by Jamison Koehler on February 8, 2021
They let the grandmother sleep.
Because she is deaf, she does not hear the police officers assembling on the front porch of her rowhouse. It is a quiet D.C. neighborhood, south of H Street. It is just before dawn.
Because she is deaf, she does not hear the battering ram against her front door or the officers alerting inhabitants to their presence: Search warrant! Police!
Because she is deaf, she does not hear her grandchildren — crying from their mattresses in the living room – as the officers rush past with their guns drawn.
Her form, rising and falling with each breath, is illuminated by the flickering TV screen in her bedroom.
Reviewing the police officer’s body worn camera (BWC) files is like watching the movie Groundhog Day. That is the movie in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over until he finally gets things right.
With the BWCs, the same set of events occurs again and again. You arrive at the same conclusion. You just see things from a different perspective each time.
You are the police officer as he rushes past the terrified children in the living room and up the stairs to the second floor bedroom at the back of the house. His arms swing in front of him, the right hand gripping his firearm. He breathes heavily. He finds a young male: Hands! Let me see your hands!
You watch as he checks the closet for other people. Secure, he says into his radio.
Open the next BWC file and you are the officer who enters the house behind him. This time you head straight down the hallway, passing the stairs, and head down into the basement where you find another male sprawled out across a mattress on the floor. Again, it is: Hands. Let me see your hands. Secure.
Next time you are in the backseat of an unmarked cruiser checking your I-Phone for a text from your girlfriend. The car pulls to a stop and you get out. You are at the back of the same house, securing the back door in case someone decides to flee. Above the fence, flashlights flicker from the window of the second-floor bedroom. You hear it on the radio: Secure.
Now you are back at the front door: You are the officer with the battering ram. It takes you a couple of tries. “Stevie, Stevie!” chant the other officers to encourage you.
The defense attorney gives you a hard time about the chanting at trial. This was someone’s home, he says. It was early in the morning. They were sleeping. Did you think this was funny?
Because the officers wear the body worn cameras on their chests, below eye level, the viewer is always looking up at people. This gives you the impression that people are much taller than they are.
One time you are sitting with your client in the hallway outside the courtroom when an extremely short guy walks by.
Your client leans over. That is the complainant, he says.
Really? Having watched three different officers interview him on the night of incident, and then again at the District building, you still barely recognize him. You were expecting a very tall person.
As usual, the officers in this case spend a lot of time standing around. They gossip. And sometimes they get on each other’s nerves. One of the officers – a young guy — misses a firearm tucked behind some shelves in the basement. Another officer spends the rest of the search complaining to everyone else: “I am tired of this,” he says. “They want to stand around and then go home. The purpose of a search warrant is to search.”
Notwithstanding the circumstances, and the occasional impatience with each other, the officers treat the inhabitants of the house with compassion.
They make sure that each person being taken into custody is dressed appropriately. It is cold out, they tell one of the men. Is there a jacket or sweatshirt we could put on you? How about some shoes?
Two of the officers remain in the living room with the grandchildren. “There, there,” says a female officer to the boy. “Everything is going to be okay.” She is Yossarian comforting Snowden, the mortally wounded bombardier, in Catch 22.
“There, there” she says once again. It is a word of reassurance, offered in succession, that really means nothing at all. Maybe if you repeat something often enough, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, you can finally get things right.
Pull up another BWC file and you are one of three armed police officers standing over the grandmother’s bed as she continues to sleep.
Later footage will show a room turned upside down, the content of every closet, every bureau, every container, dumped out onto the floor. But for now the room is clean and orderly, everything laid out carefully where she put them on the dresser. It is also suddenly quiet.
“She is the leaseholder,” one of the officers says. “She doesn’t know sign language. She reads lips.”
Two of the woman’s children and a nephew are handcuffed and seated in the dining room below as the officers wait for the transport van to arrive. The grandchildren have settled down. Entertained by the officers, one of whom is now playing peekaboo with them, the sound of their happy cries seeps up through the floorboards.
The officers have not yet decided what to do with the grandmother. “Should we wake her?” asks one of the officers.
Her form rises and falls with each breath. For now they decide to let her sleep.