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Two Saturdays ago at 3 a.m., my family was awoken by somebody howling, literally howling, on our porch.

Sasha Abramsky

Abramsky

Then the man began pounding on our front door. Again and again and again, hitting the iron knocker against the wood as hard as he could, and, when that didn’t do the trick, hurling his body against the door.

While the rest of my family hid, I called 911, and told them someone was attempting to break into our home. The operator asked me a question: What color was the man on my porch?

The pounding grew fiercer. Three times, I had to call 911. Finally, after 20 minutes two police cars pulled up, sirens on, and through the door I heard a policeman ask our visitor what he was doing.

He was, he slowly slurred, trying to get into his girlfriend’s house. “But she doesn’t live here,” they told him, as I opened the door. “This family does, and you scared them very much. You need to apologize.”

The young man, clearly bombed out his mind, quietly muttered, “I’m sorry.”

The officers made him sit on the curb across the street from our house, asked him to call his parents – which he refused to do – and finally let him phone a friend to pick him up. He was, they told me, simply drunk out of his skull. He just needed to sleep it off.

Having written about the criminal justice system, among other topics, for 20-plus years, I was in no hurry to ruin another person’s life by insisting that the police press charges. On the other hand, as I lay in bed that dawn, sleepless, a number of things began bothering me about the whole interaction. They have been bothering me ever since.

So, in case our unbidden visitor is reading this:

Dear anonymous intruder,

You have, I suspect, no idea how lucky you are. In your idiotic drunken stupor, you tried to break into a house. You succeeded in terrifying a family of four.

In many states, legislation such as Stand Your Ground laws would have given a homeowner on the other side of the door the right to shoot you, and your death would have been ruled self-defense.

Even absent a trigger-happy homeowner, however, you were the beneficiary that night of three pieces of extraordinary luck.

The first was that you encountered two courteous and sensitive police officers willing and able to empathize with you. Instead of simply seeing a threatening “perp,” they saw a kid, likely a college student, who had had a few drinks, a few pills too many, a vulnerable and foolish human being who simply needed to sleep it off. They used both their discretion and their common sense in not escalating the situation, in not coming in guns blazing, ready to hurt you, to arrest you, to start processing you through the criminal justice system.

The second thing is that you happened to try to break down the door of somebody who has written about the crisis of mass incarceration for decades, who has interviewed hundreds of crime victims, criminals, attorneys and prisoners, and who believes from the bottom of his heart in not seeing the worst in people; who believes in second chances and in not needlessly amping up legal proceedings against individuals who are not genuine threats to society. When I saw what sort of pitiful state you were in, you reminded me of many of the incarcerated young men and women I have interviewed who did something stupid – oftentimes far less stupid than what you did – and faced with unforgiving police, and scared victims, and DAs looking for easy convictions, ended up serving years and sometimes decades in prison.

And when, at 4 a.m., I asked the police officers, after they had sent you home with a friend, their take on what had happened, and they said that in their honest-to-goodness opinion you were just out on a bender, I took their word at face value. I didn’t want your life to be ruined by a needless criminal prosecution, and, after asking my wife, I told the police that we did not want to pursue charges.

But perhaps the thing that made you luckiest was the color of your skin, that vital identifying characteristic the emergency operator had been so quick to ask me about.

It’s certainly possible that those two humane police officers would have been just as kind, considerate and empathetic to an African-American male in the same situation. I hope, and want to believe, they would have been.

Yet, in those circumstances had they treated an African-American suspect so gently and so calmly, they would have been bucking a very powerful trend, for, in many, many instances in recent years, a very different saga has emerged to that of your get-out-of-jail-free story.

In July 2009, the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, an African-American, was arrested by the police at his own home, after he returned from a trip overseas, realized he had lost his keys, and broke open his own door. He was arrested despite showing the police his Harvard ID and his driver’s license — which had his address on it and showed very clearly that the home he was breaking into was his own.

In September 2015, an African-American woman in Santa Monica hired a locksmith to help her get into her house after she had locked herself out. A neighbor called the police, and 19 officers arrived, several of them with guns drawn, and arrested her.

And the list goes on.

You benefited from the kindness of myriad strangers that night, and you may very well have benefited from the color of your skin. Let me finish with some advice: If you want to make good for scaring four people half to death, perhaps you could do some volunteer work at a criminal justice reform organization, or a drug treatment center, or a racial justice group.

It might turn your good fortune into something from which the broader community can benefit.

Author and professor Sasha Abramsky can be reached at sabramsky@sbcglobal.net. He wrote this for the Sacramento Bee.

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(10) comments

canman

To have to call 3 times and wait 20 minutes is asinine. If this was a home invasion, there is a high probability of bodily harm to someone involved. You can’t assume it’s just a drunk.

Buggs Raplin

The wait between the time a 9-1-1 call is made in such a situation, and the time help arrives is crucial. Be it 20 minutes as in this case, or 15 minutes, or 10 minutes or less. Citizens, if you want to protect yourself and your family, purchase a gun, learn how to use it, and make your kids aware of its danger, but its necessity for their protection.

Clarification

Ah yes, the "he wuz just drinkin'" cop-out. He should have spent a night in jail to sober up. Hope his girl friend dumps him for a better species.

Slider

If this was La Crosse, his picture would be on the front page because it sells papers.

Buggs Raplin

Obviously the writer of this opinion piece should have discerned immediately that the person pounding on his door was either drunk or mentally out of control, and not a burglar. It took the police 20 minutes to get there. I bet if he was armed, both he and his family would have felt a lot safer than they did.

kingman10

how do you know he the home owner wasn't armed? And so what if the person knocking was drunk and not a burglar, he still could be armed and dangerous. He did the right thing calling 911, hard to fathom why he had to do it three times till the police finally came. And yes the drunk was very lucky, I believe because he was born from a birth canal belonging to a white woman impregnated from a white man. Who knows what would of happened if he was black and drunk and in a white neighborhood. This is a great example of the term "white privilege".

Buggs Raplin

Yep call 9/11, and wait and wait and wait. The guy was obviously very frightened. It's a safe assumption he wasn't armed. Maybe the experience will make him think about purchasing a weapon, learning how to use it, and teaching his kids its danger, but importance in protecting the family while they wait and wait and wait for help after calling 911.

kingman10

no its not safe to assume. He could of been armed waiting to see if the stranger breaks the door open. The homeowner showed restraint from harming another human who was drunk and confused. It is telling that the 911 operator asked what color was the guy, obviously that is standard procedure for that communities law enforcement agency.

oldhomey

You don't know if he was armed or not, Buggs. But I guess after not getting a squad car after initially calling 9-11, had this happened on your front stoop, you would have blasted away through the front door with your six-shooters.

kingman10

gee, buggs with a six shooter blasting away, what a scary thought. Maybe trump is right, we need extreme vetting for gun owners. We live in a world where buggs and his kind are armed. No wonder its such a scary world.

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