A week before events related to the horrific killing of George Floyd, one of my law partners sent me an email saying this “has to stop.”

She was referring to events described by Kim Gatling, a black mother and prominent lawyer. Kim related that her black 16-year-old son, L.A., was stopped and frisked by police during L.A.’s run on the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway (as was first reported in Robin Adams Cheeley’s column, “Traumatic experiences of living while black continue,” on May 31).

According to the officers at the time of the stop, L.A. was stopped because he fit the description of someone who reportedly had been walking on Battleground Avenue with a toy gun.

But this was wrong. The actual 911 call reveals that the caller described the person as: 1) wearing a black shirt with red writing; 2) wearing blue jeans; and 3) Hispanic and “dark-skinned.” The toy gun was described as white, orange and “obviously plastic.”

Of all the descriptors given, the only one L.A. fit was “dark-skinned.”

L.A. was not wearing a black shirt with red writing.

He was not wearing blue jeans.

He is not Hispanic.

L.A. was not holding any toy gun or any white-and-orange object.

In a discussion between city staff leadership and the Gatlings, the city was given an opportunity to apologize for the obvious error. No apology was provided.

The city staff leaders argued that no law or city policies were violated and the city committed no errors.

They contended it was inconsequential that the very specific clothing description provided by the 911 caller did not match the clothing worn by L.A. because clothing can be removed or changed.

Staff leadership appeared to believe that skin tone alone, combined with an erroneous belief that this young man possessed something that matched the toy gun, was sufficient to warrant stopping and frisking L.A.

However, disregarding the actual description provided by the 911 caller would allow a police officer to stop virtually any person whose skin tone or color matched the description provided by the 911 caller.

This effectively elevates skin tone or color to a sole reason for a stop. That would mean the police could have stopped nearly every male with brown skin anywhere near where the person with the toy gun was seen.

We, as a city, must do better. That means working to ensure that persons are not needlessly stopped and frisked in accord with purported city policy, procedures and practices.

The city can and should:

  • Require that any persons stopped and frisked on the basis of 911 calls at least roughly match the descriptions provided on the calls beyond just skin tone or color.
  • Always provide any available physical description information to officers in addition to skin tone or color.
  • Recognize that what is legal is not always right.
  • And apologize when the city clearly errs, and in this case, it erred.

Moreover, it is important that our leadership understand that, regardless of skin tone or color, being stopped and frisked is not without consequences. For someone who is obeying the law and going about their daily business, it is an unusual and stressful event that has understandably lasting impacts on how that person will view his or her city and its government.

And tragically, such encounters can turn violent and deadly. It is critical that stops of citizens be based on complete and accurate information.

This unfortunate event does have one positive aspect: We can learn and improve.

On June 2, the City Council unanimously agreed to look at the issues related to this incident by June 16. Hopefully, better and fairer policies, procedures and practices will follow. This has to stop.

Justin Outling is a member of the Greensboro City Council who represents District 3.

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