Late afternoon on Sept. 25 I received a call from one of my neighbors saying the police were outside my house. She suggested that I lock my doors. I think we both thought that they were looking for someone, a “bad guy” perhaps, and that the person was in my yard.
I hung up, locked my back door and took my first look outside. Sure enough there were lots of policemen creating a semicircle on the street with cars and armed men on each edge of our lot and beyond. As I looked more closely I could see a few men in uniform wielding rifles and they were pointing toward our house.
I moved to the living room, taking a quick look out each of the windows in turn. I was shocked to see that there was a young policeman braced against the sycamore tree next door, he was pointing his rifle directly AT ME and following my every movement in the house. I recognized the red laser spot of the assault rifle; it caught my eye as my eyes met his.
While this registered in my mind, I moved into my kitchen, ducking into a corner furthest from windows and phoned my husband, who was still at work. When he picked up, I described what was happening. I explained I didn’t understand what was going on. I asked him to call the police.
My husband said it didn’t make sense for him to be the go-between between me and the police, I agreed. After hanging up with him, I phoned 911.
I explained to dispatch that I was in my own home surrounded by a SWAT team and had no idea why this was happening. Somehow I moved from my “safe spot” crouched in the kitchen to the dining room with one hand holding my phone, the other raised as if in surrender.
I was thinking about the federal investigation of our police force here in Albuquerque and about the people who have made a mistake while surrounded by police, were killed, yet innocent. The young officer with the AR continued to hold me in his sights. I found out later that he was not the only one; there were at least five rifles on me at the time.
Dispatch asked me questions: What was my address, my name, where was my husband? She said that the police wanted me to come out.
For the first time I heard in the background the police speaking through their loudspeaker. The voice was garbled and I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying. I did hear “come out” but truly I didn’t perceive that they were speaking to me.
Back to the dispatcher, I said I didn’t want them to shoot me.
“Please don’t let them shoot me! I have a cellphone in my hand and I know that there have been times when the police confuse a cellphone for a gun. I’m scared to go out! I don’t understand what is going on and I don’t want them to shoot me!”
For about 10 minutes dispatch relayed our conversation. Eventually she gave me instructions from the police outside.
My fear was sharp. Looking out at the officers with their guns I knew completely that I could die any moment if just one move were misunderstood.
I placed my cell on the dining room table. I left it on, as instructed; I walked to our front door, opened the screen door and walked out. Realizing I’d left the screen open and that I had to move back to close it, I said, “I’m closing the screen so my dog doesn’t get out.”
Then I walked away from my house, down my walk to the public sidewalk and turned left, again, following instructions.
I was shaking like a leaf.
My hands quaked, still in the air. All of me wanted to run but a very large policeman met me at the end of the walk. Someone watching from the street said I was frisked but I have no memory of this.
I was herded up the drive of another neighbor where the large policeman began to ask me questions. “Do you have a gun? Where is your husband? … Had I heard any gunshots?”
The officer acknowledged how frightened I was. He dialed my husband’s cell number on his phone and let me talk with him. My husband, as it turns out, had had his own conversation with the police.
I asked the officer: “What is going on?” He said there had been a call, a tip, a man at my address had killed his wife.
Eight to 10 cops went into our house to look around. … They searched the basement and the studio. Within about 20 minutes or so, men poured back out of my house calling the “all clear.”
The SWAT team moved as a group over to where we were standing. I couldn’t tell who was in charge. The young man I had been watching through the window, who had me in his sights, wiped sweat from his face. Another man in uniform asked me, again, for my information: my name, birthday, if I’d heard gunshots.
I acknowledged how hard their job must be. Someone joked that they were paid by the hour. I do not remember anyone telling me their name. They thanked me for following their instructions.
The police left as quickly as they had come.
My neighbors flooded out to the sidewalk. We hugged and discussed our surprise and pure dismay at what had just happened.
I didn’t cry until I was alone. I was thinking about how completely afraid I had been, thinking about all the people, homeless, people of color, people living in a poor neighborhood and just folks in the wrong place at the wrong time, who were as scared as I was and died with that fear as their very last feeling on earth.
It has been a couple of weeks since this event happened. It’s still on my mind.
Questions, lessons from my scary ordeal
These are the things I want you to remember and think about even if you don’t remember my story:
1. If it looks like the police are surrounding your house, call 911. Open up your own line of communication. Calling 911 created a natural line of communication that helped me to know what the police wanted me to do, gave them some idea of what I was thinking inside the house, and ultimately kept me safer, I think. The woman on dispatch was very good at her job. I would say that she was my ally in this situation.
2. I followed instructions and kept communicating in the best way I knew how. I wanted the police to know that I had a cellphone in my hand, that I was the person on the phone with dispatch wearing the black sweater, that I was closing the screen door and not grabbing something as I stepped outside.
3. I had a hard time understanding what the police were saying to me through the loudspeaker and I am reasonably intelligent, my hearing is good, I had no music on and recognized (to some degree) what was going on outside. What if I were hard of hearing, didn’t speak English, had the music up, had a mental condition, was paralyzed by fear?
4. There needs to be someone who isn’t wrapped up in the drama who is watching for something human and innocent, not just dangerous. What if I had picked up a broom and the officer thought it was a rifle? What if they thought my cellphone was a pistol? Perhaps someone not holding a gun might recognize that my actions inside the house weren’t consistent with the story they had been told. Could someone come up with a way to deactivate the tension in this situation without pointing five rifles at the person inside the house?
5. The police came to my house because of a “tip,” they searched my house and my studio, they took my personal information and they didn’t give me one of their names nor anyone to contact after the fact. As of this writing I have initiated conversations with the police psychologist and some civilians working with the police.
6. I would like to know what my rights are in this situation. I would also like to know what comes from the investigation into who made the prank calls that Thursday.