Man Arrested While Picking Up His Kids: 'The Problem Is I'm Black'

A controversial video documents the St. Paul resident being harassed and tased.
HHA124L/Flickr

If you've never experienced arbitrary harassment or brutality at the hands of a police officer, or seen law enforcement act in a way that defies credulity and common sense, it can be hard to believe people who tell stories of inexplicable persecution. As I noted in "Video Killed Trust in Police Officers," the dawn of cheap recording technology has exposed an ugly side of U.S. law enforcement that a majority of people in middle-class neighborhoods never would've seen otherwise. 

Today, what's most disheartening isn't that so many Americans still reflexively doubt stories of police harassment, as awful as it is whenever real victims are ignored. What vexes me most is police officers caught acting badly on camera who suffer no consequences and are defended by the police agencies that employ them. 

The latest example of abusive, atrocious police work posted to YouTube comes from St. Paul, Minnesota, where a black father, Chris Lollie, reportedly got off work at Cossetta, an upscale Italian eatery, walked to the downtown building that houses New Horizon Academy, where he was to to pick up his kids, and killed the ten minutes until they'd be released sitting down on a chair in a skyway between buildings. Those details come from the Minneapolis City Pages, where commenters describe the area he inhabited as a public thoroughfare between commercial buildings. If you're 27 and black with dreadlocks, sometimes you're waiting to pick up your kids and someone calls the cops to get rid of you. The police report indicates a call about "an uncooperative male refusing to leave," which makes it sound as though someone else first asked him to vacate where he was; another press report says that he was sitting in a chair in a public area when a security guard approached and told him to leave as the area was reserved for employees. The Minnesota Star Tribune visited the seating area and reported that "there was no signage in the area indicating that it was reserved for employees." 

So a man waiting to pick up his kids from school sits for a few minutes in a seating area where he reasonably thinks he has a right to be, private security asks him to leave, he thinks they're harassing him because he's black, and they call police. This is where the video begins, and that conflict is already over. The man is walking away from it and toward the nearby school where he is to pick up his kids.

So problem solved? It could have been.

Instead, this happened:

What the video shows is a man who is politely but firmly telling a police officer that she has no right to ask him for identification, because he hasn't done anything wrong or broken any laws, and is present in the building to pick up his kids. "What's the problem?" he asks at one point, and answers his own question: "The problem is I'm black." We can't see inside the heads of the people who called the police or the officers who showed up, but that seems like a highly relevant factor–it certainly wasn't unreasonable for him to reach that conclusion. 

His story about getting his kids wasn't merely plausible, given the man's age and the fact that there was a school right there–it was a story the female police officer shown at the beginning of the video or the male officer shown later could easily confirm. 

Lollie is also absolutely correct that no law required him to show an ID to police officers. As Flex Your Rights explains, "Police can never compel you to identify yourself without reasonable suspicion to believe you’re involved in illegal activity," and while 24 states have passed "stop and identify" statutes "requiring citizens to reveal their identity when officers have reasonable suspicion to believe criminal activity may be taking place," Minnesota isn't one of those states.

The female officer shown in the beginning of the video could easily have de-escalated the encounter by saying, "You're right, sir, you have every right to refuse to show me identification, and if you're just picking up your kids I'm so sorry to have bothered you. If you don't mind, I just want to walk with you to confirm that your story checks out so I can inform the 911 caller of their error. That way we can make sure this never happens again when you're just here to pick up your kids."

Or she could've said, "Sir, I totally see why this is confusing–a lot of people would think so. Let me try to explain. That totally looks like a public seating area, but it's actually private. Don't you think they should have a sign saying so? Calling me may seem like an overreaction, but technically they can ask you to leave. You're walking away now, so there's actually no problem as long as you're not going to go back. Are you? Okay, then we have no problem, have a wonderful day."  

This wasn't a high pressure, life-or-death situation. Is a bit of cordiality in service of calming things down too much to ask?

Her failure to do the right thing pales in comparison to the male police officer, who appears on the scene, abruptly informs the increasingly and understandably distraught father that he's going to jail–for what crime he does not say–and then, after the video goes black but audio coverage remains, proceeds to tase the man. "I didn't do anything wrong!" he cries, "I didn't break any laws and you tase me? That's assault!" Even after being tased, the man is incredulous that he will be arrested, and it's heartbreaking to listen as he realizes there will be no one to pick up his kids and that he'll perhaps miss work at a job that he needs to support them.

"Racist motherfuckers," he then tells the officers.

The City Pages explains what happened after the arrest. "The man was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and obstructing the legal process," they write, "but those charges were later dropped. On Twitter, the St. Paul PD's public information officers said no formal complaint has been filed in connection with the incident." A police administrator who sees that video, which Lollie's attorney brought to court, should not require a formal complaint from the victim to discipline the officers involved and acknowledge that they engaged in inept policing! 

Yet the police department–which held on to Lollie's phone, with the video on it, for 6 months–is defending the officers. "At one point, the officers believed he might either run or fight with them. It was then that officers took steps to take him into custody," a spokesperson said. "He pulled away and resisted officers' lawful orders. They then used the force necessary to safely take him into custody." Said the designated public employee union representative: "These three cops in the skyway, you couldn't get nicer individuals. This guy was acting like a jerk." 

That quote is via the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, which also interviewed Lollie. He was, he said, "trying my hardest to maintain my calm demeanor just because I know if I do anything outside of these bounds, they could really do some damage to me." He's right. "I really feel blessed I was in the skyway," he added. "If this had happened somewhere else, I might have ended up a little more hurt than I was." 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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