No different 

We were leaving Southwest Little Rock heading north on Interstate 30. There were four of us — four black male teenagers. I was in the backseat. There was a BB gun that resembled a handgun inside the car. One of the passengers waved the gun around, making it visible to any car that passed us on I-30. It was supposed to be a joke. The passenger then pointed the gun at the driver as if he were acting out a hostage situation. The driver played along. This pantomime only lasted for a few seconds. By the time we made it to the river bridge, the joke had ended and the BB gun was no longer in sight.

We did not know that someone had called 911. I can only assume that the person told the operator, "I just saw a hostage situation on I-30 involving four black males. One of them had a gun."

After we crossed the river bridge, we noticed the lights and sirens of what seemed like three or four police cars. We pulled over near the I-30/I-40 split. The officers immediately exited their cars with their weapons drawn. I vividly remember hearing them say, "Get your hands up! Get your hands up!" I complied. As they circled the vehicle they yelled: "Where is the gun?" and "Who has the gun?" With their guns still pointed at us, the officers then instructed us to slowly exit the vehicle. We complied. We were eventually handcuffed while sitting on the side of the road, as they removed the BB gun from the vehicle. The officers contacted our parents and the officers instructed us on the danger and stupidity of our actions. We knew that we were about to receive the worst punishment ever from our parents, but we were uninjured and alive.

I do not remember those officers. In fact, I do not remember if they were with the Little Rock Police Department or Arkansas State Police, but I do know that they handled a terrible situation appropriately. In a manner of moments, they evaluated and de-escalated the situation. To be clear, there is no question that our actions were objectively wrong, but they did not justify injury or death.

After learning of the Stephon Clark story, one of the more recent examples of an unarmed black man being a victim in a police-involved shooting, I do not know if I would be uninjured or alive if that situation happened today. Because of the growing number of these types of incidents, I'm sharing my experience for two reasons. First, I want to be clear to anyone who knows me that I wasn't much different from those individuals identified in the unfortunate headlines in your Facebook and Twitter feeds. As I've said before, I wasn't different; my opportunities were. So irrespective of the labels I have or will obtain and irrespective of the circles I have or will enter, years ago I could have been the subject of the story of a black male injured or killed in an officer-involved shooting. Who knows what labels or titles would have been obtained by Stephon Clark, Michael Brown, Travyon Martin or Tamir Rice if the police handled their situations in the same way those officers handled mine.

Second, our police departments should have ongoing cultural and de-escalation training requirements. I know that the LRPD has started in this direction. For example, it was recently reported that the department will continue its annual diversity training for 2018. The training will culminate in a "Culture IQ" test. This is encouraging, but as an attorney I'm required to obtain continuing legal education hours to maintain my law license; otherwise I could face suspension or a fine. With regard to cultural competency and de-escalation tactics, police officers should have a similar duty to obtain annual training hours to remain on duty. This is essential to ensure that officers are prepared to handle complicated and dangerous situations (such as a report of four teenagers with a gun) and resolve those situations without incident.

Obviously, the officers who encountered my three friends and me handled the situation correctly, and I'm forever grateful. This type of training and the mandate of independent investigations of police-involved shootings would not only turn the page, but start a new chapter in community-police relationships.

Antwan Phillips is a lawyer with the Wright Lindsey Jennings firm.


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