Trash Cleaning Confrontation

Boulder Police Officer Resigns After Confronting Black Man Picking Up Trash — Colorado Public Radio — 2019-05-17 cpr

_Eric said: I feel physically horrible as I watch the footage in these two videos. I share this early as a content warning. This is not fiction and it is a disturbing glimpse into the systemic Challenges of Policing._

_ Pete says: I'm responding to Eric's narrative, and the videos. I'll leave Eric's content, and then put my response below a section header at the bottom. Open to suggestions for a better way to do this._

A white Colorado police officer who pulled out his gun during a confrontation with a black man picking up trash around his dormitory resigned this week.

Police body camera footage released Thursday provided a full video account of the tense encounter, which had gained national attention based on video shot by someone inside a student dormitory at Naropa University, a liberal arts school associated with Buddhism in the city of Boulder. city

VIMEO 333354867 Body camera footage — 2019-03-01

After about eight minutes, more officers arrive and form a loose half circle around Atkinson.

One officer can be seen holding a rifle; the investigative summary says the weapon fires bean bags. One officer drew his handgun when he arrived but reholstered it in less than a minute, while Smyly had his gun out until Atkinson put the trash-grabbing tool down, according to the summary.

Atkinson, 26, said he believes Smyly should have been fired immediately. He said he has had trouble sleeping and spends time outdoors or with friends to calm him.

"My life right now is kind of restless, unsettled," he said.


I shared this CPR article with my friends on Facebook.

Boulder people, this story is old news (one year old). Long-story-short: structural racism is right here in Boulder, in case you thought we lived in a bubble of progressive idealism. Please watch the video of the police officer's body camera as he "investigates" Zayd Atkinson "for trespassing".

The systemic problems that lead to this are hard to see, 'cos they're operating in the background.

Most people in this city who are cleaning up grounds around any given building are 1. a small group of people, and 2. mostly of Mexican descent. I will speculate that context contributed significantly to the officer's assumptions—which seem to be assuming that Mr. Atkinson was "casing the joint" rather than cleaning the grounds.

If it had been me picking up around the place, the officer would likely have assumed I was an owner or landlord just picking up, 'cos I'm white and fit [the appearance of] those assumptions.

The other bit of disturbing context for me... this address used to be a Dairy Queen. It went out of business and this small block of apartments went up in its place. It's upscale compared to the general state of disrepair in the residences in this corner of Boulder. That is to say, this address is also an example of gentrification. It's conspicuous if you know the state of student housing around 30th and Arapaho.

_As I was preparing this wiki page I noticed this other video with Zayd Atkinson surrounded by eight officers._

VIMEO 333359560 Half-circle body camera footage — 2019-03-01

The confrontation does wind down here. But it is a painful emotional journey.

The sense of relief is enormous. Right behind the growing relief is an equally growing sense of dread about the systemic and structural problems on display.

Officer Parker identifies himself here as he attempts to de-escalate the conflict. He is the brother of my neighbor—we have met at a birthday party. This hits even closer to home.

Atkinson's anger feels so completely justified to me. I admire his strength of will to stand his ground, his refusal to just comply.

I admire how Parker does de-escalate the conflict — not all the way to a resolution, but offering his name and speaking respectfully turned the emotional direction of the conflict.

I am grateful for the conversation we cannot hear in the background where another man confirmed Atkinson's claims of living on the premises.

I am grateful that this confrontation ends without the death of a black man.

My felt sense of horror in watching the footage comes from fear about what has happened in other confrontations between police and black men. It also comes from knowing that there is no chance I would ever experience anything like this, because I am a white man.

My experience of The Police is completely different. Even if I were confronted, my assumptions and my felt sense of safety would be completely different. My sense of personal outrage would be completely different. I have been raised to comply, in part because compliance is not life-threatening for me.

I was genuinely surprised and puzzled by the anger in Body Count's song Cop Killer. I couldn't relate.

VIMEO 333361023 Body camera footage — 2019-03-01

At 10m40s in this video an older white man shows up, out of breath, confirms Atkinson's claims of being a student and doing his job. The man identifies himself as Director of Security for Naropa University. The officer does not demand identification.

