Biking in Carrboro wearing a Hoodie is Apparently Very Suspicious

Does this picture make me look like I’m up to no good?  Imagine me riding a bike (without a helmet) through Carrboro.  It was enough for someone last Wednesday, October 25 to call the police and kick off a minor manhunt.  The picture is from a couple hours after the incident and here’s what happened…

I had just ridden my bike back from eating lunch with my friend at Rise (where the Saucy Wisconsin is still noticeably absent from the menu).  I realized I forgot to give my friend something, so I got it and put it in my hoodie pocket and jumped back on my bike and rode over to his place on Morningside Drive.  I dropped it off and then continued my trek right on N. Greensboro then left on Hillsborough all the way to Town Hall to early vote in the upcoming local election.

I quickly voted and then hopped back on my bike and rode home.  I settled in at my desk to continue my work day (after taking my hoodie off) when I noticed a couple Carrboro police cars a little beyond the edge of my driveway.  Wow I wonder what’s going on?  My window was open and I heard “… blue sweatshirt – he went around the back of the house…” and I realized that they were after me!  My curiosity turned to mild panic.

I thought back about what I had just done – had I run a stop sign on my bike?  I don’t think so.  Had I “recklessly” ventured outside the bike lane?  Doubtful and not against the law anyway.  Had I voted for the wrong person at Town Hall moments earlier?  (OK, I really didn’t think that.)  I couldn’t think of anything obvious that I did wrong.

At this point the police were urgently walking around my house and before long knocking VERY, VERY LOUDLY on my back door.  I answered the back door and there were two officers, one on the back stoop that had done the knocking and another suspiciously peering into the window to my garage looking as if he thought it might be a meth lab or some kind of dungeon.

The officer then informed me that someone had just reported a suspicious person riding a bike with a blue shirt and a beard near Robert Hunt Drive (I had ridden right by but not on Robert Hunt moments earlier).  Since that call they saw me cross Greensboro St coming home and I matched the description so they went into hot pursuit mode.  I don’t open my garage door but I always ride just out of sight and go in the side garage door and put my bike away.  They had gone around the back of the house to make sure I wasn’t breaking in.

I told them where I had just ridden and even though I hadn’t gone ON Robert Hunt Drive we suspected that it had to have been me that the caller was referring to when they called 911.  They apparently believed me even though I had just been riding a bike with a hoodie and a beard.  By this time a third police car had pulled up.

They quickly realized that this was a mistake and sort of apologized and explained that this kind of thing happens with some regularity.  They would call the person back and explain.  Then they left.

I got to thinking though.  What about me appeared suspicious enough to call 911?  It had to have been some combination of the hoodie, the bike, the sunglasses, beard, and maybe not wearing a helmet.  Would I have looked as suspicious if I was just on foot?  What about everything the same minus the hoodie?  Or minus the sunglasses?  The beard?  What if I had been wearing a helmet – perhaps I would have looked slightly more responsible? Any one of these changes might have lowered the suspicion factor.  I was riding kind of fast I guess – maybe I looked like I was running from the law?  Not sure.

The incident was slightly jarring but an interesting thought experiment for me and certainly a fun story to tell in the future.  I’m curious now how often the Carrboro police get calls like this and if the frequency and type differ from other areas.

  1. While those are fun questions (What was it about you that made them think you are suspicious?), I think the more interesting angle might be from the other side.

    That is, what is it about the other person that made them call the police? Or more broadly what is it about our culture and society today that results in more people being suspicious and calling authorities about it? Because I think it happens a lot more today than it did just a couple / few decades ago.

    Is it our safety obsessed culture? See here

    Or is it some post 9/11 legacy to be suspicious of everybody and report it to the authorities?

    Or has it been encouraged by the authorities for so long that people have become used to it? Remember when calling 9-1-1 was actually only for emergencies? Did you know that the police offer to get back to citizens who report incidents with the results? Kind of rewards tattle tales, it seems like. Remember when people would just go confront suspicious people themselves, eliminating 99% of them as actually being worthy of suspicion?

    Or is it something else, or is it a little bit of several things? And I am assuming the negatives outweigh the positives of this trend of reporting so much more, but maybe others disagree what that premise as well.

    Good thing the police in Carrboro aren’t over-militarized like many police forces are, otherwise they might have battered down your door and aimed fully automatic weapons at you rather than just knocking loudly!

    1. “If you see something, say something.” There’s definitely a changing attitude towards dialing 911. You hear it from town officials and emergency personnel and law enforcement – err on the side of caution. The article you posted actually is quite applicable here.

      Violent crime is dramatically down over the last 25 years and yet we’ve never been more terrified of it. My guess is that the number of suspicious person calls to 911 is negatively correlated with the drop in violent crime (and it’s not causal!)

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