When I was fresh out of social work school and working in a group home for teenage boys, I often had to call 911. The boys would get into outrageous fights that could last up to an hour, occasionally spilling out of the house and into the streets of Baltimore City. I wasn’t strong enough to be much help in breaking up fights, so I was often the designated 911 caller, when the boys wouldn’t — or couldn’t — de-escalate.
On one occasion, after the officers settled the boys down and were getting ready to leave, one of them came into my office and handed me a business card. “My cell number is on the back,” he said. I was 21 and a bit naive so I thought he was just going above and beyond, although I didn’t really know in what context his cell number would be more effective than dialing 911.
The next time the house was in crisis, that same officer showed up. One boy was handcuffed and taken to “baby bookings,” and as I stood in the front hallway waiting for things to settle down, I was grabbed by my upper arm and yanked into another room.
“Why didn’t you call me?” he demanded, his fingers wrapped all the way around my arm. I looked at his face and his badge and his gun and tried to figure out what he was talking about, still filled with adrenaline from the fight I’d witnessed a short while ago. “You call me, you hear?” He left with his fellow officers and I stood there, cortisol flooding through me once again.
I told my supervisor what had happened and she suggested reporting him, but I was scared to do that. What if he came out on the next 911 call that I made? If he’d grabbed my arm this time, what would he do next time? We already had a hard time getting the police to take us seriously. They’d joke about our boys being “retarded” and refuse to do anything if their shift was about to end. I needed to stay on good terms with the Baltimore police department. So I didn’t say anything.
All my life, I‘d had the privilege of not fearing the police. But after that, I was wary every time I passed an officer in uniform. I’d glance at their face and badge and gun and breathe a sigh of relief when it wasn’t him. Every time I saw a cop car with “Baltimore City” emblazoned on the side, I ducked my head and tried to make myself small.
I needed him. And I was scared of retaliation.
The harassment I faced from him was minimal. But this is a dynamic that many people face on a daily basis, in more severe situation. When an abuser has any form of power or authority, reporting them becomes incredibly difficult. If an abuser is a doctor, rabbi, pastor, law enforcement official, teacher, or parent, the price of reporting grows exponentially.
It’s not always safe to report. It’s scary and it’s complicated and it’s often an additional trauma. So for those of you that find yourselves in a position where the price of reporting is too high, I sympathize with you and wish you strength and courage. I hope you can find the right people to help you out of the situation that you are in.
For those of you that CAN report abuse and misconduct, please do so. Speak up for the people who can’t. You can save lives.
I wasn’t brave enough to speak up back then and I have no doubt that the Baltimore cop that harassed me went on to pursue other women who called 911 needing help. I can’t go back and fix that mistake but I can certainly try never to repeat it again.