I couldn’t sleep last night. Something I witnessed on television, live and uncensored, made me horrified, concerned and angry. But mostly it just made me sad.
Let’s say you’re at home when suddenly there are lights, sirens and the sound of a vehicle colliding with an immovable object outside. You open the door to find a van upside down against a pole and a barefoot black man using a child as a shield between himself and a white police officer as he tries to flee. The officer orders the man to stop, but the subject continues to fling the toddler around, like a weapon. The officer is yelling, “That’s your baby! Put the baby down!” His hand is not on his weapon, but reaching to grab the man before the toddler goes airborne and gets injured. Finally freeing the child, the officer takes the subject to the ground. The man thrashes around yelling, “Help me!” repeatedly. As the struggle continues, a pair of legs comes into view. The officer, all alone, calls out, “I need some help!” Would you:
(a) Help the officer because it’s too much for one man to handle.
(b) Ignore him because it’s the officer’s job and not your problem.
(c) Wonder how the van flipped, as the engine continues running.
(d) Whip out your cell phone to record the incident.
The camera panned out to catch the moment that pair of legs came to the rescue. Instead we see a guy filming with his cell phone. And laughing.
Whatever happened to Good Samaritans? Remember them? They do the right thing instead of the easy thing. Have Good Samaritan instincts become extinct in today’s society?
For what seemed like an eternity, the pair struggled on the ground, the man screeching for help, the officer yelling at him to stop resisting. The officer never reached for his weapon while wrestling the man into a position to put him in handcuffs. In the background, you can hear a crowd urging the subject to keep fighting. The cameraman continued filming, mere feet away, as the man began reaching into his back pocket. In the cacophony of sound and struggle, the officer couldn’t see that.
Back up arrives. The man is subdued without gun play yet he continues to scream for help. With the man secured, the officer jumps up, asking in a frantic tone, “Where’s the baby? Where’s the baby?” He shrugs off questions about his own condition in his quest to find that child. The cameraman pans over to the crowd who’ve been egging on the fight: half of them are standing there, filming with cell phones. While they are of the same race as the subject, none of them heeded his calls for help. They just filmed. A black officer approaches the crowd, which begins to surge forward to get a better camera angle as the man is placed in a police car, kicking and screaming the whole way. Arms outstretched, the officer firmly commands them to back up. Instead they taunt him, cursing and calling him names. One even has the audacity to demand his badge number. To the officer’s credit, he calmly tells them that as soon as the situation is under control, he will come back and answer all their questions. None of the “concerned citizens”, or the father, ask about the toddler.
The camera rotates toward the original officer, holding the little girl in his arms, talking to her in a soft, soothing tone. Her arms are placed firmly around his neck and her head is on his shoulder. It’s then I realize I’ve been holding my breath.
I watched this story unfold Saturday night on an unscripted t.v. show called Live PD. It follows officers in several states in real time, offering the public a front row seat to see what officers see every day. Some days are good. Some are bad. Whatever decision an officer makes, it’s viewed in real time. Live PD follows two different departments in my state. The above incident took place a little over an hour from where I live. We’ve watched long enough to know the officers by name. And reputation. The responding officer, Chris Mastrianni, is cool and level headed. He’s usually joined by Kevin Lawrence, who’s known for calmly talking people back off an emotional ledge before they jump into something they’ll regret.
The phrase, “Judge not” echoed in my head when the incident was over. There’s a problem with pulling out a cell phone to video without knowing the whole story. Yes, our perception is colored by our experiences. Perhaps that crowd simply saw a white cop struggling with a black suspect and they were waiting for shots to be fired. What they didn’t know, but viewers did, was that Mastrianni was enroute to a “shots fired” call at a family gathering of over 200, which had turned into a fight. As Mastrianni approached the scene, this van came flying out. He hit the blue lights. The van sped up. Cops have to rely on experience and instinct: a vehicle leaving the scene at a high rate of speed where shots were reportedly just fired is not on a leisurely evening drive. Speeds reached 90 mph. No one had any idea a child was in the vehicle. I was once a Dispatcher for the SC Highway Patrol; the risk of pursuit to stop someone is weighed against the possibility of innocent bystanders getting hurt. I didn’t get the words, “He’s going to wreck!” out of my mouth before the van flipped.
I get queasy recalling that man crawl out of the van and position his child between him and the officer. They’d just been in a wreck and Mastrianni’s fear for that child’s safety was greater than her own father’s. As the duo wrestled on the ground, I’d later learn about 95% of viewers were also yelling with me at the t.v., ”Mastrianni, he’s reaching for his pocket!” Many viewers were angry the cameraman didn’t intervene because he saw it too. Well, technically his job is to document, not get involved. But one of his co-workers did. During the mayhem, the female producer could be seen in the distance, cradling the toddler as the struggle ensued. Sometimes, you have to forget potential legal repercussions and just do the right thing. Thank you, Producer Lady, for doing just that. Okay, I admit it. I did think the cameraman could’ve at least given Mastrianni a verbal warning. If things had gone horribly wrong, would the cameraman regret his decision to just film?
Life is all about choices. Simply standing by, egging on a fight and filming was a choice based on preconceived notions and a lack of facts. Ironically that’s often the very same argument angrily used when discussing injustice. Unless one of the crowd had been watching Live PD, they didn’t know about the family fight, shots fired or the pre-wreck chase. Did that crowd hang around long enough to discover the subject’s screaming wasn’t fear for his life, but to create chaos as he took a bag of weed out of his back pocket and shoved it into his mouth? As the crowd dispersed, no one probably saw the female deputy calmly ask where the weed was as he forlornly spit it into her gloved hand. That means they missed Lawrence, the officer taunted for doing his job, talking to the man calmly while counseling that his behavior was making things worse. In fact, at the man’s request, Lawrence insured another officer went down the block to get the child’s grandmother, rather than let Social Services step in. The officer made two trips until he found Grandma home. As they waited for an ambulance to come check out father and child for any potential injuries, Mastrianni was seen handing the toddler a stuffed bear. Officers carry stuff like that in their cars to give children who are scared because the adults in their life made a bad decision. Sadly while these “concerned citizens” were documenting the chaos for whatever reason, did even one of them focus on the child who endured a high speed chase, a wreck and being tossed around like a rag doll by an adult intent on saving himself?. And as these worthless videos were being downloaded to impress their friends, I’m guessing none of them witnessed the wrecker flip the van upright. No “documenters” were available to see the expression on Mastrianni’s face as he searched for a child safety seat…and there was not one to be found. But he did find something.
On the pavement, where the driver’s side door had rested, was a spent bullet casing.
When tough choices had to be made, Mastrianni’s focus was on an innocent child. Those whose focus was on a cellphone screen chose to turn a blind eye to someone in need of help. No matter what their perception of who needed the help, (father, child or cop) their choice was clear. They chose to do nothing.
We need to stop pre-judging each other. Hands need to be extended in a display of mutual assistance, not merely holding a cell phone in video mode. Choices have consequences. It’s about time we start coming up with better consequences. Ones that benefit ALL of society.
This is a screen capture of Mastrianni and the girl.
In the background, a “concerned citizen” films the child’s father being placed in a car.