Editor's note: The following first-person piece contains graphic language.
While most of my compatriots spent their first Saturday back at Duke carousing, I spent my night riding shotgun in a cop car.
The Duke University Police Department welcomes students to ride along with officers—for educational purposes, reads the waiver I signed before I set out with DUPD Officer David Dyson at 9 p.m. that night. As a University Editor for The Chronicle, I arranged my ride with Chief John Dailey to get the inside scoop on DUPD. When my fateful night arrived, my excitement easily overcame my disappointment at working while my friends enjoyed their night off. You can get buzzed any night, I told myself. How often do you get the chance to bust section parties, cite naked students and catch the bad guys?
Dyson has worked for DUPD for five years. A 27-year-old vegetarian and self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Dyson attended the police academy and joined DUPD directly after graduating college. As I settled into the passenger seat and we headed down Campus Drive, “I’m on a Boat” played on Dyson’s iPod. It mixed with the radio feeds in the background. The night started off slow enough—in between busting a Kappa Alpha Order frat party in Craven, helping a woman who had locked her keys in her office and responding to call about a couple in the midst of a loud argument on Main Street, Dyson and I chatted about my major, the OnlyBurger truck and his distrust of journalists.
When we pulled into the parking lot of a church on a corner of Main Street, things began to get more interesting. We spotted a black man with a profound limp wearing a black shirt, a do-rag and hat, which fit the admittedly vague description of the suspects in at least two recent violent robberies in the area. I decided to stay in the car as Dyson stepped out to ask the man his name and search him.
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should say that I am a Durham native. I know my way around the city. I went to elementary and middle school a block off East Campus, and I am familiar with the seedier parts of Durham most Duke students won’t ever see. But I have never seen Durham from the perspective I did during the nine hours I spent riding with Dyson. I have never interacted with homeless people, people who live below the poverty line and people on the edge of the law in the way Dyson does on a regular basis.
This 40-year-old homeless man was Elton Keith Henderson. He was “to’ up from the flo’ up,” said Dyson, and had a Brillo pad in his pocket. He started down a hill to the back of the BP gas station. Dyson followed, and I waited in the car. That hill would have been tough to navigate in flip-flops at nearly 4 a.m., but it was anxiety holding me back more than my footwear.
I finally joined Dyson and another DUPD officer who had come in as back up. We stood by Henderson, now seated and in handcuffs, while Dyson tried to verify that he had an arrest warrant for petty larceny. The officer and Henderson began to argue over Henderson’s Brillo pad.
“Is it illegal to carry a Brillo pad now?” Henderson asked.
“It is when I think you’re using it to smoke crack,” the officer said. “What do you use it for?”
“To wash dishes,” Henderson replied.
“Where do you keep your dishes?” the officer asked.
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“In my house,” Henderson said.
“Where’s your house?” the officer asked.
“The trash can.”
Just as I began to feel comfortable, even amused, Henderson grew agitated.
“Somebody’s got to pay,” he kept saying, and he made references to “white ladies” and a “white bitch” I could only assume was me.
Dyson told me later that Henderson was probably trying to get committed to the psychiatric ward where the food and service would be more pleasant than a jail cell. Still, as he sat on the curb in his Hanes undershirt with the sleeves torn off, his underwear, which must have been white at some time but was now yellowed and visible over his rolled-up jeans, his half-eaten burrito beside him, I began to pity him. When Dyson verified the warrant and was ready to take Henderson to jail, he turned to me.
“Do you want to go home, or do you want to go to the jail?” he asked. It was just past 4 a.m. I had been riding with him for seven hours. The idea of jail, much less being in a car with Henderson, was not appealing. But after seven hours I couldn’t turn back now.
In the confined Impala, not only did Henderson continue to make threats, but his scent was inescapable even from the other side of the cage. Henderson turned to me again when we got to the Durham County Jail. He told me to remember his face as we walked from the squad car to the prison door with its sign reminding entrants not to bring weapons inside.
He was still belligerent as we waited to see the magistrate. Henderson sat in a chair, Dyson sat with me at a neighboring table and began filling out Henderson’s paperwork. Dyson’s patience seemed to be wearing thin as Henderson accused him of being crooked and demanded his burrito back. Henderson was so agitated that the magistrate called out from the next room asking if there was a problem. “I understand [that he is unhappy], but he’s in my courtroom now so he needs to put on a happy face,” the magistrate said.
At 4:44 a.m. it was Henderson’s turn to see the magistrate. He had been uncuffed for some time, and the anxiety in the pit of my stomach had returned. As Dyson was leading Henderson into the holding area, Henderson directed all his attention toward me.
“Let me see that fat pussy,” he said. “Yeah, big pussy. I’m going to dream about that pussy tonight.” He bent over to try to get a better look at my lower half under the table and told me to spread my legs.
To him, I was just a 5-foot-3 white girl, a 115-pound object. All night I had only thought of myself as the journalist and my gender hadn’t seemed particularly significant. At that moment I was painfully aware that I was a woman and, to him, nothing more.
Dyson led him behind the sliding door, where Henderson continued to mutter. I couldn’t hear his words, but I could see him pressed against the window in the door and hear Dyson trying to distract him. Then he went for his pants. I don’t know if he whipped it out. I was instead looking intently through my notes, feeling my face flush and trying not to show any emotion.
“Hey! She doesn’t want to see that and neither do I,” I heard Dyson yell. Finally, Henderson was led into the next room where he continued to leer at me from behind the windows.
I knew I wasn’t in danger. I knew Henderson couldn’t attack me—there were armed police all around since we were in prison, and after spending almost eight hours with Dyson, I trusted that he wouldn’t let Henderson near me.
But I did feel entirely helpless. I could do nothing to stop him, and I even began to wonder what I had done to bring it on. Was my outfit—a T-shirt and jeans—too provocative? Should I have been sitting differently? Perhaps I should have expected it, and part of me did, but I had believed my last seconds with Henderson would pass as uneventfully as the first few.
Later, when Henderson was securely behind bars on $500 bail, I asked Dyson what goes through his mind in those situations. “[With Henderson I thought] ‘I’m going to have to kick this guy’s ass.’ I don’t want to fight anyone, I will if I have to,” Dyson said. “If you get into this for the power trip, you’re in it for the wrong reasons.… and you’re going to have to do a mountain of paperwork for use of force.”
As I walked into my dorm room at 6:15 a.m., I was glad Dyson didn’t have to do a mountain of paperwork. And when Henderson’s voice filled my head as I lay awake, I was relieved I only had to ride shotgun one night.