Policing in America, Politics, Race in America

To profile and to serve

It turns out the Pierce County sheriff’s name is Karen. In one short episode at the end of January, the top law enforcement official in Washington State’s second most populous county not only revealed his real name, but also showcased unabashed racism, outright dishonesty and a staggering level of stupidity.

In short, Pierce County Sheriff Ed “Karen” Troyer is a proven bigot, a documented liar and a colossal moron.

You picked a doozy, Pierce County voters. Celebrations of ignorance really don’t get any more embarrassing than the one your friendly local sheriff lit off. If he was trying to make himself an international laughingstock, he succeeded with flying colors.

It’s almost unbelievable that, in 2021, incidents where people celebrate their most awful characteristics on marquee lights — flashing red and blue ones, in Sheriff Karen’s case — occur with mind-numbing regularity. In fact, I can’t help but question Sheriff Troyer’s mental acuity — someone this dense is surely not qualified to wear a badge, carry a gun and command a department of over 400 sworn officers. The level of stupidity Troyer demonstrated is extraordinary — the cost to his career should be commensurate with that demonstration. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

It all started like it does for most Karens: they spy a person performing a perfectly ordinary task but, since the person happens to be Black, surely they must be up to some criminal mischief, right? It’s not like a Black person can walk, drive or, say, deliver newspapers without breaking the law — at least not in Sheriff Karen’s dull-witted-yet-hyper-suspicious mind. But unlike other Karens, Sheriff Troyer didn’t just call the police. On no. Pierce County’s top law enforcement official summoned 42 uniformed officers to descend, sirens screaming, onto one quiet, law-abiding Black man who was just doing his job. Sheriff Karen SWATTED a quiet guy delivering newspapers.

Wikipedia defines swatting as a criminal harassment tactic to deceive an emergency service (via such means as hoaxing a 911 operator) into dispatching a police and emergency service response team. This is triggered by false reporting of a serious emergency like a bomb threat, murder, hostage situation or some other false report — in Troyer’s case, he lied and claimed his life was threatened.

Taken from the term for a law enforcement special weapons and tactics (SWAT) unit, swatting is most recognizable by its sheer overkill. Past swatting incidents have resulted in evacuations, injuries and deaths — and prison sentences for those who initiate them. Legislation to declare swatting a form of terrorism is being discussed in more than one jurisdiction.

But Sedrick Altheimer wasn’t thinking about getting swatted when he went to work on January 27. Like he does six nights a week, the 24-year-old Altheimer was quietly going about his job delivering several newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Times in the West End neighborhood of Tacoma.

Around 2:00 a.m., Altheimer was driving his Geo Prizm along his regular route when he noticed a white Chevrolet Tahoe following him. Both of Altheimer’s windows were down and, as he did every night, he was tossing rolled newspapers out of both windows as he slowly cruised the block. You might be forgiven for assuming a law enforcement professional who could decide Altheimer was acting suspiciously might also be observant enough to note the flying newspapers but not Sheriff Karen! By Golly, Troyer was determined to save Tacoma from the threat this suspicious Black man presented. Like practically every other Karen, Sheriff Karen was unable to articulate what Altheimer was doing to raise such an alarm.

Not the first time he’d been tailed by a Karen, Altheimer was annoyed that some white guy was following him again. Altheimer got out of his car and slid a newspaper into a newspaper delivery tube before approaching the unmarked SUV. When Altheimer asked why he was being followed, Troyer responded by insulting Altheimer, accusing him of stealing packages from porch steps and calling him names. Not exactly a professional-grade response but it’s becoming pretty clear Troyer doesn’t operate at a professional level. Crucially, Troyer never identified himself as law enforcement and Altheimer was unaware the nosy and rude white man harassing him was actually the Pierce County sheriff.

Later, Troyer would whine that all Altheimer had to do was identify himself as a newspaper delivery guy. Really? Sorry, Sheriff Karen. No Black man owes you an explanation for anything, especially if you’re so arrogant you can’t even bother to identify yourself as law enforcement. No, Sheriff Karen. What you should’ve said was, “All I had to do was politely identify myself as the county sheriff.” See how that works? You, Sheriff Karen, are the accuser harassing yet another innocent Black man. He has no idea you’re law enforcement. Yes, Sheriff Karen, you owe the Black man a polite explanation. He owes you nothing.

After Altheimer resumed his deliveries, Troyer apparently boxed the Geo Prizm in at one end of the street. And then Pierce County’s top law enforcement official pulled a stunt worthy of the biggest 30-year-old loser who still lives in his mom’s basement: he swatted a frustrated but calm Black guy who was just trying to do his job delivering newspapers..

From multiple agencies, 42 officers responded to the panicked call from Troyer, who falsely declared Altheimer was threatening to kill him. Troyer lied. He invented a nonexistent threat, summoning an obscenely inappropriate armed response — that’s called swatting. People who aren’t Troyer earn prison sentences for it.

“Hey, it’s Troyer,” radios Sheriff Karen. “I’m at 27th and Deidra in Tacoma, in North End, about two blocks from my house, and I caught someone in my driveway who just threatened to kill me and I’ve blocked him in. He’s here right now.”

Moments later, Troyer claims the other driver had him blocked in. He derides Altheimer’s 1995 Prizm as “beat-up” and “homeless-looking.” Troyer then tells dispatch, “I’m trying to be polite to him but he says I’m a racist and wants to kill me.”

It’s extremely fortunate that other Tacoma law enforcement officials operate with professional restraint. One of the 42 responding officers quickly determined Altheimer was no threat — he was released. If it was left to Sheriff Karen’s intentional lies and utter lack of intelligence, maturity and skill, Altheimer could’ve ended up one more unarmed Black man gunned down by an overzealous and ill-prepared police officer.

In Pierce County, the sheriff is an elected position. While this makes the sheriff directly accountable to the people, it also means pretty much any yokel meeting minimal requirements can be sheriff. In Troyer’s case, he brought plenty of experience but you’d never know it from the series of unprofessional blunders he piled on, one after another.

Pierce County officials are discussing making the sheriff’s position appointed, which would make it easier to ensure only qualified candidates would be considered and that accountability wouldn’t lie solely with voters. I often decry the overuse of recalls — a recall election should never be used for mere policy disputes but should be reserved only for egregious breaches of the public trust. As luck would have it, if anyone needed an egregious breach of the public trust defined, the Pierce County sheriff just demonstrated that rather handily.

Photo collage © Neonbrand via Unsplash