I Was a Bystander in a Police Shooting: What It Taught Me about Police Violence, Memory, and Public Trust
I was returning from a productive, fun academic conference in Tampa, Florida last March, getting in on a 7:35 flight to the Southwest terminal in the New Orleans airport. While I had enjoyed the conference, I was incredibly happy to be coming home to my husband and four-year-old daughter, her souvenirs, or “souvers” as she called them, of salt-water taffy and a picture book about a flamingo in my carry-on bag. We live in Baton Rouge, so I still had an hour drive before I would be home, but I could just make it in time to give her a hug and kiss in bed before she drifted off to sleep. I was also relieved that my recently departed morning sickness had not reared its ugly head on the flight home — at just over four months, this pregnancy had been my worst and longest lasting case of it. One of the first to exit the plane, I walked quickly through the terminal, following the signs to the exit with just my carry-on, glad that I wouldn’t even have to stop to get any checked luggage. Then all hell broke loose.
I heard the screaming first, indistinct, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a scuffle, people pushing, a man advancing towards the security screening checkpoint directly in front of me. Then I heard, “He’s got a machete.” In that briefest of moments (it’s hard to describe how fast everything happened), my brain struggled to process information, make decisions. Everything was jumbled, confusing, disorientating. Just a second before I had been heading for the exit, completely absorbed in my own world, oblivious to the goings on around me. That’s actually a long-standing joke between my spouse and me — that because I am always so unobservant of my surroundings, I’m easily startled. I jump sometimes when I encounter my husband in my own house — simply because in that moment, I’ve forgotten he was there. But suddenly, my inattention mattered. Suddenly, it was a matter of life and death.
The man, who I know now was Richard White, aged 63 and a resident of Kenner, a low income suburb of New Orleans, looked like he was trying to fight his way into the very terminal I was exiting. In that split second my brain decided continuing down the very narrow exit corridor on the other side of the glass partition of security was the best course of action. It was not. At the last second, instead of continuing into the terminal, he decided to change course and ran down the slope of the exit corridor as well, directly behind me. I began to run, my back to him, as he chased me, still carrying the machete. I heard gunshots — loud, directly behind me, coming in my direction.
In that moment, I was more afraid of the gun, the person shooting it, and the possibility of being shot because I happened to be running in the same direction as an armed madman than I was of the madman himself. My first thought, after the shooting stopped and it was clear that nothing else was going to happen, was of my unborn child in my womb. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, someone almost shot my baby.” My brain fixated on the danger to my child rather than to myself. I stood there, shaking and crying, only a few feet away from the injured man lying on the ground, bleeding on the ugly gray carpet. I looked around in a daze, saw bystanders still fleeing the terminal, and the TSA agents standing there, looking dumbstruck. Finally, I walked up to the nearest TSA agent and asked if I could go. I still remember what he said: “If no one tries to stop you, you can leave.”
Afterwards, I obsessively read the news account, tweets, and Facebook posts about it and replayed the events in my mind, all classic signs of mild PTSD. The next day while driving my daughter to the playground with the windows down a bit — it was a nice day — I heard people shout across the street and felt my heart roll over, fear gripping me until I realized that nothing bad was happening again. There was no danger. Not this time at least. The worst thing about being part of a random, violent event like this is the way it makes you feel that everything is unsafe. When you read horrific news stories about shootings, bombings, or other random acts of violence, you feel insulated from them. You think, consciously or not, that can’t happen here. That won’t happen to me. I don’t have to worry about that. But of course it can. It might. You do have to worry.
But through my obsessive reading of news accounts, I began to realize that my account, what I remember about the incident, did not entirely match the official account that I read about in the news afterwards. In the most important ways and in terms of basic facts, the stories were the same — there was a man, he clearly wanted to hurt people, he was armed, he was shot by a deputy sheriff, he was killed. But. In my recollection, he was running away from the terminal, away from the sheriff, towards the exit (and me) when he was shot. The news reports all say that he was running toward a TSA agent and the deputy sheriff who shot him when he was killed. Our accounts don’t match up. What does this mean? I’m entirely willing to believe that my memory is faulty — remember the chaos I described earlier? There was definitely not enough time to think clearly, to observe, to take notice of who was where when. My memories are impressions. But.
My impressions are that the man was running in my direction and that the shots were fired in my direction. Which means that the deputy sheriff was behind him and me. Not between us.
One thing that really bugged me about the news accounts afterwards is that they all said that the police shut down the New Orleans airport for 30 minutes after the shooting. I know this part of the story is completely untrue. I know this because after the shooting everyone who was in security, the direct witnesses to the event, scattered. Quickly. No one stopped anyone, made any announcements about what to do, nothing. As far as I could tell, no witnesses at all were detained to make statements about what happened. Certainly, no one questioned me. Remember the answer I got when I asked the TSA agent if I could go: “If no one tried to stop me…” No one did.
