In the middle of May I came home from work to find a police officer talking to two of my neighbors. I made eye contact with one of the neighbors as I exited my car and was brought into the conversation. The police had been called due to a verbal altercation between my teenage neighbor and an acquaintance of his, however the teenager was nowhere to be seen, having already gone back into his house.
I live on what a novelist might describe as a “quiet, tree-lined street in wealthy suburbia.” We are a majority democratic county, and I, like most of my neighbors vote blue, very blue. My social justice beliefs run deep, and while I rarely have time to work for those ideals, I hold them close, including some strong thoughts about criminal justice. I try to at least understand the other side of the story, but struggle with what sometimes appears to be a lack of compassion from the right.
So, back to that day in May. Many things were said that day. An insinuation was made that the young man was up to no-good because they had an expensive car and lived in a townhouse (the previous occupants, a family of Asian heritage also drove an expensive car, but the new residents were black). I was incredibly angry with the assertion. I admitted that the young man smoked marijuana and that we had conversed about that activity around my children and come to a neighborly agreement, which he mostly complied with. The officer asked me to call if I saw anything suspicious, including pot smoking. I refused and he followed up by saying that the were “watching” the young man in question, and almost gleefully pointed out that he would be 18 in weeks. Disgusted with my neighbors for making assumptions, the officer for appearing to celebrate the birthday of this young person so he could be treated as an adult in the justice system, and myself for even engaging in the conversation, I went into my own house and closed the door.
Over the next couple of days I had the opportunity to speak with a mid-level officer with the police department, and I complained. I complained that assumptions were being made, I complained that the officer was so excited about the upcoming birthday, I was full of self-righteous anger. And then I shared the story with my teenage sons, who let me know I might be wrong to give the neighbor as much leeway as I was giving him. That perhaps I should pay more attention to his parking lot visitors, and not be so willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when the smell coming from those visitors’ cars was nothing like the smell of marijuana.
I was still not ready to indict him. He was a child, even at 18. I believe in the developing brain, I have an 18-year-old, he is not in any way an adult. I don’t believe in a justice system that forever brands a person a criminal because of what they do when they are 18 or 19, or even 30 if the situation calls for it. I began to question not what the neighbor was doing, but what anybody was doing to redirect him when his brain is still developing when he still had time to choose a different path. I don’t believe that anything was being done.
I still did not feel unsafe. I had a decent relationship with him and with his mother. We exchanged pleasantries and greetings as we came and went. I now saw the activity more clearly and I worried for him, but I never called the police. I didn’t see what was going on in the cars, I didn’t know what the smells coming from the cars were. I was not going to ruin this young person’s life over suspicion. I was raised in a pretty racist environment, I feared I had unconscious bias and I was determined to rise above. I continued to go about my business as though there was nothing going on, and I was okay.
In mid-October, I was woken by a loud band and yelling. I looked out my window to observe a Tactical team raid on the home, in progress. I watched for a bit, but like many nights before I was not sure I wanted to know. My bubble was being infiltrated by something bigger than I imagined. In the morning, I spoke with neighbors, none of whom had seen what I saw. I asked the police department for confirmation that it had happened, and I was reassured that I was not imagining it.
The young man was gone for a couple of days and then he returned. The neighbors whispered about an ankle monitor, but I did not see it, I did not see him. All was quiet in the parking lot at night. It was over. I was wrong, though. Less than 2 weeks after the raid he started having visitors at his door. Then, again, he was making trips to the parking lot. That was the first time I contacted the police. If what was going on over there was so dangerous that they needed a tactical team to enter the home, then how safe was I? How safe were my children? I made phone calls and sent e-mails until I was contacted by somebody who had some answers. There were words like “low-level”, “not dangerous for you and your family”, “eviction”, thrown around. To be honest, I still didn’t know his name. Its hard to admit that they have been my neighbors for more than a year, but I don’t know their names, but there it is. I didn’t want them to be evicted, I wanted the activity to stop.
Ironically, I had purchased a new Ring camera that was set to arrive on October 23. When it arrived I set it up, and the vigilance left me feeling more unsafe than ever before. A few days later the notifications were blasting my phone over and over while I was at work. I finally picked up my phone and saw half a dozen police cars in front of my house. I made quick calculations about where my children were supposed to be that day, at my house or their dad’s. I texted my new contact in the police department and asked for information. I had the dispatcher send a message to the officers knocking on my door that was not home.
A detective called me back and asked me if I would provide the video from my camera for that afternoon. I agreed. He asked me if I could come home so he could download it from my laptop, I agreed (they are not very tech-savvy, I have to say).
I came home, I spoke with the detectives and others who let me know that there was a home invasion. They didn’t say much more, but I saw the police report the next day. A partially masked, armed man had entered the home and demanded cash and drugs. He left out the back door. I now knew the name of the young man who lived in the home and I checked him out on Maryland Case Search. He had first been charged as an adult at 16 years of age for home invasion, firearm possession, and other felony and misdemeanor charges. I learned that the mid-October raid was related to an incident in February when he was still 17, and also involved firearms charges and multiple other felony and misdemeanor charges. I struggled with my belief that his juvenile record should not be open to the public, and my new desire to know everything I needed to know to keep my family safe.
His family added lights and cameras to their home, but he was not deterred. The activity moved out of range of their cameras, not always out of range of mine.
This is the moment when the real personal battle began. I had to do something, but I knew that all of the things I would do would be engaging with a justice system I think is broken. We have no other one to work with though. There appeared to be no other option. I began making phone calls to anybody who would listen. I contacted state and local officials, police department representatives, and a neighbor I knew of, but didn’t know, but who I knew to be politically connected.
He was arrested again. His home was searched again. He was let out on bail again. He was active in the parking lot last night again.
I don’t believe in juveniles being treated as adults, but I am glad that I know that I should be leery of guns, and warn my children to steer clear.
I don’t believe in cash bail, but I don’t want him out of confinement.
I don’t believe in holding the accused without serious cause, but I don’t want him next door anymore.
I don’t believe in wholesale eviction, but I want them to move.
How have we, as a society known for at least 2 years that there was a problem, yet not had any options to redirect him? I can’t help but imagine that his hopes of getting a job are greatly diminished by a public juvenile record. I feel awful that soon his mother, and other members of his family, might not have a home. I see so little hope for him in the short term. At the same time I am scared. I no longer feel comfortable walking my dog after work, or taking her outside for her late-night potty break before bed, although I still do. I am terrified that my children’s dad will find out and try to get full custody, and I wonder at times if I shouldn’t just suggest it until this all works out.
I firmly believe that the ability to hold two conflicting thoughts as true is part of what makes humans so special, in this case I believe that our criminal justice system is broken, and I want it to do more to make me feel safe.