After a black woman is stopped by a white cop, the two consider the ‘what ifs’

In September, Arapahoe County (Colorado) sheriff’s deputy Tom Finley responded to a call of a black man carrying a rifle in a 7-11 parking lot.

It wasn’t a man at all. It was a woman. It was Jo Ann Allen, who hosts All Things Considered at Colorado Public Radio.

And she wasn’t carrying a rifle, something that is legal to do in Colorado; she was carrying golf clubs.

Today, the two did something we rarely hear done in these sorts of confrontations. They talked about what happened. They did so on a CPR broadcast.

“I heard someone say, ‘Sir, drop the rifle,’ and I slowly turned, threw the golf clubs away from my body, and held out my arms, and said, ‘They’re golf clubs. They’re golf clubs.’” she told program host Ryan Warner. “The deputy slowly approached me and with his hand on his gun, prepared, as you might expect, slowly approached me, but when he saw it was golf clubs, he took his hand off his gun. I think his exact words were, ‘I apologize for challenging you. When we get a call like this, we have to respond.’

“You know, as a skeptical reporter, I was really amazed at how he handled the situation. I was stunned. My heart was racing. I didn’t quite know what to do next. I totally understood why I was stopped, because if you see the clubs, it looks like a gun. I can totally see that,” she said.

Today, she wanted to know what Finley was feeling as he confronted her.

“You know, that’s one of the things we train to do is to be calm in crisis situations, because if you’re out of control yourself, you’re going to do more harm than good,” Finley said. “We do a lot of shoot/don’t-shoot type of training at the range, where they train the calm into you, basically.”

That works until it’s all over and there’s an “adrenalin dump,” Finley said.

“During the situation, you have adrenaline that actually helps you function better, but then after the situation, the adrenaline wears off and your heart races and you start getting sweaty. Even sometimes your fingers will feel a little shaky,” he said.

“It wasn’t until after the event was over and after I’d gotten to work here at CPR that I felt nerves and that I thought back on the actual scene several times in my mind’s eye,” Allen said. “And as the day wore on and by six o’clock that evening, I was really almost not quite a wreck, but I was closer to being a wreck than I had been during our actual encounter. And after the fact, you realize, oh, my goodness, this really could have gone badly.”

Finley was thinking the same thing.

What intrigued Allen is Finley’s apology for challenging her.

Finley had never said that to anyone before.

“It went from being a black man with a gun to being a black woman with golf clubs. And so, I was almost feeling bad about having shouted at you,” he told Allen, who says hearing those words was when she realized he was well trained.

Like Allen, Finley was left with the “what-ifs”.

“What if you hadn’t complied and, dropped the golf clubs? What if I thought it was the rifle? What if it had gone really poorly and I had shot you and then found out they were golf clubs? I mean, that was something I talked about with one of my really good friends and how terrible that would have been,” he said.

Is there a lesson here somewhere, the two were asked by the show host?

“Just try to be calm and if a police officer’s shouting at you to do something, maybe that’s not the best time to argue. You know, follow what the officer’s telling you first and then sort through it after,” Finley said. “Because also lights and sirens would have scared the person you’re going after, too, which could have made me— could have gotten me ‘amped’ up.”

Did Allen’s race enter the equation?

“Only to describe her,” Finley said. “That was the only way it played any, any role in my response was just who am I looking for?”

“I was wondering if this changed you in any way?” Allen asked.

“I don’t think so,” replied Finley.

Hear their conversation here.

(h/t: Hart Van Denburg)

  • >>And she wasn’t carrying a rifle, something that is legal to do in Colorado;<<

    Then why was law enforcement even called at all?

    • He explained that in the interview. He said he had to check it out. Why did the person call the cops in the first place? Who knows, although while it’s legal to carry a rifle, maybe it’s not legal to use it at a 7-11.

      “I don’t know if he’s intending to do something,” the caller said.

      So maybe the call wasn’t about the carrying it. Maybe the call was about the fear of using it. It’s all speculation.

      What I do know is this young man is a fine cop. And his term “train the calm into you” seems like a great idea.

      • Anna

        The assumption was made by the caller that the black person was a male intending violence. The stereotype has already been applied.

        We need more officers like Tom Finley who to his credit did not jump to conclusions and then did the right thing and apologized to Ms. Allen once he recognized the situation.

        Credit also goes to Ms. Allen who complied with the officer’s commands.

        As Mike W. says, it could have had a very different outcome when you consider the number of unarmed black men that have been shot dead over the last 15 months.

        • lindblomeagles

          Anna is indeed correct. Our nation’s societal inclination in most instances is to assume a lone African American male in the street or a parking lot is up to something nefarious (see Edina right here in Minnesota) while a lone white male in the street or a parking lot poses no threat, particularly when the white male is carrying a rifle (see rural communities across the United States). This story proves one thing, and one thing only, that the police are not solely responsible for racial profiling — that sometimes their actions is the result of the so-called non-racist community racially profiling Black males (like the story Bob posted where teens were profiled by a community in Georgia last year; when the police got there, they played a game of baskeball with those teens because the teens weren’t doing anything wrong).

  • Mike Worcester

    This situation could have ended up with so many different outcomes. What if it was a different officer who was dispatched? What if Ms. Allen did not react exactly the way she did? So many variables that could have taken the scenario in possibly tragic directions.

