Are You A Reasonable Person?

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I spent the Lenten season this year in self-reflection as a way to prepare for the celebration of the resurrection of Christ.  I returned to a daily scripture reading, a practice I can’t remember when or why I abandoned.  I listened more than I spoke and learned that silent contemplation is extremely uncomfortable for even those who purport to know us best.  I placed my trust in the obvious – that we are mere vessels in this life –and learned that trust is not a familiar commodity to many of us.  In the end, I arrived at a single question.  How do we define what is reasonable in today’s terms.

I avoided the usual onslaught of mayhem that we call news and political commentary.  I tried not to focus on the shooting of an unarmed Black man in his grandmother’s back yard at the hands of the police.  In reality all I really needed was the weather report.  I focused instead on reaching across a generation and initiated building a relationship with a nephew in dire need.  I spent time doing work around the house that provided a sort of built-in time for reflection.  Then I listened some more.

Here’s what I learned.  We have built our lives around creating and maintaining a false sense of what is reasonable.  I’ve asked myself if I am a reasonable man.  I believe I am.  I’ve asked myself if I believe others consider me a reasonable man.  I could not answer definitively.  So I searched for an answer to the latter.

In my search I remembered the first time I was told I was not the hypothetical person in society exercising average care, skill or judgement – the hypothetical reasonable person.  At first I was angered.  Soon the anger turned to confusion, then disappointment.  As I replayed those events in my head, I realized that it was because my colleagues didn’t consider me one of them . . . the average, hypothetical reasonable person.  This personal horror began in the midst of a federal investigation into narcotics smuggling into the country from Jamaica.

It was an easy case for any federal investigator.  Conduct a simple, static surveillance along the Mississippi River until the bad guys arrive.  Arrest the bad guys.  Seize all exposed assets.  Get the weakest link to flip on the rest and cooperate with the government.  I did just that.  In the end, a Jamaican smuggler and several U. S. accomplices were under arrest.  The weak link was the Jamaican.  No one was surprised that I managed to convince him to cooperate.  I had been on an unbelievable run of success for a rookie.

In an undercover capacity, I traveled to an industrial neighborhood near the airport with the smuggler to deliver the marijuana and hashish oil to the smuggler’s buyer.  Our meeting place was an auto repair shop nestled among a group of warehouses.  My task was simple, portray a marijuana smuggler and signal the surveillance and arrest team once the bad guy saw the marijuana and agreed to accept it.

The night was clear and quiet making it perfect for the undercover operation.  The surveillance team could see me clearly from blocks away; my conversation with the smuggler and the buyer was clearly recorded with the wire I wore to document the crime.  The deal was done in less than fifteen minutes.  The buyer had a fifteen-year history of smuggling marijuana into the United States and I put an end to it.  At least that’s what I thought.

The nightmare started months later when the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) prosecuting the case scheduled what I thought was a routine meeting.  When I arrived, I was not allowed to meet in his office as usual.  Instead, I was ushered into a conference room where the AUSA, the leader of our investigative team, attempted to interrogate me.  Two minutes into that debacle, I confronted the AUSA about his questions and he informed me that the defense team had alleged that I had committed a felony – tampering with evidence.

I was given a letter provided to the prosecutor by the defendant’s attorney.  In that letter, the attorney’s investigator referred to me as the undercover Customs agent once.  From that point on he referred to me as the Black Customs agent as he went on to lay out his premise that the audio evidence had been altered by me, the Black Customs agent.  It was as if being Black made it more plausible that a crime had been committed.  The AUSA told me I was accused of editing the recording of the undercover meeting in order to frame the smuggler accepting the marijuana during the sting.  I immediately ended our meeting and returned to my office.

Along the route to my office I encountered other federal agents and learned they knew of the allegation.  Confused and concerned, I immediately advised my executive management team of the situation but was shocked to learn they also knew of the allegation.  I was the only person in the dark.  I also learned that nothing was being done by my team to address the matter – aside from interrogating me in an effort to gather information (also known as evidence to prosecutors and investigators) about my ability to commit this felonious crime.  My senior executive manager actually said the AUSA “was not willing to open that can of worms” and was contemplating not prosecuting the case.

It was as if being Black made it more plausible that a crime had been committed

It quickly became clear to me that the people I had placed my trust in had no trust in me.  In the blink of an eye, I went from a rising star to an investigator the U. S. Attorney and the U. S. Customs Service no longer had faith in.  I had become an embarrassment.  These colleagues couldn’t fathom that I, a young African American man, would exercise the same judgement they would with respect to the collection and preservation of evidence in criminal drug smuggling cases.  They just couldn’t view me as that hypothetical person in society that exercises reasonable care or judgement.

Soon after, the defendant’s charges were reduced to simple possession and I was transferred out of that federal judicial district.  I didn’t receive a warm welcome at the new location.  No one trusted me there either because, as you might expect, news travels quickly.  My career was forever negatively impacted.  That is the result of being viewed as less than a reasonable person because I am a Black man.

It took vigilance on my part to clear my name.   More than a year later, my executive management team learned through forensic examination by the FBI that the recording had not been altered.  Instead, what was heard on the recording was the repetition of a rock band rehearsing the same verses of a song in one of the warehouses near the repair shop where the undercover meeting took place.

In the years since that day, a federal prosecutor has never put me on the stand to testify for fear that it would open that can of worms.  The can of worms . . . the racial overtones of the allegation.

People of color are frequently not seen as that hypothetical reasonable person.  Yet, we hear the phrase “any reasonable person” quite often.  We are often punished more severely because our actions are viewed as less reasonable than the same action under the same circumstances by our white counterparts.  It is that failure to see people of color as reasonable people that ruins lives.  That failure to see us as reasonable people seeps into the reaction of police during their encounters with us.  And that often leads to the death of unarmed people of color.

The police action, on the other hand, is always evaluated using this standard.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, that reasonable person standard leads to the exoneration of the police officer.  Unfortunately, that was not my experience.  The thin blue line turned black quickly for me the first time my colleagues had to place their trust in me as one of them.

Harris County Georgia Sheriff Mike Jolley’s welcome banner

Let me flip the script for a moment.  Is it reasonable for us to believe that the average American citizen has a right to own weapons of war?  Is it reasonable to believe that having weapons of war are essential to stave off a corrupt government?  Is it reasonable for us to believe that we all bring a set of preconceived notions to every encounter?   Is it reasonable for us to believe that police officers are “nearly always” justified in the number of shooting deaths we see as a result of encounters with them?

This is the landscape we must navigate if we’re going to talk about leveling the playing field in America.  We can’t wall ourselves off like Harris County Georgia Sheriff Mike Jolley and still be considered reasonable.  If we’re going to use a standard to determine how we should conduct ourselves, it should apply equally to all Americans.  We shouldn’t hide behind differing standards for different locales as license to apply the standard differently to people of color.


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