No one tried to stop me at any point. And as far I could tell, no one tried to stop anyone. People moved about the airport, going where they wanted. The only police I saw headed directly to the scene of the shooting. Sure, no one else was allowed to go into the terminals and no flights took off. But anyone was allowed to enter the airport building and anyone was allowed to exit without being stopped or questioned. I joked later that if the guy had had an accomplice, he totally got away. Which isn’t really funny because it was so true.
But after the official account seemed so different from my own, I was angry that the airport had in fact not been shut down. That no one in charge there — from the TSA to the police — seemed to know what to do or how to handle what had happened. That people, including me, wandered away from the scene without anyone questioning them about what they saw or what happened. How did they arrive at the official findings in the report if they didn’t question witnesses? Did they have video footage? What did it show? What would bystanders involved in the incident say about it if they were asked? I know what I would have said, and it wouldn’t have matched the official report.
Here’s the thing: I’m not saying that this is another case of the wrongful death of a black man at the hands of the police. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one is saying that. From what I witnessed, the man was clearly armed and clearly wanted to hurt people. He was trying to hurt people. But he was also apparently an elderly, mentally ill man. And he was a black man. In New Orleans. This case is clearly different from Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Freddie Gray. In those cases, all of the evidence points to black men dying at the hands of police officers without clear cause or evidence that any of the men posed a direct threat to anyone. That is not the case in the shooting I witnessed. On the other hand, it seems that any time a man is shot and killed at the hands of a police officer, a grave event has occurred, no matter the circumstances. In order to have faith in the system, in order to believe that there are procedures and protocols and training that we can trust, the public need to see the police function, take witness statements, secure the scene, do it “by the book,” as they say in the movies. At the very least, the police must do everything they can to ensure that they have the complete account of what happened. That they are no unanswered questions or nagging doubts. Or least as few as possible.
When there’s a police shooting on television or in the movies, they always interview the bystanders afterwards. And they also always say things like, “Stop or I’ll shoot.” In my experience, they don’t do these things in real life. I had no idea who was shooting in my direction that day. The deputy sheriff did not identify herself or give Richard White any kind of warning. Frankly, when someone’s shooting in your direction, it doesn’t matter if it’s the “good” guys or the “bad” guys. The fear is the same.
My account of the events makes it look worse for the deputy sheriff who shot an allegedly mentally ill man on March 20th than the official account does. In my memory, the deputy was shooting at the man from behind as he ran towards the exit. But he was still running with the machete, he was still running towards people (me), and he was still very much a dangerous threat. Memory in times of trauma is also extremely fragile — I freely acknowledge that my memory may be flawed or even flat out wrong. What I wish is that the police had done their jobs afterwards — taking witness statements, actually locking down the airport and securing the scene, and making sure they had the full story. A grave thing had happened. A man was shot. I watched him lay facedown on the carpet of the airport, ten feet away from me, bleeding from gunshots in his head, chest, and leg. In that moment, I was glad it was him and not me laying there, honestly. But I still thought he looked small and weak. I later saw them take him out on a stretcher. He was unconscious but clearly still alive. My husband, who read an erroneous report that he had died at the scene, asked how I knew he was still alive. I said, I just did.
I walked to my car in long-term parking, paid my parking fee, and drove out of the airport that day, without encountering a single police officer or being stopped by anyone. At the time I was grateful that I could just go home, hold my child close, and hug my husband. I was having Braxton-hicks contractions, probably because of all the excitement and my racing pulse, but not unusual for me, so I was focused on my baby, whether he was okay. I was not thinking of the stakes of what happened, about what it meant that they let me, and everyone else, go. I was just happy to be going home. But looking back, I wish they had detained me, and everyone else, and locked down the airport, and done everything “by the book.” Maybe I would have more faith in the system if they had.
Having witnessed a police shooting and experienced firsthand that no one, even the officers and TSA agents in charge, seemed to know exactly what to do or how to handle the situation, I can even better appreciate the frustrations of black, and white, Americans with policing in our country. If there is this much doubt in a case like this, if there is this much that seems, even to an untrained citizen, to have gone wrong with the handling of the case, then the current attention being called nationally to police shooting of black men and women and the outrage over their deaths is not only justified, but it is not enough. If the police and authorities can’t even get it right in times where they are overwhelmingly likely to be in the right, it is not surprising that many have no faith that they can get it right at all.
If even witnessing a police shooting where the person poses an imminent threat to others and myself makes me question the training and preparation of police to handle these situations, then our collective lack of faith in the police is justified. Something is very wrong with the training of our police in America today. Something needs to be done to fix it.
Update: Just this week it was announced that the acting administrator of the TSA, Melvin Carraway, would be reassigned to a new position in the Department of Homeland Security because a new report revealed the failure of TSA’s current screening and security protocols. According to ABC News, the report indicates that undercover agents were able to get mock explosives or weapons through airport security successfully an astonishing 67 out of 70 times.
Ginny Engholm recently completed her Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in the department of English. Her interdisciplinary dissertation, titled “The Power of Multiplying: Reproductive Control in American Culture, 1850-1930,” traces the rise of modern birth control in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current work-in-progress examines miscarriage, pregnancy loss, and stillbirth in American culture. She teaches at a small college in the Liberal Arts department in Baton Rouge, LA.