On July 7, 2018, when Teddy Washington was walking with nine other black incoming Washington University students from the IHOP in Clayton back to campus, the last thing he expected was for the night to end in a confrontation with police officers.
“The emotions I think was mostly shock, but it’s that initial adrenaline rush that you just kind of freeze,” Washington, now 18, said.
That shock came when Clayton police officers saw Washington and the other students walking along Brentwood Boulevard and confronted the group. The officers were responding to a report from IHOP employees about a recent “dine-and-dash” incident at the restaurant. Washington and his fellow students had just finished eating at the IHOP and were then walking from the nearby CVS.
Washington said several of the students showed the officers their receipts. Then they all walked back to the restaurant to prove they had paid. That’s when IHOP employees told the officers these customers were not the ones who left without paying.
“There were no MetroLinks at that time of the morning anymore, so we walked back to Wash U and everything kind of sunk in on the walk back,” Washington said.
It was after midnight. A weekend outing to a concert had ended on a sour note.
The incident made local and national headlines after many in the community accused Clayton police of racial profiling. As a result, the department eventually apologized for its response and met with the Wash U students, their families, and faculty. But a year later, the incident still lingers on the family’s minds.
For Washington, the experience was something new. He said this was the first time he had been through what he describes as racial profiling. It made him examine what he identifies as his own “privilege” as a middle-class African American who attended St. Louis University High School and now attends Wash U.
“It’s interesting because Teddy talked about feeling privileged, which is amazing to me, really, and it’s a blessing,” said Denise Washington, Teddy Washington’s mother. “The one, I guess if you want to call it a privilege I had in high school, is the fact that my uncle was chief of police. So it was like I took comfort in that.”
'It is what it is'
Theo and Denise Washington grew up in different environments than their son, Teddy, and their daughter, Caroline. Theo Washington attended Parkway West High School through the desegregation program and had 22 different addresses in his first 22 years. Denise Washington grew up in north St. Louis and also participated in the desegregation program at Parkway West. For them, racial profiling experiences are not new.
“Did I think things like that could happen? Absolutely. But what we’ve always tried to teach the kids, you behave in different ways in certain environments,” Denise Washington said.
Some of those lessons include making it clear to the world that Teddy Washington's car is, in fact, his vehicle. Denise Washington said she’s told him to make sure bumper stickers from SLUH and Wash U are prominently displayed as an extra precaution.
“We immediately put his SLUH sticker in the window and the SLUH license plate around St. Louis University High,” Denise Wasington said. “We were like, ‘It’s important that you especially make it clear to people what community you belong to, and in saying that, I know that it’s not necessarily fair, but it is what it is.’”
Changes To Come?
The incident sparked several changes for the Clayton Police Department, including the introduction of more regular sensitivity training sessions. The Washingtons say the discussions with the police department were effective, but they want to see dialogue on race-related issues and stereotypes continue.
Teddy Washington hopes having those discussions about the incident will spark more reforms.
“I think it brought reality to those situations,” Teddy Washington said. “It made me keenly aware that there are things that we need to fix as far as relationships with black people and police, and there’s a responsibility with having those interactions and doing something to change them.”
Clayton officials, including the city manager, said last year that they mishandled the situation and that the meeting with the students, family members and Wash U faculty was “emotionally powerful.”