Photo by PoPville flickr user John Sonderman
While enjoying a picnic with 3 other friends at Picnic Area 16 in Rock Creek Park on the 4th of July, I witnessed and had a disturbing interaction with U.S. Park Police. First, I watched as two officers pulled up at the picnic grounds next to ours, about 80 yards away, where a Hispanic family was peacefully enjoying the holiday afternoon. The two white officers jumped out of their SUV and immediately started rifling through the bags and coolers of the family (in front of their young children, no less). We watched quietly from our table, troubled but silent. After the officers appeared to take some items from the family and place them in their truck, they then drove quickly across the grass toward the table where we were picnicking.
The officer driving, stepped out of his truck and as he walked toward us, said, “This is my 24th 4th of July spent away from my family.” It was obvious that he intended to let us know that he was in a foul mood and that we were required to have a respectful attitude toward him if we wanted this interaction to end well. He made reference to smelling alcohol in the air (all the more unbelievable since he drove over from a distance of about 80 yards) and said that it was weird that we were drinking out of mason jars on the picnic table.
We didn’t know how to respond because it was obvious that we were drinking water from the jars as there was a bottle of water on our table and the jars were filled with that water. Also on the table was some cheese, bread and our baseball gloves (we had just finished playing catch, which is why we were drinking water). He then put his foot up on the picnic table and intimated that we might be doing something illegal, while his partner circled our table, searching the grounds and peaking around our bags (presumably for alcohol). This was all taking place in the middle of the afternoon, out of the blue, with no apparent reason.
They did not search our belongings the way they did with the Hispanic family (we were a predominately white group in our mid-to-late thirties), which also made me even more suspicious of the officers earlier actions. When one of my friends spoke up, asking what the officers intent was and why they were acting in such an aggressive manner to 4 adults enjoying an afternoon picnic, the officer threatened my friend with ARREST. He said something to the effect of “I’ve already brought a couple people down to the station today, so if you want to keep up with that attitude I can bring a few more.” After that we remained quiet and cordial so that our pleasant picnic didn’t end in being hauled away to jail and so the officers would leave us be, which they eventually, thankfully did.
We sat in shock for quite sometime, unable to process what had just taken place. There was no reason to suspect we had done anything wrong and clearly, as the officers eventually left us alone, they obviously agreed. Also, as we were the closest table the Hispanic family, I can attest that they had not been causing any disturbance and I can’t understand how it was legal for the police to just jump out and start going through their things. Also, they obviously took items from that family, presumably alcohol, but they didn’t charge them with anything, which also seems bizarre. As we no longer felt welcome in the park, we gathered our suspicious mason jars and drove home.
Later that evening I called the District 3 Police Station in Rock Creek Park to report the incident and file a complaint. I was put through to talk to the sergeant on duty. I told him what had occurred and that I wanted to file a complaint. The sergeant on the other end of the phone told me that he was ‘taken aback’ because he was in fact the officer involved in what I described. He told me that I was lying about the facts of what happened and that it was impossible for him to file a complaint against himself. I then asked to speak to his superior and he slammed down the phone.
I filed another complaint by email earlier this afternoon but wanted to spread word of this encounter. I’m sure there are other supervisors I could call, but after the very officer who accosted us (apparently the sergeant there) was the one who took my call, called me a liar and hung up on me, my confidence that any action will be taken is pretty low. This, after all, comes just a couple of weeks after the Park Police handcuffed African American teenagers for selling water on the mall.
If this is how U.S. Park Police interact, particularly a sergeant, with visitors just enjoying the grounds peacefully, then I advise caution in Rock Creek Park. As that sergeant is the one who takes the complaints, it’s all the more obvious that there is no recourse for any abuse they dish out. That’s terrifying. That this happened on a day when we are supposed to celebrating our freedom as Americans is all the more troubling. Be careful out there.