The Ricky Williams Incident


Photo Courtesy: YouTube (Video Below)

This is a very good teaching point and several of you have asked about it and I truly appreciate you asking. As usual, it is long, but complicated issues take time to explain.

The problem with people is that neither side can relate to each other. People aren’t informed as to why officers do what they do and they immediately begin to interpret the actions of officers from their civilian point of view. White citizens, who can’t understand the racism that blacks deal with don’t understand why blacks get so defensive and assume everything is racist.

It appears that the officers were responding to a suspicious person call. These calls absolutely suck. They suck because the possibilities of what could be going on are always endless. I haven’t seen the call sheet, but these officers stated that they received a call about a suspicious person in or near a person’s backyard and thought that the person might possibly be stealing. As soon as you civilians read that, you immediately get upset because you immediately begin to put yourself in that situation. You immediately begin to think about how pissed you would be if you were questioned under these circumstances. The reason you would be pissed is because you have the luxury of knowing that YOU HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG. When actual criminals are questioned, they pretend to be insulted just like a person who actually is innocent. The officer has no way of knowing.

I could write a novel about the officers shot/ killed under circumstances similar to Ricky’s incident. I could also write a novel about all the black men who were innocent, yet someone called the police to question their existence. Sometimes citizens call 911 because they are racist, because they are scared, because someone actually looks suspicious, or they actually committed a crime. There is nothing wrong with calling the police “just to make sure.” The reason that black people are so frustrated when they hear an officer tell them that they are simply there in response to a suspicious person call is because it happens to US ALL THE TIME. Many black people go through their whole lives dealing with white people who constantly “just want to make sure” that we are legitimately in a location that we have a right to be. This is frustrating to us all. I have doctor friends who wear white coats in the hospital and white people still need to see identification multiple times. I go to jails where staff members make up fake rules because they want to make a copy of my identification although I am standing next to white officers and no one ever asks them to do the same. I had the police called on me while standing in CVS talking on my phone. People have called the police on black men for driving cars that someone assumed they could not have owned because it was a luxury vehicle. I have been asked for my police identification, wearing full warrant gear, in a police Tahoe, enroute to serve a warrant, because the officer “just wanted to make sure.” Most white people can’t imagine going through this every damn day. Because you don’t see it and it doesn’t happen to you, you can’t understand why black people snap, get loud and defensive because these things happen to me and others like me every day. I watch my white co-workers walk up to people every day and they simply tell people that they are the police and everyone starts following instructions, without showing identification. I walk up to people with my badge showing, identification in my hand with a smile, let them hold my identification up to the light, they call the police station to ask if I really work there, ask if they can make a copy of my ID, look me up and down for 30 seconds, ask me my supervisor’s name all before I can even get them to greet me. It is tiring.

To my black people…
It is not the officer’s fault that someone called the police “just to make sure.” It may be frustrating, embarrassing and insulting, but the officer has the right to do his job. The officer has no way of knowing if the person is calling in a false or legitimate incident. This is why policing is so complicated. Officers have to sift through all of this information in order to find the truth.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the way that these officers handled this encounter. They asked Ricky to approach their vehicle and stand right in front of the camera. They were not trying to hide anything. They asked if they could “pat him down” so that they could check him for weapons. Again, most black people immediately get insulted at this request because of the history, but it is a legitimate request. If an officer receives a call for just about anything, the officer has the right to “Terry Frisk” the person, which is a non-invasive check for weapons (Terry v. Ohio). That does not mean that an officers can manipulate items within your pocket. That does not mean that he can go inside the pocket, pull out a bag of weed and then claim that he was checking for weapons and knew that he felt some weed in a person’s pocket. A Terry Frisk is to check for weapons that could hurt the officer. It is not to find a bag of cocaine taped to a guy’s testicles.

After the officer began to Terry Frisk Ricky, the officer asked if he could check inside of Ricky’s pockets and Ricky said that he could. That is when the officer went inside of his pockets. There is nothing wrong with that situation.

