; I'm not attempting to equate my experience with a reprehensible, violent physical assault. I am trying to say that since the suspect is still at large, the Charlottesville Police Department has created a database of black men who have not submitted to the DNA test and has instituted the disturbing tactic of home visits to those men, enthusiastically articulating the "benefits" of submitting to the test, as if they were selling door-to-door house wares.
No thanks. I'm not buying.
According to its home page, "The Charlottesville Police Department pledges to continue our tradition of service and excellence to every citizen, student... only through teamwork, mutual respect, and cooperation can the community be best served... No challenge is too great for us to overcome... the community [we] serve determines the role of the police... and it is our passion, duty, and honor to serve you."
But twice now, the Charlottesville PD's passion for its work has taken the form of an impassioned argument for me to surrender fundamental civil rights.
"The community it serves determines the role of the police?" I'm a member of the community, and this kind of policy is not the role I would advocate for law enforcement. Is what is occurring here an instance of racial profiling? Or is it just an example of "good" police work?
There have been published reports that black men who do not match the suspect in facial features, complexion, height, weight, or age have been asked to provide a DNA sample. It is difficult not to conclude that race is the only objective factor. When I first moved here a year ago, I wasn't sure if Charlottesville was part of the Old South. I am now.
As of this writing, 500 local black men have agreed to submit to the buccal. I'm sure the Charlottesville police will continue to knock on doors, continue to wave their DNA kits, and that number will rise to 501, or well above. But not today. Not with me.
I guess some of that revolutionary fire is still burning somewhere after all, because the first thing I plan to do tomorrow morning is to consult an attorney.
You see, the Charlottesville Police Department is now on my list.
Steven Turner is a PhD student in UVA's Curry School of Education.