White woman defends black man from US police

A Washington Metro Police car. Image copyright Getty Images

Perhaps it's a reflection of our high-tech society. Every day seems to bring new videos of alleged police brutality, where law enforcement officers employ questionable tactics when dealing with black suspects.

According to Washington Post columnist Clinton Yates, what occurred on the afternoon of 1 October isn't one of those cases - but perhaps it could have been under different circumstances.

Two Washington Metro Police officers - both black - were responding to a household burglary alarm in a posh District of Columbia neighbourhood and encountered a 64-year-old black man carrying two bags. When they questioned him, they say he became "loud and boisterous". They ordered him to the ground.

At that point, a local resident - a middle-aged white woman named Jody Westby - came out from her house and confronted the police.

She instructed her housekeeper to record the events. She said she knew the man - a local worker - and that the police had no right to detain him. She told the officers that she was a lawyer and, upon learning the address of the burglary report, that they weren't even on the right street.

She grabbed the detained man's hand and said she was leaving, telling the police to "please leave our neighbourhood".

The officer reluctantly let Ms Westby and the man go.

As she walked away, Ms Westby said: "Just because he's black doesn't mean he's here to rob a house. He works for us. He's been in this neighbourhood for 30 years."

Yates writes that the situation likely would have been much different if the incident had occurred in a less affluent neighbourhood or Ms Westby hadn't been white.

"The level of comfort with which she communicates with the officers due to her knowledge of the law and lack of fear of retribution offers a lesson about how the intersection of race, class and privilege can impact the interactions between police officers and some residents," he says.

Yates contends that many residents of Washington would never be willing or able to exercise their rights the way Ms Westby does in the video, "for fear of being hurt, arrested or killed".

Ms Westby tells the Post that the police actions were "shameful" and they were treating the man "just like a dog". A police spokesperson responds that there was no officer misconduct.

US citizens have constitutionally protected rights - but they're only paper protections if they can't be freely exercised.

Would the incident have gone differently if Westby hadn't been there - or hadn't been white? Or if the whole incident hadn't been recorded?

Yates seems to think so. And there's plenty of video evidence of police confrontations gone horribly wrong from across the US to lend credence to his belief.

As for the original burglary report, the Post says that the alarm was due to a wrong code entered by the home's occupant.