“Why did they keep talking to him for so long? I felt like they were harassing him.”

The reason that they talked to him was because one officer was checking him to see if he had any warrants. Officers can do this by the computer inside of their vehicle or call the dispatcher and ask that they check to see if the person has warrants. Many officers have access to their police report systems in their vehicles as well. An officer might check to see if there have been any other incidents where the person was suspected or arrested for similar offenses. They may check to see if the person has been to jail before. If the person has been to jail, an officer wants to know if the person has been arrested for similar offenses. All of this takes a few minutes. The other officers are simply there to watch the person while the other officer is checking to see if the person has warrants. They are talking to him to pass time. Ricky initiated most of the conversation because he was frustrated with the situation in general. They weren’t just holding him there to be jerks. The officers actually did a good job of trying to explain to him why he was stopped and etc. One of them said that his story makes sense because he had a hotel key. The other officers were just waiting on the initial officer to finish checking him on the computer so that they could let him go. This temporary detention was not inappropriate.

“Why is it necessary for so many officers to show up? Isn’t that for intimidation?”

No. Studies have shown that suspects are more likely to shoot at a single officer than they are when multiple officers are on scene. I have had several guys tell me that they were going to shoot at us, but decided against it because my team travels 10 deep. It is a fact. This fact keeps officers safe, but causes fear and frustration to citizens. To be blunt, officers don’t care how it makes people feel because our safety comes first, as officers are tasked with doing these dangerous things every day. Our safety comes first because we are on the streets constantly encountering people and it is a matter of time before we approach someone who actually has a gun. The additional officers are also watching his hands and etc. as the contact officer is unable to do so. The more officers the better. If an officer is in the neighborhood and hears another officer handling an incident close by, typically, the other officer will go cover the initial officer. Two officers might be close by and they both may go cover. There isn’t a set number of officers who can respond to a call. Many of the officers killed addressed calls on their own. When the dispatcher attempted to call them on the radio, there was no one there to respond. Officers rushed to their location to find them slumped over in their vehicle. One officer might talk to the dispatcher, one may be in the car doing research. The others may be watching the person to make sure that they don’t reach for anything or run.

Why did they make him turn around and interlock his fingers? They are just trying to embarrass him.

There are various techniques and reasons why officers do this. If you search youtube for videos where officers have been shot by suspects, you will see how quickly a person produces a gun and shoots. It can happen in less than 1 second. If you add on time for an officer to process what is occurring, it can be 5 seconds or more before an officer can respond to the situation. You frequently hear me say that “actions beat reactions.” The suspect has the upper hand in that he knows what he is about to do and the odds are stacked against the officers because he is trying to anticipate the actions of another. That is why things like tense arms, raised voice, stiff legs, saying “huh” too many times when asked simple questions and a laundry list of other things that people do when they are getting ready to run or try to harm an officer. The officer asked Ricky to face away from him because when a person in searched from the front, they can observe the search. If a person knows they have a gun in their front right pocket, the person can anticipate that he will get caught when he observes the officer reach in that direction. This causes people to run, fight or whatever. This is why officers ask people to walk backwards so that the person can’t anticipate what the officer’s next action might be. He asked him to interlock his fingers because he has to unlock his fingers before he can make another move. The more steps a person has to make, the more time the officer has to respond to whatever threat the person might present. That is why officers ask people to sit on the ground, spread your legs, lock your knees, put your hands on top of your head, interlock your fingers, look away from me and etc. If a person has a gun, they would have to uncross their fingers before reaching for it. These are all techniques for safety, not embarrassment.

Ricky was the first one to mention race. He said something like “I am just a black man trying to go for a walk.” Clearly he was upset that he was dealing with the police and that the presumption was made that he was doing something criminal. It sucks, but it is the officer’s job to investigate. Criminals do not wear name tags acknowledging themselves as criminals. They are really good at blending in with regular people. I can’t tell you how many times criminals start telling a story and then they start running away. The law provides for officers to do a reasonable investigation and that is what happened to Ricky, although it doesn’t make the innocent person feel any better.

