Santa Monica's police chief Wednesday defended her officers and a 911 caller after a black executive claimed that, because of her race, she was detained as a burglary suspect at her own home.
Fay Wells wrote in a piece published by the Washington Post that she locked herself out of her apartment late one night in September and called a locksmith to get back inside. A neighbor -- whom Wells described as white -- called 911, reporting a burglary in progress. That triggered a response by at least 16 officers who detained Wells at gunpoint, according to her article.
Wells identified herself in the Post as a vice president of strategy for an unnamed California company.
The Santa Monica Police Department corroborated Wells' basic account in a statement issued after her piece was posted Wednesday. A spokesman said the department was investigating its officers' response.
Santa Monica police Chief Jacqueline A. Seabrooks said she could see all sides.
"As a Black woman born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, I empathize with Ms. Fay Wells and how the experience made her feel," Seabrooks said in a statement. "On the other hand, as an experienced law enforcement executive, I understand the Police Department’s response and the need for that response.”
Seabrooks said she could not fault the neighbor for reporting what he believed was a burglary.
"Put yourself in his place," Seabrooks said in her statement. "Ms. Wells is not wrong to feel as she does. Put yourself in her shoes. And, the Santa Monica Police Department’s response was not wrong. Put yourself in the officers’ shoes.”
In the Post, Wells wrote that when the police arrived, she was inside her apartment. She said she heard barking in the stairwell and opened the door to see a large dog halfway up the staircase. She went back inside and locked the door, she wrote. Hearing more barking, she approached the front window and asked what was going on.
“Peering through my blinds, I saw a gun," she wrote. "A man stood at the bottom of the stairs, pointing it at me. I stepped back and heard: 'Come outside with your hands up.' I thought: This man has a gun and will kill me if I don’t come outside."
Two police officers had guns trained on Wells and demanded to know who was inside, she wrote. She replied that she was alone and, with her hands raised, descended the stairs.
“I told the officers I didn’t want them in my apartment," she wrote. "I said they had no right to be there. They entered anyway. One pulled me, hands behind my back, out to the street. The neighbors were watching. Only then did I notice the ocean of officers. I counted 16."
Wells wrote that the police overreacted because she was black.
“It didn’t matter that I told the cops I’d lived there for seven months, told them about the locksmith, offered to show a receipt for his services and my ID,” she wrote. “It also didn’t matter that I didn’t match the description of the person they were looking for — my neighbor described me as Hispanic when he called 911. What mattered was that I was a woman of color trying to get into her apartment — in an almost entirely white apartment complex in a mostly white city — and a white man who lived in another building called the cops because he’d never seen me before me.”
She wrote that she demanded all of the officers' names and was given few. She said she later spoke to the neighbor and asked whether he was aware of the gravity of his actions. The neighbor replied that he was an attorney, used a profanity and walked away, she wrote.
Wells could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Seabrooks said her officers responded to a burglary in progress call at 11:16 p.m. ”with three subjects, a Latino male wearing dark hat and dark shirt and two girls, possibly Hispanic, wearing dark clothing.”
“Because of factors such as the time of night, the number of possible suspects, and the nature of the call, multiple officers responded directly to the location and to the general area,” Seabrooks said. “Based on what was reported by the 9-1-1 caller, in smaller communities, like Santa Monica, a response of this type is not uncommon.”
She acknowledged that Wells was detained at gunpoint and that officers took steps to verify her identity.
In the 911 call, the neighbor tells a dispatcher “the next-door neighbor just broke into an upstairs apartment with two other people with some sort of tools,” he said. “They’ve already got in. They have like a suitcase, a guy and two girls. He has some tools he was tapping on the lock.
"I don’t think this is some sort of crazy robbery but I need some cops over here right now,” the caller says.
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