I recently drove downtown to take advantage of Pack Memorial Library’s book giveaway. After several hours perusing the volumes on offer, I was walking happily back to my car with a pile of newly acquired books in my arms when a man in a tracksuit darted out from a corner of the cold, dingy parking garage. He appeared disheveled, and I thought he smelled of urine. Later I realized that the smell had emanated from the garage, not the man. But he was black and male, I’m white and female, and I’ve been programmed to believe that the conjunction of his race and gender permitted — indeed, encouraged — me to label him “suspicious” and consider calling 911.
As we walked toward each other, I was already thinking about how I could gouge him with my keys, which I carry positioned between my knuckles in such situations, just in case. But as we came shoulder to shoulder, he asked, in a voice that could have come from a national news anchorman, “Need some help?”
“No, thanks,” I mumbled as I headed toward my car, feeling both relieved and a little ashamed.
When I’d parked in the garage, I was rushing to get to the books and accidentally hit a button on my key holder that triggered the car alarm. At least four people had seen me frantically attempting to get into my car, banging on the windows and swearing like a drunken teenager. And one of them, a man in a business suit (which raises its own questions: Just who did he think he was, dressing like that on a Saturday in downtown Asheville?) had witnessed me kicking the driver’s side door with a ferocity heavily suggestive of criminal behavior. Yet none of those folks had called to report me. Had their thumbs been poised above the “9” on their phones when my blond hair and plum lipstick made them hesitate?
Last year, the Asheville Police Department logged 7,194 calls about “suspicious persons” — an alarming figure, considering that, on average, 20 of my fellow Ashevilleans called the police each day to report someone they thought seemed “suspicious.”
But that got me wondering: What, exactly, is a suspicious person? I naively assumed that a quick Google search would provide a clear answer; instead, it merely underscored how ambiguous the term seems to be.
“We define a suspicious person according to the law,” Christina Hallingse, the APD’s public information officer, told me cheerfully. Trouble is, the law itself doesn’t give a precise definition. And when I phoned the N.C. Department of Justice, a recording said the number had been disconnected. Suspicious indeed.
Undeterred, I tried other numbers, asking both humans and machines in the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper to explain what makes someone “suspicious” under state law, but I received no definitive response. In the meantime, however, I’d begun assembling my own working definition, which clearly applied to elected officials and their staff who didn’t seem to understand the very law they were charged with enforcing.
Where was Jack McCoy when you needed him?
How does one determine who’s the good guy and who’s the bad?
If neither our local Police Department nor the Attorney General’s Office can definitively say what consitutes a suspicious person, it appears to be left up to each of us to do the job ourselves. And why not? After all, this street-level characterization is what appears to be driving the definition anyway. The Police Department doesn’t generate suspicious-person reports: It merely documents what some fearful or suspicious resident said.
In fact, the spreadsheet I received from the APD seemed suspicious in itself: It didn’t indicate what had prompted the calls. Was the person in question brandishing a severed head? Wearing a Freddy Krueger mask? That lack of regularization left me feeling edgy.
And remembering my own suspicion of a man whose only crime was offering to carry my books, I wondered whether the APD’s arrest records might show signs of racial bias — particularly since some of the folks lumped into those numbers undoubtedly turn out to have been falsely charged (and, meanwhile, others who really are guilty are probably never charged).
In the first week of 2016, I learned, there were 104 arrests. That didn’t seem like a lot, considering that almost 88,000 people now live in Asheville, and the numbers for this particular week were most likely amped up by holiday DWI charges. All in all, it left me feeling pretty safe; I was also cheered by the fact that only 33 of those folks were black. Well done, people of Asheville: None of that Chicago prejudice down here in our sweet mountain town, thank you very much.
But wait a minute: Asheville’s population is 13.4 percent African-American, yet they accounted for 31.7 percent of the arrests that week in a city that’s overwhelmingly white. What light, if any, does this disturbing information shed on the nagging question of what makes a person so “suspicious” in the eyes of the law that over 7,000 of us were said to fit that description last year?
I never really got a clear answer to that, but perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe it isn’t a matter of “who?” but rather, “why?” Why do women carry their keys as weapons as a matter of course? Why was I afraid of the black man in the parking garage? In part, it’s because we’ve been conditioned to expect an attack, to view the unexpected or the “other” with suspicion. And in the process, we create doubt and fear, manufacturing imaginary offenses that may never actually happen.
So when it comes to suspicion, how much difference is there, in the end, between accuser and accused?
Racial profiling is a terribly destructive force. And while I’m not the police, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I’ve certainly contributed my share of knee-jerk suspicion based solely on situation and unthinking judgment. In that regard, I hope I can do better this year: I’d like to be able to walk past my fellow garage parkers and base my level of alarm or relief on their actual behavior, not just their appearance.
At the same time, there are real dangers in this world, and it seems only common sense to try to dodge them as best I can. So perhaps I just need to learn to view my own suspicions with a healthy dose of suspicion — and to strike a better balance between prudence and trust.