A mother suspected that a kid might shoot someone. So why didn't she phone the police?
Bellamy Shoffner says the realities of police violence can make the wrong decision feel like the right one
This story was originally published on June 7, 2019.
Bellamy Shoffner was getting ready to meet some clients for a photoshoot at a park in Charlottesville, Va. when she overheard a nearby black boy boasting that he had a gun.
"Of course I was shocked and I heard [his friends] say, 'No you don't.' And they kind of argued back and forth a little bit," Shoffner told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.
Shoffner guessed the boys were about 11- or 12-years-old.
"The one that claimed he had a gun was… saying he was going to shoot this other kid," she recalled.
'I thought: Should I call the police?'
Shoffner says there were two other people in the park at the time — a toddler and her dad, who was distracted by his phone and didn't appear to notice what was taking place.
Soon after, another group of pre-teen boys arrived, with the alleged gun-holder's target among them.
"They showed up and there were a lot of curse words and it was very intense," Shoffner said. "I thought: Should I call the police? If this kid really has a gun I should definitely call the police."
Shoffner says her fingers hovered over her bag, on the verge of reaching for her phone. In the end, she didn't make the call.
Making the wrong choice for the right reasons
As a Charlottesville, Va. resident, Shoffner says she's keenly aware of police attitudes towards black people — young black people in particular.
According to the Charlottesville Police Department, more than half of arrests between 2014 and 2019 were of black people, who make up just 19 per cent of the Charlottesville population. In 2017, the city made international headlines after white supremacists gathered for the 'Unite the Right' rally.
Shoffner says these realities all informed her choice not to dial 911, along with the still-fresh memory of the 2014 fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
"I'd watched the video of Tamir Rice's murder multiple times," Shoffner said.
"I was so paralyzed by the intensity and the harshness of the officer who just shot him without any regard for his humanity or the fact that he was a whole person and someone's son… The choices that were made that led up to that replayed in my mind. Because someone called the police. They called 911."
As the mother of black boys herself, Shoffner says she couldn't bear to think she might be the reason for another death like Rice's. But she's careful to point out the ambiguities of the situation.
"I don't believe all police officers are racist. I don't believe all police officers would act in that manner. But the fear that I could make a choice that would end up that way was really overpowering for me."
'Any one of us could've been shot that day'
"I continue to feel like I made the wrong choice," Shoffner reflected, two years after the incident. "I think that I would make that choice again, but I still think it's the wrong thing to do. And I still think I should've called this police, which is quite confusing."
Shoffner says various worst case scenarios still cross her mind sometimes.
"That this teen shot the person he was angry with… or that one of the other [kids] got a hold of the gun and multiple teenagers got shot. But also there was myself and the man and his toddler daughter and we were far apart, but still — there was nothing protecting us and so any one of us could've been shot that day."
Fortunately, none of them were.
"Everyone walked away. Everyone got home safely as far as I know. And I don't know that that would've been the case had I made what I consider the right decision and called the police."
This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Support Systems".