CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the afternoon of May 9 I left the library and walked to the Charleston Transit Mall to catch the 3:20 bus home. First I stepped into the Middle East Market to cash a small check. As soon as I went back outside to sit on a bench and wait for the bus I was surrounded by four different men trying to sell me illegal narcotics, ranging from pot to pills to heroin that was described as "straight from D.C."
There was not a police officer in sight. When I refused to acknowledge them, the men grew verbally abusive. I got up and left the transit mall and was followed to a pizza place downtown. I had placed my order and left the line and was sitting at a booth with my wallet in my hand, unzipping my book bag to stash my wallet inside a hidden pocket because I was afraid the men would try to pick my pocket or jump me when I left. Two of the men entered the restaurant and walked past me. They stopped at the booth and one pulled out a wad of cash and rattled a pill bottle inside his pocket, asking me what I wanted, he had anything I needed, and the other grabbed my wallet out of my hand before I could react and ran for the door.
The other man provided interference, asking "Why did he do that? Why did he do that?" and stood in my way while I was screaming "He stole my wallet!" The young man who took my food order behind the pizza counter asked me if I wanted him to call the police and I told him yes and ran out the door looking for the thief.
Outside, three different people on the sidewalk were able to give me directions on which way the thief ran -- straight back to the transit mall. I found him sitting on the wall near the bus stop and demanded he return my wallet. He stood up and took off his jacket and cursed at me and threatened me, with two of his friends standing right next to him.
I backed off, desperately searching the transit mall for a person in authority. I went back to the pizza place and I was able to give the police officers who responded to the 911 call a concise and detailed description of the thief. I stayed in the back of a police cruiser after I pointed him out to the officers. He had not moved from the transit mall, but his friends had disappeared. The thief was handcuffed and questioned. My wallet was never found.
From the very first question they asked me, in a careless, cocky manner, it was obvious the officers had decided it was a drug deal gone wrong, despite my insistence otherwise.
"Robberies at the transit mall are almost always caused by drugs or alcohol," one officer said. I had to remind him that I wasn't robbed at the transit mall. I was robbed inside a restaurant. When I told them I didn't smoke or buy marijuana one officer remarked sarcastically, "Oh, you just grow it?"
When I told the police officers I just wanted my wallet back they asked, "Do you want your wallet back or do you want to press charges?" like it was an either/or proposition.
Of course I wanted to press charges, my wallet was stolen out of my hands in broad daylight, and I knew exactly who had done it; the man hadn't even bothered to run or hide very far.
"You know if you press charges we have to investigate this, because it's considered a crime," I was told. Go ahead and investigate, I said, I'm not trying to hide anything. The man they arrested -- they seemed to know him on a first-name basis -- told them a long, complicated story about how he was innocent, it was his friends who had taken my money, I had approached them about buying drugs. All of it a complete lie, but it was clear from the skeptical expressions on the cops' faces they believed him instead of me.
The police were demeaning, degrading, and downright insulting. One officer said, "Next time something like this happens, try to take pictures." As if the thief was going to stop long enough to pose for a photograph. The officers kept up a constant verbal barrage about a bad drug deal, despite my loud -- and heated -- denials. There was no report filed, no statements written, and at the very last, I was questioned repeatedly about the denomination of the money in my wallet, as if that were the most important detail in the entire robbery. While I struggled to remember exactly how many $1 and $5 bills I had in cash the officer kept interrupting me like it was a math quiz, trying to trip me up or trying, unsuccessfully, to catch me in a lie.
When does the victim become the suspect? When does the victim get treated like the perp? These officers seemed to hold me to blame for being the victim of my own robbery, almost like a rape victim who's held responsible because of the way she was dressed at the wrong time of night. I was robbed, not only of my wallet, all my identification and $80 of cash, but of my dignity, as well. That's a crime in itself.
Pettit lives in Charleston.