Pulling Shotguns on Unarmed Teenagers

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I live in the small town of Carrboro, NC, not exactly a high crime area—which may explain the following situation in a messed up way:

When my brother was in high school, he watched a friend’s house while he and his parents were out of town. He was going to hang out with a few friends but needed to check on the animals, so he just had his friends meet him at the house. It was about 3-4 teenage boys, in the middle of the day, not really trying to hide the fact that they were going into the house.

I guess a neighbor called the police because she thought something looked suspicious. A few minutes later my dad was alerted to a whole lot of police cars down the block at the house my brother was watching. He went down there to find my brother and his friends sprawled out on the ground face down with shotguns pointed at their heads.

My brother probably shouldn’t have invited his friends over, but shotguns pointed at their heads seemed to be a bit of overkill. He is not exactly a confrontational person and all his friends complied with every order issued by the officers. Thankfully they were released once my dad got there and explained that my brother was supposed to be watching the house.

This was in a suburban neighborhood, in the middle of the day. It must have been a slow day for the police (again, this is not really a high crime area.) One officer could have easily drove by and assessed the situation before calling for backup. A whole squad of heavily armed police hardly seems necessary for a possible breaking & entering.

I wonder if it would have gone very differently were my brother and his friends not white.

If you’re not white and have a police encounter to share, please send us a note. Update from another reader, Richard Cranfill, who provides some local context for the story above:

Having also grown up in the sleepy little town of Carrboro, NC, I once witnessed an amazing drug bust that epitomized the entire city.

I was eating ice cream after lunch on a beautiful spring Wednesday and a poor Latino man in an old Chevy Astro van with a ladder roof rack parked in the middle of the downtown parking lot, sideways across two spaces. Looking nervous and talking into a phone, he was suddenly surrounded by six of Carrboro’s finest.

Carrboro’s high city taxes had paid for top-end Kevlar and beautiful new $1300 H&K UMP sub guns (double the cost of a standard AR patrol rifle) and their maneuvers, lines of fire were perfect and instructions were crisp and calm in English and Spanish. The team oddly had no vehicle. It must have been the drug mule’s first day, since he had parked half a block from the police station and in a panic, he froze and refused to comply with officer’s commands to kill the engine and show his hands.

At the crux of this tense standoff, the most perfect caricature of a northeastern hipster (20, WASP and Woke, with a perfectly dry cleaned Patagonia jacket and scarf tied the European way, in a half dozen knots) with his headphones in and YouTube streaming walked in a dead line through the scene, like tumbleweed in an cheap Western. The young hip man was so immersed in his phone, he didn’t notice he was walking between the windshield and a half-dozen barrels, and he did not hear any officer’s commands to stop as he calmly strode through the scene towards my bench without a care in the world. I flagged him down urgently as he passed me, but he didn’t look away from his phone as he said “Sorry, man, I don't have any change” as he walked by, never once aware of having nearly been shot.

Jeff Cooper would describe that situation as “Condition White,” which in essence means walking around so convinced of your own safety that you put yourself in needless danger.

Carborro is itself in “Condition White,” an idyllic town where the very liberal VPs and PhDs commute from RTP [Research Triangle Park] to live with the local hippies and get away from the stuffy progressives in Chapel Hill, which actually shares a main street and downtown. It’s a 15-minute ride to Durham, where the housing prices are low enough to allow for a black community with proud roots that has fallen on hard times; crime, inequality, hard drugs, and a private college with a basketball team are a scourge on the city.

The odd economic tensions between the idyllic life of Carrboro/Chapel Hill and the difficult problems in rapidly gentrifying Durham should be the stuff of intensive study, but it’s not mentioned much around town. As good registered Democrats, we’d like to think it’s an innate peace with all people that makes the “Paris of the Piedmont” a modern Mayberry, but with new homes starting at a half million we’ve merely outsourced most problems to a neighboring jurisdiction. We priced out crime, but it spills into town in shocking and odd ways.

The murders of three Muslim students by an angry local was the only shooting in town last year according to Slate’s gunshot tracker, but that was a devastating loss for the community. The UNC student body president Eve Carson was robbed and shot to death in 2008, and in 2014 a UNC professor was mugged and beaten to death with a rock during lunchtime.

There are a lot of daylight break-ins in local suburbs, since dual-earning power couples eat lunch in RTP. My parents have the only house on the block that hasn't been robbed in the past two years, and actually witnessed three men kick in our neighbor’s door and run out with computers while out on a walk. (Thankfully they have been caught and convicted.) This probably explains the over-response of Carrboro PD in the previous story where a pet-sitting teenager was flagged with a shotgun.