Ricky is rich. He doesn’t have to steal. Don’t they know who he is?

Cowboys running back Joseph Randle was rich too, but he was caught stealing from the mall. Winona Ryder is rich and she was arrested for stealing from the mall. Who knows why people do the things that they do. His celebrity status is irrelevant as people from all walks of life steal.

Obviously Ricky didn’t have any warrants because they let him go. Ricky had a hotel key in his pocket and his story made sense, which the officer told him. They didn’t find a criminal history of theft or anything else that gave any merit to the caller’s story. Maybe the caller was racist. Maybe the caller wasn’t sure so he called anyway. Maybe the caller has had tools stolen from his house before so he called anyway. Ricky said that he saw a tape measure and put it in the yard or something and that did sound a little strange, but still a logical answer. The officers were doing their jobs.

Imagine if these officers approached a person and left immediately after the person verbally told them that he didn’t do anything wrong. What would happen to these officers if they didn’t check this person and he killed his girlfriend 30 minutes later? What if the guy had a warrant and the officers could have prevented a murder if they would have just done their job and checked him? The family of the victim would sue the city citing that the officers should have done their jobs and they would be correct. EVERYONE says that they aren’t doing anything wrong. EVERYONE. Officers don’t have the liberty to just walk away because someone states that they are innocent. It is difficult to process things from an officer’s perspective because it isn’t your reality.

This is why education is desperately needed on these issues. People on both sides of these issues have valid concerns and it is understandable why there is so much confusion. All of these issues are intricately woven together and will take effort from everyone to continue to explain things to each other.

If you have a question, please ask. Someone else probably has the same question. If you are an officer, don’t insult someone for asking a question. If someone responds with the infamous “just be compliant,” don’t insult them for not understanding what blacks deal with every day. We have to teach each other.

You can view the encounter with Ricky Williams below.

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Chelsea Whitaker is a Dallas Area Police Officer and member of the 2005 Baylor Bear Basketball Team that won the National Championship. Her desire is to give others #perspective in order to #bridgethegap. She is a frequent contributor to Law Officer.




  1. Famj Jensen

    While I don’t agree with your assessment of whats necessary, I appreciate your even handed approach to all sides of the issue. I agree that it is complex and is an almost unsolvable problem. Thanks for writing this!

  2. ahaz

    While I appreciate Chelsea’s attempt to add perspective, all she really ends up doing is being an apologist for bad police behavior. Any one of us can think us a hundred reasons why we act they way we do, but the bottom line is that police need to do their jobs within the bounds of the law and constitution. Unfortunately the SCOTUS has been complicit with many of the offensive actions take today. Officers have been allowed to lie to us legally, can stop us illegally and still use evidence collected against us in a court of law, officers don’t even have to know the law they are charged with enforcing. Why would or should the public trust the police? We have a long way to go to fix these errors.

  3. Theron Keller

    Quote from article:

    “If an officer receives a call for just about anything, the officer has the right to “Terry Frisk” the person, which is a non-invasive check for weapons (Terry v. Ohio).”

    Quote from the Terry v. Ohio ruling, Chief Justice Earl Warren writing for the court:

    “Our evaluation of the proper balance that has to be struck in this type of case leads us to conclude that there
    must be a narrowly drawn authority to permit a reasonable search for weapons for the protection of the police officer, where he has reason to believe that he is dealing with an armed and dangerous individual, regardless of whether he has probable cause to arrest the individual for a crime. (392 U.S. at 27)”

    Please identify for us the specific aspect of this case that provided the responding officers with the articulable reason to suspect that Mr. Williams was a “dangerous individual.” Your flippant description of “Terry Frisk” above, certainly seems insufficient considering the original definition of the concept from the US Supreme Court.

    • ahaz

      The complete cynic in me would state there was none except for the color of his skin. But the real reason is that what the officers did is pretty much standard behavior because we all know officer safety trumps the constitution….end sarcasm.

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