My thoughts flash back about five months ago to South Avenue in Wilkinsburg: It’s around 5:30 p.m. and I’m driving to my dad’s house for dinner with my wife and two daughters, 14 and 11.
Something bizarre awaits us.
We’re pulling out from a stop sign when - seemingly out of nowhere - two girls, probably 15 or 16, hop, butt-first on the hood of my Corolla. They sit there for two or three seconds, cracking up. My family and I are pretty much stunned and then we notice a third girl filming the incident on her cell phone – about 5 feet away. A social media prank of some sort; we get it.
There’s no damage done. The girls begin jogging away but I’m pissed enough to dial 911, over my family’s objections. My intention: Put a scare into the car jumpers and teach them a lesson. By the way, they’re Black; I’m White.
The girls turn around one last time and see me standing next to my car on my iPhone. They start jogging up the street. I watch them enter an apartment building about a block away, so I get back into my car and drive to the front.
Within minutes, a Wilkinsburg cop responds to my 911 call. By that time my thoughts are back to my dad’s grill. I wasn’t that concerned with any outcome. I harkened back to my days growing up in Highland Park when a motorist chased me down after I blasted his car with a snowball. Lesson learned. Lesson to share.
Anyway, the officer, who is White, starts taking a report from me. I tell him there’s no damage to the car and I just wanted to make the girls realize there are consequences for their actions – I think those were even my exact words. It’s clear the girls, who are now peering out of an open third-story window, aren’t coming back outside.
The officer explained that he had responded to several similar calls involving “Black teenage girls” in the area that week. Then he looked me straight in the eye and said this:
“If this happens again, this is what you do: Put your foot down on the accelerator and plow right through them.”
My initial stunned feeling shifts to complete bewilderment. My wife and daughters are also within earshot.
“What did you say, officer?” I say, confounded by his demeanor.
“I’m serious,” the cop repeats.
“Well, obviously, I’m not going to ever do that,” I respond.
My wife and daughters are in earshot with the windows rolled down, by the way.
“Well, sir you have the right to just that,” he says with a wink.
“All right, then,” I say. “I’m done here. The car’s fine.”
Now, it’s the cop who looks a little taken aback.
“I’m sorry girls,” he says. “I probably shouldn’t have said that.”
We drive away.
And here comes my teachable moment: My opportunity to reach my two daughters.
I pull the car over, turn around and tell the girls. I’m shaking: “Did you hear what the officer told me? It’s not OK. We do not think that way. I’m sorry you had to hear that.”
“OK, Dad. We know,” says my 14-year-old, almost offended that I would have to hammer home a point she already understands.
“Why did he say that?” my 11-year-old asks.
“Because he’s racist,” my wife says.
“But why?” asks Chloe.
“I don’t know, honey,” I chime in. “He’s just an angry man.”
A day passed and the encounter stuck with me. I discussed it with my parents and a few friends and made a decision to call Wilkinsburg Borough Council.
The councilwoman I spoke with sounded genuinely concerned.
I followed up with an email after our discussion: “Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I'm still very disturbed that there's an officer in your borough with this type of mentality. I'm not naive but, at the very least, I hope he receives some sensitivity training.”
Later, that day I was driving with my family when my iPhone rang: This time it was a higher-ranking police officer. He listened to my version of events and then asked me for the officer’s name. I told him that I did not have the name but there was only one officer who responded and they surely had records that would identify him.
Then came another surreal moment: Here’s what the officer told me.
“There were several officers who responded to that particular incident so we have no way to identify who this was.”
I replied: “I assure you there was only one officer.”
His answers: “No sir, there were several officers.”
My wife seated next to me could hear both ends of the conversation. She shot me a sideways glance.
“Several officers” she whispered. “Don’t you get it?”
At first, I didn’t get it. But within seconds, I figured out that the officer on the other end of the line had no desire to get to the bottom of my story. I made the mistake of not taking down a name of the hate-spewing officer and that was going to be that.
I hung up, dejected.
I’m going to make my point now, in the wake of Ferguson and the venomous, victim-blaming posts I have read over the past few weeks on social media.
People don’t want to believe that a lot of cops have preconceived notions of the areas and residents they police. Guess what? THEY DO!
This Wilkinsburg cop assumed that because of the color of my skin I was in some kind of secret club that snickers and trades racist jokes. When he saw my reaction then he realized I wasn’t. That I never asked for that membership.
This is my own personal latest brush with racism.
Sadly, it probably won’t be my last. This club has quite a few members.
Ben Schmitt is a news reporter turned marketing specialist with a great appreciation for creativity and the written word. He spent the bulk of his career covering crime and courts at the Detroit Free Press, before moving home to Pittsburgh in 2010. He won a national Emmy award in 2008 for two video stories about pit bulls. He also helped report on the downfall of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which earned the Free Press a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.