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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Black real estate agent and clients handcuffed at house viewing

Michigan has a population of about 75,000 people, almost three-quarters of whom are white, according to 2019 census data. Less than 8 per cent of the population is Black.

By: New York Times | Michigan |
Updated: August 9, 2021 12:23:49 pm
In an image provided by the Wyoming Department of Public Safety, body camera footage shows police in Wyoming, Michigan, responding to a house that was being shown by a Black real estate agent after a neighbor called on Aug. 1, 2021. (Wyoming Department of Public Safety via The New York Times)

Written by: Alyssa Lukpat and Eduardo Medina

The house on Sharon Avenue in Wyoming, Michigan, was supposed to be another option for Eric Brown, a real estate agent, to show to his client.

Instead, the visit to the property became one of the most traumatic experiences for Brown and his client, Roy Thorne, who are Black, after police converged on the house during the showing on Aug 1, they said in interviews Sunday.

Brown and Thorne were looking around upstairs when Thorne’s 15-year-old son, Samuel Thorne, sprinted up to them from the first floor and said there were “a lot of police officers outside,” said Brown, 46.

That’s when Roy Thorne, 45, looked out a window and saw a police officer with a gun drawn, hiding behind a tree, Brown said. Thorne called out to the officer, who pointed a gun at him, both men said.

The officer instructed the two men and the teenager to come downstairs and out the door with their hands raised, Brown said.

“I told myself, ‘If they shoot me first, they’ll stop there and won’t hit my son,’” said Thorne, an Army veteran. “In that moment, I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was just afraid it was going to hurt.”

Police officers handcuffed Thorne, Brown and Samuel Thorne, according to a statement from the Department of Public Safety in Wyoming. The city, which is near Grand Rapids, has a population of about 75,000 people, almost three-quarters of whom are white, according to 2019 census data. Less than 8 per cent of the population is Black.

Brown said he told the officers that they could reach into his pocket and take out his real estate license. He explained that he had gotten into the house because real estate agents are given access to the keys.

The officers let the real estate agent and his clients go when they realised that no one had broken in the house, the statement said. About 20 minutes earlier, a neighbour had called the police to report that someone had entered the house, the police said.

Someone had been arrested a week earlier after breaking into the house, the statement said. The neighbour thought Brown’s car, a black Hyundai Genesis, looked like a black Mercedes-Benz sedan that had been parked in the driveway at the time of the previous arrest, according to a recording of the call provided by police.

The officers told Brown about the vehicles, who, according to body camera footage obtained by WOOD-TV, replied, “Yeah, and my car definitely looks like a Mercedes.”

“I was both being true and being sarcastic,” Brown said Sunday.

“You have a better day,” one of the officers at the scene told the real estate agent and his clients, according to the footage. “Sorry for the confusion.”

Kyle Gummere, the property’s listing agent working for the owners of the house, said he did not believe the neighbour called the police based on the race of those who were inside the house.

That assessment, he said, is based on a conversation he had with the owners of the house, who told Gummere that a neighbour had only called the police after seeing a black vehicle parked outside the house — not after seeing Brown, Thorne and his son.

“I don’t believe that this is racially motivated at all,” Gummere said, adding that he had shared this viewpoint with Brown, who disagreed.

“Understand the neighbours are elderly people,” he added. “They’re probably not going to know the difference between models.”

Gummere declined to share the name of the owners and said he did not know the name of the neighbour who called the police.

Brown said that what happened was a clear case of racial profiling.

“If we walked out of there, and I’d been a white lady and her white client and daughter, they would’ve dropped those guns in a heartbeat,” he said.

But the city’s Department of Public Safety, after a “thorough internal review,” disputed that idea.

“Race played no role in our officers’ treatment of the individuals,” the department’s statement said. “While it is unfortunate that innocent individuals were placed in handcuffs, our officers responded reasonably and according to department policy based on the information available to them at the time.”

Brown and Thorne have hired a lawyer to represent them and said they will consider legal action “if suing the city makes some changes.”

The house, which was listed for $239,900, had seemed an attractive option for his client, Brown said, because it was in a quiet neighbourhood and was selling at a good price. Thorne said he was not considering the house anymore.

He grew up in Wyoming, Michigan, but “it’s 100% guaranteed I’m not buying a house in that city,” he said. He said he and his son will keep looking elsewhere.

“I still have to find a house,” he said. “I just know where not to look.”

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