RTDNA Awards Entry: A 911 Call About A Gun, And An Encounter That Was More Than Black And White

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What happened when an Arapahoe County sheriff's deputy stopped an African-American citizen on Sept. 20 in the Denver Tech Center didn't make the news -- but is still noteworthy.

The encounter began with a 911 call from a woman who said she saw a “black man, black in dress, carrying a -- I assume -- a rifle.” Arapahoe County sheriff’s deputy Tom Finley just happened to be near the sighting and saw the person -- who wasn't a man, but rather a woman. And you might recognize her from the distinctive way she introduces herself each day: "This is Colorado Public Radio News. I'm Jo Ann Allen."

Our colleague, Jo Ann Allen, is host of CPR News' All Things Considered. The object in question also wasn't a rifle, but golf clubs rising from a portable carrying case.

“I heard someone say, ‘sir, drop the rifle,’ and I slowly turned, threw the golf clubs away from my body, and held out my arms, and said, ‘They're golf clubs. They're golf clubs,’” Allen said.

In recounting the situation, Allen noted that deputy Finley slowly approached her with his hand on his firearm, but when he saw the golf clubs, he took his hand off his gun. He then was apologetic, Allen thinks Finley’s exact words were, “I apologize for challenging you. When we get a call like this, we have to respond.”

Recent events between African-Americans and the police did come to Allen’s mind as she thought “oh, is this gonna happen to me in Centennial, Colorado?” After Finley stopped her, and the mistake was discovered, the two had a brief conversation. But later, both realized how differently things could have gone.

"Well, I thought, 'What if he had shot me, and I died,'" Allen said. "I'm thinking that, because my father is 101 years old, and I just couldn't imagine him getting that news."

For deputy Finley, who has been in situations with armed subjects before, it was a question of “what if it had gone really poorly” and later finding out it was just golf clubs. He didn’t feel threatened by Allen, but reflecting on it later felt nervous about it.

“I told my wife about what happened, and even before I went home, I told a couple of fellow officers about what had happened,” Finley said. “They all were supportive of, you know, said that they thought it sounded like I had done a good job, and I kinda talked more about, you know, the what-ifs.”