Middlebury police confront Black man after erroneous report
MIDDLEBURY — An erroneous report alleging that a Black man had pulled a woman out of a car at gunpoint near Mary Hogan Elementary School on Monday, June 22, led Middlebury police to order the man to raise his hands and submit to a pat-down.
The man at the time was escorting a special-needs client around the town’s recreation field.
The man, whom police identified as Bashiru Abdulaziz, 39, of Brandon, told authorities he believed he had been investigated because he was Black. The Independent’s attempt to reach Abdulaziz was unsuccessful by press time.
Chief Tom Hanley, during an email exchange with the Independent, said video of the incident, taken from the two police cars at the scene, shows no evidence of racism and indicates the officers acted in accordance with the state’s “fair and impartial policing policy.”
It was an anonymous caller who brought the case to the attention of the Independent on Wednesday morning.
The man said he had observed what he described as a “disturbing” confrontation between police and an “African American” man who he had initially observed kicking around a soccer ball in a field adjacent to Mary Hogan Elementary.
The man eventually helped a woman — whom the witness believed might have special needs — from a car parked in the school lot, according to the witness. The man proceeded to escort the woman, by hand, around the perimeter of the field, according to the witness.
It was at around 8:45 p.m. that the witness noticed two Middlebury police cruisers arrive on the scene. He saw two officers and a police dog approach the Black man and order him to raise his hands.
Two Vermont State Police cruisers also arrived at the scene, according to the witness. Hanley said they weren’t called but showed up on their own volition.
Chief Hanley provided the Independent with an incident report filed by Officer Bill Austin, who along with Officer Jared Harrington was called to the scene based on a complaint called in by a local 13-year-old girl. The girl told police she had seen a Black man in a white shirt and torn blue jeans pulling a young woman out of a car at gunpoint, according to the incident report. She also alleged to police that the woman had tried to yell for help, but sounded “muffled,” the report states.
Upon their arrival, Austin and Harrington saw Abdulaziz walking with a woman between the baseball diamond and soccer field at the recreation park.
“(He) appeared to have grasp of the female’s right wrist,” the police report states.
At that point, Austin said he called the department’s police dog, Neila, out of his cruiser and had her “heel” as he approached the man and woman.
“As I got closer I used my flashlight and illuminated the male and told him to raise his arms,” Austin wrote in his report. “The male immediately raised his arms and dropped something to the ground. I told him to keep his arms raised as I got closer to him. As I got closer I saw what appeared to be a cell phone that the male had dropped. I asked the male if that was a cell phone that was on the ground.”
Austin added the woman “appeared to be physically handicapped” and that the Abdulaziz was holding her hand.
“I asked him if I could pat him down for weapons and he said that I could,” Austin’s stated his report. “I patted the male down and did not locate anything that felt like a weapon.”
It was at this point that Austin explained to Abdulaziz that he had received a call about a man with a “gun (who) was trying to put a female in a car at gunpoint.”
Abdulaziz told Austin he was a caregiver for the woman and he didn’t have a gun, according to the incident report.
Austin said a woman came over during the incident and “started to intervene on behalf of the (Abdulaziz).” He asked her to stand by while he and Harrington dealt with the incident.
Abdulaziz was clearly angry he had been investigated.
“(He) said we were only making contact with him because he was black and this would not have happened if he was white,” Austin stated in his report. “I explained to him again the nature of the call and the reasons why we responded the way we did.”
Austin said he had positioned his car in a way that would capture the scene and conversation on camera.
“Officer Harrington and I had a lengthy conversation with (Abdulaziz) and the (woman who had interceded on his behalf) about the nature of the call and our response,” Austin said in his report.
“He asked us to arrest the person who made the call.”
After thanking the man for his compliance, Austin went to talk to the girl who reported the incident.
‘MIGHT HAVE A GUN’
With her mother present, Austin and Harrington said they had a conversation with the girl. She said she’d been hover-boarding in the area with a friend, when she saw a man playing soccer. She said she later saw Abdulaziz “point something at the female. She thought it was a gun because of the way he was holding it and pointing it at the female,” according to the incident report.
“She thought now that it could have been a gun or a cell phone,” Austin stated in his report. “She did not see it clearly, but at the moment it looked like a gun.”
The girl also told police she heard the woman make a “muffled sound, like someone was holding their hand over her mouth or she had something else over it,” according to the report.
Once she heard that sound, the girl and her friend fled the area, the report states.
Austin said he explained to the girl that the woman in question “is physically and mentally handicapped,” and that she is prone to biting her finger or cover her mouth while making sounds.
“I explained to her that we encourage anyone to call the police if they feel something is out of place and not to hesitate, as we would rather deal with a false report then to find out later we could have stopped or prevented something,” Austin wrote in his report. “I went on to explain to her that when reporting to the police to make sure she is reporting the facts to the best of her ability as that will gauge how we responded to a call and the slight difference from a statement that ‘he has a gun’ and ‘he might have a gun’ are two entirely separate things.”
Hanley said he’s confident his officers handled the incident as they were supposed to. He was fairly certain they hadn’t drawn their guns.
“The officers on arrival were very much under control, which is clear from the video recording, used no force other than verbal commands and proceeded to de-escalate a situation,” Hanley said. “Mr. Abdulaziz was very upset, and they acknowledged this, and stayed with him, you can hear the tenor of the contact go from very excited to very calm. They also discussed the event with some passersby who saw what was going on. They remained civil and respectful.”
Hanley added he’s confident both girls have learned a lesson from the incident. He said the girl, during her call, had first mentioned Abdulaziz’s height and then his skin color “almost as an aside.”
“We were satisfied there was no ill will in their reporting,” he said.
Added Hanley: “It was clear watching and listening to the audio of the engagement, the officers are acutely aware that people of color are going to immediately have the perception that white police officers are targeting them due to their race, and make their approach accordingly, with the intent of de-escalating the tension.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of one of the police officers.
John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public schools across Addison County have been hit by the same worker shortage that has af … (read more)
The long-vacant, 4,300-square-foot storefront at 51 Main St. in downtown Middlebury will c … (read more)