Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Racist or righteous? ‘Asinine’ mall incident leaves police chief shaking his head

Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll called it “asinine all the way around.”

Asinine, because a 20-something African American man sat smoking marijuana in the Vintage Faire Mall parking lot one morning in December. Until further notice or unless the person has a medical marijuana card, that remains illegal.

Asinine, because an off-duty Ripon police officer, with his wife and daughter in tow and packing his firearm, made a comment about the strong pot odor.

Asinine, because the young man heard the comment, got out of his car and verbally confronted the officer, who warned him he could be arrested for smoking pot.

Asinine, because their argument – carried out in front of the officer’s wife and daughter and the young man’s girlfriend – escalated to the point where the girlfriend stepped in to calm the young man down and he shoved her away.

Asinine, because the officer then – according to a report filed by Modesto police officers who responded to calls made by both parties – told the young man he could be arrested on a domestic violence charge.

Asinine, because the cop identified himself as an off-duty officer and, depending upon which side you believe, either pulled back his shirt to show his weapon or drew the pistol and pointed it directly at the man.

Asinine, if the officer really did refer to the African American man as “boy” and demanded to be called “sir,” as the young man and his girlfriend claimed.

Asinine, because an incident that might have led to a misdemeanor pot possession charge – a citation – or perhaps a DUI could have turned absolutely ugly and even deadly, as has happened in incidents involving white cops and unarmed African American males many times across the country in recent years.

“On both sides,” Carroll said. “What if they get into a (physical) fight and the off-duty officer shoots the kid? The national headlines would read, ‘White off-duty cop shoots unarmed African-American kid for smoking marijuana at the mall.’ And as for the kid, why did you get out of your car and challenge someone?”

Their confrontation ended when the young man got back into his car and drove to the other side of the mall, driving under the influence in the process.

The incident prompted meetings or conversations involving Carroll, the Rev. James Anderson and the Rev. Darius Crosby of the local clergy council, the young man, his parents and Ripon police Chief Ed Ormonde. A Ripon police official said only that an investigation is ongoing and could not comment otherwise.

Anderson and Crosby met with The Bee’s Editorial Board on Wednesday to talk about the recent online video in which Central Catholic High School students made death threats to an African American student, which led to their arrests and suspensions from the schools. The mall incident came up during the course of the conversation.

Anderson and Crosby speak glowingly of their relationship with Carroll, who will often contact them when an African American is involved in some kind of incident to present them with the facts of the case known at the time. What concerns Carroll, Anderson and Crosby alike was the potential volatility of the mall situation, and how easily it could have blown up on all involved.

“How quickly,” Carroll said, “a small situation can turn into a national-type event. We have the clergy council for this very reason – to have a direct conduit to navigate through these situations.”

They trust each other. But the fact remains they react to an incident after the fact, as was the case with the mall episode.

“It’s why you build relationships,” Carroll said. “I spent a couple of hours with his parents, who were obviously upset. If you’re an African American mom and dad and the national stories are regularly about officers shooting unarmed (African Americans), and you get a call saying an officer pointed a gun at your unarmed kid, you’re going to get alarmed.”

There is no known video of the confrontation itself. The MPD officers who responded, though, wore body cams and recorded video of their respective interviews with the young man and the off-duty officer.

“I have the benefit of watching video,” Carroll said. “I have the benefit of being an observer, and that is the great reason I love body cams.”

The interview videos, as you might expect, offer totally conflicting versions of the officer’s actions beyond what precipitated the conflict.

The bottom line, Carroll said, is that it didn’t need to happen at all. The young man should know that smoking pot, until further notice, is not legal in California and to stay in the car and not get confrontational when someone mentions smelling it. Isn’t that stuff supposed to make you, like, chill out?

The off-duty officer, if he believed the young man was breaking the law and likely to drive under the influence, could have easily continued walking and then called in Modesto police to handle it. He didn’t need to subject his wife and daughter to the scene and certainly the young man in the car of whom he knew nothing. And considering the other incidents nationwide involving unarmed African American men and off-duty cops, the issue of race was bound to come into play regardless of his intent.

“Stupid all the way around,” Carroll said.