by Anneli Rufus
Two teens wielding a semiautomatic pistol exit a maroon Dodge Caravan on Euclid Avenue and tell a UC Berkeley student they'll kill her if she doesn't give them the digital camera with which she's just been photographing flowers. They also steal her wallet, phone, MP3 player, and passport, then speed off in the van. She screams. A homeowner calls 911. According to the Berkeley Police Department report of this March 6 incident, the student describes her African-American assailants to officers, detailing collar-length braids or dreads. Meanwhile, a 911 call from a woman a few blocks away describes two similar-looking teens leaping from a maroon van and fleeing up Berryman Path. Cops rush to the abandoned van, which was stolen in Oakland and contains the victim's camera case. Finding no gun, they conclude the youths are still armed. It's just after 3 p.m. in an area with few pedestrians. Spotting a bus that a young man matching the description has just boarded, the cops stop the vehicle. "Two sergeants entered the bus with guns drawn - but down, not pointing at anybody - preparing for a suspect that might be armed," Sergeant Mary Kusmiss told Apprehension. Questioned off the bus, the passenger revealed himself as Cragmont School basketball coach DeAndre Swygert, who was escorting kids to a game. Realizing their error, Kusmiss said, the cops released Swygert and went on their way.
The incident was understandably traumatizing for the coach and kids, as principal Don Vu wrote in a letter sent the next day to Cragmont parents. Kusmiss says some parents called ita race-related incident that reinforced "the notion or reality that young black men are stopped for no reason." Cragmont offered counseling to students the following week. Two weeks later, the incident was still being discussed avidly at a PTA meeting, says Cragmont parent Phyllis Steiber. Some media coverage fanned the flames. "Police Hold Gun On Teacher Aboard Bus Full of Students" was the headline of a March 14 Berkeley Daily Planet story that buried a description of the robbery - and thus the context - but led with gun-wielding cops. The Daily Californian's story was more balanced, and also noted that "despite the incident, the team went on to win the basketball game by 30 points." Still, to some, the news hook might have included a vicious midafternoon robbery in placid North Berkeley.
Being suspected because you resemble someone else who has committed a crime is the sad solution to an equation whose factors are witnesses, words, lethal weapons, and escape - all calculated at hyperspeed. "When officers get a description, they look for someone who fits that description," Kusmiss says. The cops who boarded the bus were both fathers with little children, she added. "This heightens their awareness, the fact that there are children nearby as they're thinking: What if the suspect leaps up all of a sudden in the bus and starts firing a gun?"
How do you believe police should have behaved?