City Streets

Policing Spokane’s Dark Alleys

City StreetsOn a bitter cold night a few weeks ago,  my husband and I were arguing on the way to pick up our car from the tire place downtown. I hate feeling trapped during an argument, so I got out of the car to walk. Walk off some steam.

I ‘d been working outdoors that day, so my coat was warm, if ratty and paint-splattered. One of those cheap watch caps you can buy for a few dollars by the register at the hardware store was jammed on my head, and I had gloves and warm socks, so didn’t worry I’d freeze.

I headed straight for an alley. I like alleys as a general rule, and prefer them to sidewalks – more interesting. I didn’t think much about how dark it was, and walked several blocks before sitting down on a curb stop to collect myself. I thought about calling my husband to come pick me up but I didn’t have my phone. I didn’t have much of anything, I realized. No money, no ID.

Suddenly, something whizzed by my head and crashed and bounced off the cement just a few feet away. I sprang up and ducked behind a dumpster. Then, right away “Boom!”, another thing blew by and crashed to the ground, this time exploding into bits, right near me. I looked up and there was a guy in sweats lobbing stuff off the crappy third floor balcony of an old brick apartment building. It dawned on me he was aiming for the dumpster, so I ran away down the alley.

I slowed to a walk, and could see my breath in misty plumes. I couldn’t believe I almost got hit by flying garbage. Feeling vulnerable, I thought I’d better get home, not be dilly-dallying.

Then, up ahead a few blocks I saw a police car parked at an angle across the alley. I was curious to see what was going on, but thought it might be better to steer clear and head for the lit sidewalk. Staying in the alley to check it out might be asking for trouble, and I wasn’t looking for trouble. On the other hand, I thought I might witness something, both because of the national conversation about racial justice and police use of force, but also because our Spokane community has long had a rocky relationship with law enforcement. Things have happened here. A Spokane policeman is in Federal prison right now for killing Otto Zehm, who was white and innocent. I live in a house and am white, but that night I looked like a homeless person and was walking downtown alleys after dark, no ID.

I came up on the patrol car, wary, but the cop was out and standing talking down to someone lying on the ground in a bright orange puffy sleeping bag which looked surprisingly clean. He was crammed up against the side of a building between the bricks and a curb stop, and looked like he was asleep. The cop’s voice got louder, and he woke up. He slowly rose to sitting position, and I could see a young man in his 20’s with pale skin and tousled brown hair. He looked like he could be a friend of one of my sons.

I couldn’t hear exactly what was being said between them, but it looked like the officer was giving orders, and the kid was loudly complaining and trying to comply. He struggled to his feet, shedding the sleeping bag around his ankles and revealing skinny  arms dangling from the sleeves of his baggy white t-shirt, his belly button marking his flesh above his loose pants.

Sudddenly, 3 more police cars appeared, all pulling sharply in around the one blocking the alley. They got out of their cars, and now there was shouting, and a palpable increase in tension. The original officer folded the kid’s arm behind his back, first one, then the other, cuffing him, the kid’s voice wailing out, “What am I being arrested for, man? I was just tryin’ to get some sleep…oh, please, man, calm down, man…” and I heard them him place him under arrest. One officer stepped up and took his jacket which was maybe his pillow, and start emptying the pockets into zip locks. He held them up to the street light; prescription bottles.

I shouted out, “What are you arresting him for?”

The officer standing nearest me asked if I was his mother. I said no, I wasn’t, but I might as well be. I said was alarmed by the show of force, the escalation, especially in light of all the recent cases of young men being shot,  suffocated, choked or beaten by officers of the law. This confrontation was taking place in a dark alley, with no one to witness it except me. I kept thinking, this is how it happens. This is how people have their freedom taken away, and sometimes they die. This kid was white, and so were the officers, but I wasn’t sure that kept him safe – look at Otto Zehm.

The cop politely asked me to stand by, and said they would talk to me once they had the suspect in custody. Once the kid disappeared into the back of the patrol car, there ensued a fairly long conversation with the officers who explained that “this individual is ‘known’ to us”, and had been reported sleeping in various locations downtown. He was off his meds, and although they had offered him a ride to the Salvation Army shelter on the north side, he’d refused. He was being arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct.

Why had they come out after him in the first place, when he seemed to be sleeping out of the way in an alley, not bothering anyone? They said that he was bothering property owners, and one had called in to complain. Turns out it was the church that complained. Hmmm. And they wouldn’t have arrested him except that the situation escalated – that’s why there were so many cop cars. I observed to the officers that the situation seemed to escalate precisely because there was suddenly such a convergence of police cars, and it was hard to tell the chicken from the egg.

I also observed that my husband’s truck was stolen right out of our driveway, his trailer full of tools he uses to make a living was cut open like a sardine can and looted, but we never got a single police car to come out for either of those incidents. Why does a kid sleeping in an alley get such a response, I wondered?

To his credit, Officer Dan Waters spent quite a bit of time trying to explain the difficulties the police have in dealing with homelessness and mental illness. He urged me to go to visit the weekly Community Court in the downtown library where these type cases are adjudicated. He asked how I’d feel if someone was sleeping on my front lawn. He asked if I’d want protection in a dark alley from someone who “escalated.”

I still struggle with understanding the allocation of resources. So many policemen to respond to one pathetic, disoriented kid asleep on a cold night, out of the way of theater-goers and diners? It didn’t make any sense. It also didn’t make sense that there were so few options for everyone involved, at least according to the officer. It seemed that the kid should have been able to walk to a shelter downtown that would accept him, rather that being schlepped up to the North Side. It seemed that four police cars full of officers might have higher priorities.

I later learned from a friend at the Community Building that the particular church where the guy was huddled had once been a shelter for the downtown homeless. They were welcomed inside, and when the church doors were closed, the vents at the side of the building facing the alley became a favorite spot to catch some exhausted heat, and offered the special bonus of those curb stops which provided some safety from being run over. But, my friend told me, the church changed hands and no longer offers services or shelter. Instead, they call the cops.

So, maybe this young man was just trying to find his way to a place he once knew provided a breath of warmth on a cold winter night. Lots of us try and find our way home after being lost. We all want to be safe and warm. Is it too much to ask?

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