    Was it explained (should it be?) to whomever made the call that they were horribly mistaken about what they saw? That they needlessly created a potentially dangerous situation?

    • joetron2030

      What I was wondering is what if it had been an African American man with golf clubs and the same officer?

      I would hope he would have responded similarly to how he did when he realized she was carrying golf clubs. I would guess that he would based on his comments. But, again, who knows?

  • KTN

    I’m troubled by the police response with this one. Not the officer, he did what he was trained to do, and by the account was highly professional. The issue is that the police should have never sent him in the first place. You, or me, or anyone can legally carry a long gun openly while in public in Colorado, so when the dispatcher was told of a black man with a rifle walking down the street, the response ought to have been “a person carrying a rifle in public is legal, so unless there is a crime being committed we will not be sending an officer to check it out”.

    • John

      Are you sure? I have lived in places that have the luxury of sending an officer to respond to every call – they don’t judge the legality of the situation over the phone.

      I’ve also lived in places where there needs to be a threat of violence or report of shots fired before anyone will show up (theft investigations were a joke – it could be days before anyone could spare the time to come take a description).

      If Arapahoe county is of the former, I’m okay with it. If it’s normally the latter, then I’m not okay with them sending anyone. Basically, I just want to know that the response of the dispatcher was consistent with their overall policy, and not responding because of the description.

      • KTN

        So then if someone called the police to report a black man driving a car down the street, the police would be obligated to investigate. In the eyes of the law, both activities, walking down the street carrying a firearm, and driving a car, are the same.

        • It’s fascinating to see so much defense of open carry in a forum that has historically been pretty anti-gun.

          It’s not illegal to be dressed like a clown either, but people call the cops anyway and the cops go see what the deal is.

          • KTN

            I’m not defending the right to openly carry – I think people that do carry openly, especially a long gun are pathetic and are compensating for something. But it’s legal in many states, and while scary for some, the law should not care if someone is scared about legal behavior (clowns included).

          • Tim

            Open carry is legal in the jurisdiction where this took place. Should it be? That’s a different question, but if it is legal, people have the right to do it, and somebody performing a legal activity shouldn’t be stopped by police.

            Same thing with the clown incidents, really.

          • KTN
          • First they came for the clowns, and I said nothing. Then they came for the people wearing pleated pants, and I said nothing.

        • John

          that’s a fair point, and I don’t like the driving a car example because I wouldn’t expect the police to check it out in that case. I wouldn’t expect a response, you’re correct.

          I’m going to take race out of my discussion, for the moment, because my wondering was supposed to be questioning whether we’re playing the race card here when we shouldn’t be – would they have sent an officer if the caller had simply said “there’s a person outside my business with a rifle/shotgun – could you come check it out?” Note – I didn’t accuse anyone of doing anything wrong, but I was concerned about the situation and wanted some help.

          If I was in that county (or in my house) and I called the police and said there’s a person sitting in a car outside my house (or walking down the street), could you come check it out?

          Would they come check it out?

          How about the right to be an axe wielding clown – what if I called that in? Probably not doing anything illegal, walking down the street looking all scary and carrying an axe, but a proactive police force would probably want to have a visit with the woman and find out why she’s dressed as a clown and carrying an axe down the street. Sure, they can’t do anything about it, unless she starts chopping down somebody’s tree, but I think the conversation could potentially prevent damage to property.

          My whole point/question is – was the officer being sent racially motivated, or would the response of the police force been the same, right or wrong, regardless of the color of the citizen?

    • >>…when the dispatcher was told of a black man with a rifle walking down the street, the response ought to have been “a person carrying a rifle in public is legal, so unless there is a crime being committed we will not be sending an officer to check it out”.<<

      This was my thought as well and was the original intent of my comment upthread.

    • DavidG

      The reason they respond is because situations like this happen:

      A caller calls 911 reporting a man with an open carry gun, 911 says “it’s legal”, then a few minutes later, they get a 911 call of a mass shooting by said man.

      http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/11/colorado-springs-mass-shooting-911-call-open-carry

  • rosswilliams

    Fine cop? Maybe. But most cops would have reacted exactly the same way given the actual events. What Officer Finley seems to realize is that had the events been slightly different, the outcome could have been tragic no matter how fine an officer he is.

    What was unique about this situation was that it was a public radio news show host on the other end. Otherwise it would have been just one more police encounter with the potential for violence that ended peacefully.

  • guest

    Every decision by a cop is about how much time there is between NOW and it all going very badly. When approaching an armed person, is his life just one quick action away? Would the person have to unsling a “rifle” first?

    A person caring a long thing across their chest is a situation where the cop may find out it is nothing or the person intends to kill the next cop spotted, in a very very short time frame.
    Every time you read of a situation ending badly, ask yourself:
    How much time do I have to find out the other person intends to harm me?

  • Laurie K.

    I commend both the officer and Ms. Allen for how they reacted in this situation. However, I cannot stop wondering about other “what ifs” that would have made it difficult or impossible for her to obey the officer. What if she had been wearing ear buds and did not hear his commands? What if she was a deaf person? What if she had some other impairment that made it difficult for her to understand, or slow to respond (i.e., such as traumatic brain injury). In this situation we had two level headed, non-impaired adults but that is not always the case.