Barry Saunders

Handcuffed because they were selling water? That one hurts my soul

Dwight E. Pettiford when he was U.S. Park Police chief. He noted this week that items such as newspapers, roses and bottled water are sometimes sold on Washington corners.
Dwight E. Pettiford when he was U.S. Park Police chief. He noted this week that items such as newspapers, roses and bottled water are sometimes sold on Washington corners. File photo

With apologies to Karen Carpenter, it’s going to take some time this time – to justify this, to get over this, to forgive this.

In recent years, we’ve seen black men shot in the back by police, shot in the chest while seated in the car with their girlfriend and baby, choked to death on a city street for selling single cigarettes.

Each of those incidents bothered me, still bothers me, but for some reason none has rent my soul as much as the incident in Washington, D.C., last week – an incident that didn’t even result in a death. At least not a physical death. Wanna bet, though, that something died deep inside those three boys?

In case you missed it, in the best American entrepreneurial spirit, three teenage boys who had failed to get coveted summer jobs at Six Flags amusement park went out and bought some bottled water, put it on ice in coolers and hawked it to parched tourists on the National Mall.

Talk about a Eureka! moment. I’m wondering how come I never thought of that when I was a broke kid in D.C.

Even if the kids were wrong and needed a permit to sell water, why not just tell ’em to beat it? Why handcuff and humiliate ’em? Would they have done the same to kids in Georgetown or Kalorama who’d set up a lemonade stand without a city permit?

No. Cops have discretion, and I’ve seen them let people slide for waaay worse infractions than selling water.

The boys were reportedly fixing to split at the end of the day when the three undercover cops came along and detained them. Any real criminals lurking in the vicinity were no doubt grateful that the cops blew their cover to bust the H2O Three.

Dwight Pettiford, former U.S. Park Police chief and a former high-ranking Durham cop, told me Wednesday, “After all my years in law enforcement, I understand why they handcuffed them initially, but after you handcuff them, you’ve obviously patted them down and realize there’s no threat. They were selling water!

“One thing police chiefs never do,” Pettiford continued, “is apologize. Instead, they come up with some justification for what they did.”

That’s precisely the playbook Park Police Sgt. Anna Rose followed. Rather than apologize, Rose immediately attempted to justify their actions by saying the teens were handcuffed for the “safety of the officers and of the individuals.”

The boys, she said, were given a verbal warning and released to their guardians.

Why couldn’t they have done that without handcuffing and detaining them and forcing them to be gawked at by visitors from all over the world who no doubt thought and still think they were three dangerous criminals?

I swear, I recently watched an episode of “Leave It To Beaver” in which Beaver, upon discovering that water was about to be shut off in his ’hood, collected as much as he could in bottles and went door to door selling it. I didn’t see any undercover cops harassing the Beav or throwing handcuffs on him.

Sure, Warden Cleaver made him return the money to all of his customers, but that was only because he couldn’t imagine people actually paying for bottled water.

Pettiford, who still lives in the D.C. area, said, “I tell people Washington is the only city I know where you can buy a newspaper, roses, a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a bottle of water at a street light before the light changes. Do you think all of those people have permits?”


Do you think those three kids, when they went to bed that night, had good feelings about the police? Would they have felt differently had the cops let their infraction slide or if the city, as Pettiford said, “created jobs and gave the kids a free permit to sell water on the mall during July Fourth fireworks”?

That won’t happen, though, because it might serve to make those kids feel they’re important, that they matter, that they, too, are America.

Better, apparently, to treat them like criminals for selling water and leave ’em splayed on the ground in handcuffs for the world to see our democracy in action.

There will surely be some people – those whose relationships with police is always of the “Officer Friendly, I’ll take two tickets to the policeman’s ball, cops can do no wrong” variety – who think the cops’ actions were justified.

To those people, I say – nothing. Why bother?

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9