During a recent visit to South Bend (where my mother lives), I had a strange encounter with a shadowy figure in the late night. I arrived in town late, after 1 a.m. I was about a mile from my mother’s home when I spotted something by the side of the road that looked out of place. There aren’t any streetlights in this particular stretch of road—a five-lane road lined with houses and small businesses—but I could tell there was something piled on the curb just ahead of me that I didn’t recognize and didn’t fit in with the surrounding.
I slowed down as I approached so I could get a better look. It was what appeared to be an adult male, wearing dark clothes, seated by the curb. He was in someone’s front yard and had what appeared to be a large duffel bag by his side.
Confused, I kept driving, but my curiosity was piqued. Having lived and traveled through this area for my entire adult life, I knew this was definitely out of the ordinary. I turned around and made another pass to confirm what I was seeing. I even rolled down my window to get a better look. Sure enough, it was a person sitting in the shadows. He wasn’t moving. He was just sitting there. It struck me as creepy, odd, out-of-character behavior, so I did the responsible thing: I called the police.
I shared the location and description of the person with the dispatcher as well as where I was located (about 200 – 300 yards down the street in a dry cleaner’s parking lot). I told the dispatcher I couldn’t see the person any longer, as we was out of my line of sight. “I can’t tell if he’s injured, drunk, homeless or what,” I said to the dispatcher. “It just seems out of place and I thought I should call.”
I sat and waited as they sent a cruiser to investigate. Within five minutes a cop car rolls up to the cleaners and rolls down his window to talk to me. I share with the officer the unidentified person’s location and he took it from there.
I followed closely behind as the officer used his spotlight to see the shadowy figure. When the spotlight hit him, the person lifted his head. He was a bearded, white male wearing a hat.
Once the police officer arrived on the scene, I left. To my knowledge, nothing ever came of the situation. There were no news reports of shootings or other altercations in the days to follow. As far as I can tell, the situation was handled peacefully.
I’ve been curious to learn the outcome of that situation since that night. Was the person arrested? Was he just a homeless guy who needed to rest? I have no idea.
But here’s what I do know: my actions were correct and more in line with the proper response of a neighborhood watch person, whether officially appointed or thrust into action by circumstances. I did not engage. I did not get out of my vehicle and follow or investigate myself. I left that to the job of a police officer; someone who’s trained to address this sort of matter.
It is true I made immediate assumptions when I first saw the person sitting in the dark by the side of the road: drugs? Homeless? Drunk? Suspicious? Burglar? I think that’s a natural reaction when a person sees something that is out of place for the surroundings.
To that end, I can sympathize with George Zimmerman who, on the night of Feb. 26, ran through similar possibilities in his 911 call to report what turned out to be a teenage boy doing nothing other than walking to and from a convenience store.
Where I cannot sympathize with George Zimmerman is the moment he decided to pretend to be a cop and engage Trayvon Martin. That option never crossed my mind that night in South Bend when I called 911. At no point was I going to approach a stranger at 1 a.m., not even if I were armed (as was Zimmerman). There was no immediate danger or need for a person to act, so I didn’t. The same can be said of Zimmerman on that night he shot and killed Martin.
Too often, people argue Zimmerman reacted as any average person would’ve reacted. That is not true. He over-reacted. He chose to exit his vehicle and pursue Martin. He was not asked to do that. In fact, the 911 dispatcher advised him against it.
Prior to my 911 experience in South Bend, I already believed Zimmerman’s behavior to be wrong. After going through a similar situation—where I reacted solely on instinct and didn’t spend a great deal of time weighing options—I confirmed my belief. Had George Zimmerman done the right thing, we wouldn’t be talking about a dead teenager in Florida today.