In fairness to the officer, the man is on the phone with someone else, seems to be confirming the identity of the student himself. The story matches up with what Atkinson has been claiming. Perhaps that is sufficient to meet whatever protocol is called for by the police in this situation.

As soon as they have Atkinson's identity confirmed they back off and the incident comes to a close.

Pete's comments

Pete's comments

I was familiar with Atkinson's story in broad strokes, but it wasn't until Eric posted this that I actually watched the video or attempted to absorb the full story.

I appreciate the "trigger warning," this definitely took me to a powerful emotional place. Which isn't a problem, but I appreciate knowing what might be coming.

I don't have a strong tie to Naropa University, but I was (sneakily) in the photo on its Wikipedia article for many years, and I have a friend who attended.

I have several reactions:

It's striking that Eric has a personal connection to one of the officers. (I believe it's the one who approached the door of the building to talk to somebody inside?) I agree that his effort to deescalate was worthwhile, but I'm also struck by what a low standard we apply, in which his efforts seem praiseworthy. He could have done so much better. It's astonishing how little skill (training? inclination?) these officers seem to have in deescalation. There are so many things that any of them could have done to calm things down. My perception is that the thing that prevents it is their need to protect the ego of the officer who initially engaged (and ultimately resigned).

I watched all three body cam videos, and it's amazing to have such detailed access to what happened. Impossible not to think about how much leeway an officer without a body cam would have to characterize such a situation in a way that suits his narrative -- intentionally or otherwise. I noticed in video #1 at about 16:30, he explains to his partner what initially attracted his attention, and it is strikingly at odds with what we observed at the beginning.

In video #3, the officer doing the filming "said the quiet part out loud." The official police position was that the initial officer's weapon was not going to be used. And yet, the filming officer advised his colleague (at 0:50) to change his position because of "crossfire" and he said the same to the RA later in the video, even after things were fully resolved. In my view this fully validates Atkinson's own stated position that he did not feel safe. Him being shot/tazed was an option that was entirely on the table from a police point of view.

I have been Atkinson myself, but not to this degree. The strongest resonance: At about 4am I was riding my bike home from a friend's house. I'd had a few beers (over several hours) but I was not drunk. I didn't have my bike lights with me, but I was riding carefully on side streets, and there was nobody out. 1.5 blocks away from my house, a car started creeping on me. My "bully radar" fully expected I was about to be yelled at or have a beer bottle thrown at me. My "bully radar" also told me that acknowledging their presence by turning to look at them was a surefire way to hasten any confrontation, so I just kept going. The car followed me for a block, and then I heard the siren "chirp" -- it was a cop. I pulled over across the street from my house (which they didn't know). I felt some measure of safety, knowing that if things escalated there might be neighbors who knew me on hand. The officer said something vague about looking for somebody who had committed a crime (which I am confident was BS). Like Atkinson, I objected strongly enough to the BS that backup was called. They ultimately wrote me a ticket for no bike lights. I brought my lights to my court date to show the judge, but the officer didn't show, and it was dismissed.

I don't want to imply that the threat to me was the same. I was scared, but in hindsight it was more because of my initial assumption that the cop was actually some drunken redneck bully. But those emotions don't fade quickly once invoked. And like Atkinson, the fear coursing through me pushed me in a direction of resistance rather than compliance. I'm not sure why. I don't know that it was a decision in my control.

A tangent, but a poignant point. I related this story soon after, at happy hour with some journalist colleagues. My friend Dennis, who died this year, was the managing editor, and also a military veteran. He listened to my story, and he took issue with my reaction. He felt I was trying to make a point, when I should have just gone along with what the officer had to say and gotten on with my evening.

The conversation got heated. I thought I was telling a story everybody would relate to, and then we'd move on. I wasn't expecting pushback or a fatherly lesson. I was embarrassed and angry. People who were there thought that Dennis and I had a problem. I had known Dennis for years, and while the confrontation shook me up, I was confident in our friendship, so it was also strange to have mutual friends assume it was a big deal. We never talked about it directly but it was not an ongoing issue. More than 15 years had passed before I visited with him last February. It was a beautiful visit, there was no need to discuss it, but it gave me some relief to experience that our friendship was undamaged.