The police recording you need to hear after a black woman 'broke into' her own home
Santa Monica resident Fay Wells recently wrote of how she no longer feels safe at home. Why? About 19 cops showed up at her door, some with guns drawn, after a neighbor thought she was breaking in. She's black and lives in a predominantly white complex.
Police Chief Jacqueline A. Seabrooks responded:
“As a Black woman born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, I empathize with Ms. Fay Wells and how the experience made her feel. On the other hand, as an experienced law enforcement executive, I understand the Police Department’s response and the need for that response.”
The police department posted a 47-minute recording officers made at the scene, which is embedded below. Wells is clearly rattled and upset about having had officers approach her with guns and a police dog.
It’s a lot to go through, so we did it for you. Here are eight highlights:
Officers contend it’s better safe than sorry
It sounds as if the situation had just deescalated. Wells is clearly still shaken and upset by having been mistaken — at gunpoint — for a burglar in her own home. She said she had been locked out and hired a locksmith to let her in. A neighbor mistook her for a criminal.
At 55 seconds in, her emotion builds:
Wells: Why are two people pointing guns at me when I come out of my apartment? Two people pointed guns at me when I was walking out of my apartment. ... That is NOT OK. I didn’t do anything. It’s not cool to have two officers point guns at me. I feel completely disrespected.
They make their way back into the apartment. Her sense of personal violation is audible. She even asks whether the officers truly had the authority to enter and search her apartment though she didn’t give consent.
Wells (incredulous): What are you doing?
Male officer: What am I doing? We’re searching this side of your apartment.
Wells: What are you searching for?
Male officer: We got a call from your neighbor that someone broke into your apartment. So we’re searching for the person that broke in.
Wells: Right, because when I said that no one broke in and I had a locksmith that came by, it was completely like I had to be lying.
… but she doesn’t feel safe.
The officers seemed to be making a concerted effort to help her understand their frame of mind as they entered this unknown scene, with only the information provided by the neighbor who called to report a suspected burglary. At about 12:20 into the audiotape, a female officer tries to allay her anger with a perspective.
Female officer: … Just understand that you’re safe, no one’s harmed, and we’re just working on information we have at the time. In hindsight, a lot of what we do, it seems bizarre. They wouldn’t make television shows out of our job if it wasn’t. Right? But the end result is that you’re safe.
Wells: Honestly, do you think I feel safe right now?
“...if I was a white person”
Wells: I really do want to know if I was a white person, would there be 15 cops here.
Male officer: Yes.
A little later in the tape, he goes into more detail:
Male officer: If you’re asking me would these many cops be here if you were white, I can show you right now, yes....I’ve been doing this job for 28 years….Until we know everything is fine inside, we have to handle things a certain way. Understand? Here’s the main thing: No one’s gotten hurt, we haven’t torn up your house. Our main thing is making sure everyone in here is safe and that nobody is breaking into your home.
She meets the neighbor who called 911
It’s unclear in the audio exactly how their paths cross, but Wells had earlier asked officers to tell her which of her neighbors had called, so she could introduce herself. At 24:14 into the recording, she opens with “I’m Fay, by the way.”
Neighbor: Hi. I’ve never met you before. I’ve never seen you before.
Wells: I’ve lived there six months. … You should probably recognize me.
Here’s where it gets strange. If you listen to the 911 call, it sounds as if the neighbor did know Wells lived there, though he described her as possibly “Latino,” but thought she had broken into another resident’s home.
As Richard Winton wrote in an earlier story, the caller had told a 911 dispatcher, “the next-door neighbor just broke into an upstairs apartment with two other people with some sort of tools. … I don’t think this is some sort of crazy robbery, but I need some cops over here right now.”
At the scene, they moved on to why he called the police in the first place.
Neighbor: There was a guy with a suitcase.
Wells: It was the locksmith that I called.
Neighbor: There was a weird suitcase that he had, breaking into your apartment.
Wells: Have you seen a locksmith’s thing before? They have a tool set.
Neighbor: It was a suitcase. … Let me tell you something. I’ve never called 911 in my entire life. So I saw something that was happening, and I called 911 for the first time. And I’ve lived here for 12 years. And guess what — you’re safer for it.
Not drunk, just a lawyer
Wells assured her neighbor that the experience of having had a couple of guns pointed at her and 19 officers at her door did not, in fact, make her feel safer. At one point, she asks him a question that is unintelligible in the recording, but she later refers to asking whether he’d been drinking. His answer:
Neighbor: I’m a lawyer. Go “eff” yourself.
They continue. And in an unmistakable sorry-not sorry tone, he utters the closest he came to an apology during their exchange:
Neighbor: It’s better safe than sorry. … I know I haven’t met you, but I’m sorry, I thought somebody was breaking into your apartment.
What was going through her head
At 27:17 into the recording, Wells wants the officer to understand the gravity of this experience for her, a black woman well aware of how quickly the situation can turn deadly.
Male officer: I’m sorry you were upset, but …
Wells: I had guns pulled on me, of course I’m upset. And honestly, you live in America, so you know what’s going on. So you know what I thought was going to happen, right?
Male officer: Well, we thought you were a burglar and you were barricaded inside that apartment.
A challenge issued
Throughout the 40-plus-minute recording, Wells continued to question why the officers needed to approach with guns drawn and why they didn’t ask to see her ID.
In the end, a male commanding officer on scene issued a “challenge” to her.
Male officer: I’m gonna challenge you with something. And you can let me know on Tuesday if you want to do it or not. We have something which is called a “Citizens Academy.” I think it’s, like, 12 weeks. … For each one of those weeks, you come and you learn about the police department. The academy explains why we do things, why we do it. You don’t have to give me an answer now. … If you’re interested in it, I’m gonna sign you up for the next one.
Wells: Why would I be interested in that?
The police offer locksmith services
The capper? In the end, the officers told Wells how she could have saved herself $150 and the experience of being mistaken by a neighbor for a burglar at her own home:
Male officer:In the future, if something like this happens again, feel free, the police department can open the door for you, without a locksmith. … All you have to do is call 911.”
As it turns out, some of them are actually trained to pick locks. Good to know.