When police in Rialto, California, received a report of three black women carrying luggage out of a suburban home, they responded with a show of force that included several cruisers and a helicopter.
The women were merely checking out of their Airbnb.
Video of the incident posted to social media accounts by one of the women shows a number of police cars surrounding a black SUV. In a Facebook post, Kells Fyffe-Marshall says seven cop cars surrounded the vehicle and shut down the street as she and her friends were trying to leave.
"The officers came out of their cars demanding us to put our hands in the air," Fyffe-Marshall writes. (She does not say whether any guns were drawn.) "They informed us that there was also a helicopter tracking us. They locked down the neighborhood and had us standing in the street."
Why the aggressive response? In the video, one of the police officers can be heard explaining that a neighbor reported "three black people stealing stuff. Like breaking into the house and stealing stuff."
After being told that they were only removing their own luggage from the house, the cop admits, "That's possible, but you never know."
Fyffe-Marshall says it took more than 45 minutes to resolve the misunderstanding, during which time the police accused them of lying and claimed they had never heard of Airbnb before. Even after being presented with booking confirmations and even after talking to the owner of the house on the phone, the police continued to detain the three women for what they said was a "felony charge."
"We have been dealing with different emotions and you want to laugh about this but it's not funny. The trauma is real. I've been angry, fustrated and sad," Fyffe-Marhsall wrote. "This is insanity."
Did race play a role here? Fyffe-Marshall thinks so. She calls the incident "racial profiling" and suggests that a group of white women would not have had the cops called on them in the first place. The evidence suggests that she has a point, though we don't have the benefit of knowing why the neighbor acted as she did, or whether the cops would have more quickly admitted their mistake after confronting a group with skin of a different color.
But whether or not racism was at work, this was a clear case of institutionalized paranoia. The neighbor who called the cops was doing exactly what all those "see something, say something" ads are always reminding us to do: assume the worst about a seemingly innocuous event. Nosy neighbors have been around for as long as human beings have lived in communities, but now they are encouraged to do more than gossip.
Meanwhile, the cops' response—seven cars and a freaking helicopter—shows that a police department ready to go head-to-head with dangerous thieves engaged in a brazen daylight robbery. There was no attempt to ascertain whether the phone call was legitimate, no apparent procedure to have a patrol car check out the scene and call for backup if needed. These police go straight from zero to 100 at the drop of hat. This is the same mentality that has SWAT teams beating down doors to deliver warrants and officers diving out of their cars, guns drawn, to confront a child with a toy. Call in the helicopter, because every possible threat must be treated like the most serious one ever faced. It's easy to imagine how the incident could have spiraled into something more tragic.
It's a bit crazy to suggest that these officers deserve any credit for only detaining three people for 45 minutes and calling in a helicopter, rather than just killing someone. But if this is typical police work in Rialto, that may be where we are.
Update: Marie Rodriguez, the 45-year-old woman who owns the home Fyffe-Marshall was renting via Airbnb, tells Reason there was a fourth person—a Canadian man—staying there last week. As for the police response, Rodriguez says she does not believe it was overly aggressive.
"They were just doing their job," Rodriguez says.