I called Rich Wilson two days after George Floyd was killed as a white police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’m alive,” he said.
There was no irony in his voice. Wilson, like Floyd, is a black man in America. He fears interactions with police officers, even though he used to be one. A month ago, he had such an interaction in Bellefontaine Neighbors.
Wilson is a private investigator and a process server. His business is based in Clayton. He lives in Illinois. On April 20, he was trying to serve a summons that had been issued by the St. Louis County Circuit Court. He tracked the car of the woman he was seeking to her mother’s house and spent some time in the neighborhood staking the place out, waiting for the right time to serve the summons.
The mother of the woman he was trying to serve called the police. As the Bellefontaine Neighbors police officer was in front of the house talking to the woman, Wilson approached to try to serve the summons, but the police officer stopped him.
The police officer, by the way, is black. This is not a story about racism, but about aggressive over-policing and what that can lead to.
“Stop right there,” Officer Brian Rayford told Wilson. The mother came out and identified Wilson as somebody who had served her with a summons about a week ago.
“I need to figure out who are you,” Rayford said.
“I’m a licensed process server,” Wilson responded. He explained that he was wearing his license tied to a lanyard around his neck. He showed the police officer the summons and his identification. The officer tried to grab the ID, and Wilson asked him not to.
“Don’t touch my ID, sir, you can see it.”
The officer explained that the woman he was trying to serve wasn’t in the house.
Fine, Wilson said. “I’m gone then.” He started to walk away.
None of this dialogue, by the way, is from the police report. It’s in a video Wilson took during the interaction he had with the police officer. As a process server, Wilson often finds himself in difficult situations, so he tends to record often. In this case, the video contradicts much of the police report.
Rayford called him back. “I need to get some information from you,” he said.
“For what crime?” Wilson asked.
“I need to verify you are who you say you are,” Rayford said. He asked for Wilson’s driver’s license, and Wilson declined to give it to him without there being some sort of probable cause of a crime. At that point, Rayford cuffed Wilson’s hands behind his back, and took him into custody. He never told him what alleged crime he was investigating. Wilson continually asked to speak to Rayford’s supervisor.
“What’s your first name?” Wilson asked.
“My first name is officer,” Rayford responded, with a belligerent tone that was present throughout much of the interaction.
And so it went. Wilson, by the way, was openly carrying a licensed firearm the entire time, strapped to his hip. After Rayford cuffed Wilson, he took his gun, and put him in the back of his police cruiser. Sitting in the back of the car, Wilson had another question for the officer:
“Do you want my back-up piece?”
Rayford had put an armed man in his car.
Eventually, his supervisor, Sgt. John Laumeier showed up. The police officers spoke and then they drove Wilson to the station. They fingerprinted him, made more calls to verify who he was, including to a fire chief where Wilson works as a volunteer firefighter. He was in custody for six hours. The cuffs, he said, left his wrists bleeding and caused nerve damage.
He was issued a summons for “failure to comply,” the last-resort charge of police departments that was harshly criticized in the Department of Justice report on Ferguson. The report suggested the charge was abused by police, primarily charged against black people, and used often when police overstepped their authority.
“Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority,” the DOJ report on Ferguson said. “They are inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats … .”
According to Wilson’s attorney, Herman Jimerson, that’s what happened to Wilson. The “failure to comply” charge hasn’t been filed by the prosecuting attorney. Bellefontaine Neighbors police Chief Jeremy Ihler did not return an email or phone call seeking comment.
“I think this was a clear violation of (Wilson’s) civil rights,” Jimerson says. “It’s pretty excessive. It’s a despicable abuse of power.”
Wilson worries about what might have been, particularly knowing that as a black man, he is generally armed when he is doing his job.
“If I had responded any differently, I probably could have been shot, or dead, or beaten up,” Wilson says. “My fear when I go to work is not that I will be attacked by my clients of the people I serve, my fear is being attacked by those who are supposed to protect us.”