Tim Duncan admits, with some embarrassment, that his house on Eddy Street in Newton is in a prime location, not far from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s on Washington Street.
“Yeah, I’m a true suburbanite now,” said Duncan of his grocery habits. “My friends back in Memphis are probably like, ‘What the hell are you doing?”’
The 50-year-old, who is not related to the former NBA star of the same name, and his wife decided to walk to Whole Foods on May 20 after a day spent packing up that Eddy Street residence. Last year, Duncan left his job as a deputy athletic director at Northeastern to accept a gig as the athletic director at the University of New Orleans. His family stayed behind in Newton as his son finished out his senior year.
That afternoon, around 5:45 p.m., a Newton police officer sat in his cruiser nearby. He was staking out a home believed to be connected to the suspect in the fatal shooting of Derek Fitzpatrick, which had occurred in Dorchester two days earlier. Both Duncan and the suspect are Black men.
“There’s a party meeting the description of the party we are looking for,” the officer radioed when he saw Duncan. Seconds later, the officer announced, “We have him surrounded.”
Four police cruisers descended on Duncan and his wife. One of the five officers drew his gun. Another asked for Duncan’s identification. Duncan knew better than to reach into his pocket. The fates of Amadou Diallo — shot 41 times after New York City police mistook his wallet for a gun — and countless others killed as they tried to comply with orders have informed a code of conduct for Black men dealing with police in fraught situations, he said.
So Duncan instead nodded downward, signaling for a nearby officer to retrieve his wallet. The officers quickly realized he was not the suspect. The detective apologized. The cruisers pulled away.
“The party checks out,” an officer told dispatch. “Thanks for your help.”
The scene — which lasted less than four minutes — appeared in the Newton police call logs as nothing more than a brief investigation on Eddy Street. The intended suspect, Yaliek Allah-Barnes, was taken into custody the next day as he exited the home under surveillance in Newton. After the incident, Duncan and his wife continued onto Whole Foods, then returned home to tell their kids what happened and hammer home that code of conduct, or what Duncan calls “the talk.”
Five days later, a Black man named George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin, a white officer, pinned his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. A friend called Duncan. “He could have been you,” he said.
“That shook me,” said Duncan.
“I know that it’s been over a week now since the murder has occurred and I haven’t said anything publicly,” Duncan said in a video published to the University of New Orleans’ YouTube page on Monday. “I’m disappointed in myself over the last few years in my life because I had begun to normalize these situations.”
Duncan recounted his interrogation on Washington Street and said he was “outraged and angry” as the country’s longstanding issues around race continue to rage.
“I wanted to use it as a teaching moment for our student-athletes. I wanted them to know that this can literally happen to anyone on a safe street in one of the most liberal cities in the most liberal states in the country. It still can happen and it did happen to a person they know,” Duncan said.
After the video was posted, the Newton Police Department and the city’s mayor reached out to Duncan and apologized.
“I understand why he spoke out. He should have. His voice is another important part of the powerful chorus protesting racism and injustice in our country,” said Mayor Ruthanne Fuller in a statement.
Duncan admits he buried his experience with the Newton police initially because, as a Black man, he has come to expect hostile interactions with police. At least twice in his life, he has had officers conduct regular traffic stops with their guns drawn. Every time, the words “don’t move or make sudden movements” play in his mind. He has taught, with anguish, his three children that same message as early as age 12.
“There is a persistent, pervasive pattern of Black people experiencing these situations on a daily basis in America. I think that sometimes non-Black people are skeptical that it could still be so widespread. But when I hear Duncan’s story, I could run through three or four similar stories that have happened to me in the last five years,” said Jody Armour, the Roy P. Crocker professor of law at the University of Southern California, where he specializes in race issues in legal decision-making.
A 2015 study of over 200,000 stop-and-frisk incidents in Boston between 2007 and 2010 found that 63 percent of such stops were of Black people, despite the demographic making up just 24 percent of the city’s population. Almost 98 percent of these encounters resulted in neither a documented arrest nor a seizure.
In Duncan’s case, Boston and Newton police officers were searching for 37-year-old Yaliek Allah-Barnes of Mattapan, who has a violent criminal history and is accused of shooting Derek Fitzpatrick multiple times in broad daylight.
Allah-Barnes’s license lists him as 6-foot-3-inches tall. Duncan is 6-foot-8.
“The guy with the gun said they were looking for a murder suspect. And I said, ‘Was he a 6-foot-8-inch Black man?' And they said, ‘Well, he was tall,’” Duncan recalled of his conversation with police.
“It’s not OK that just because I’m a tall Black man walking one block from his house, that I’m pulled over and [they] say that I fit a profile of a murder suspect just because he was tall,” he said in the YouTube video.
In her statement, Fuller wrote, “I know there is systemic racism in our society. None of us are immune. I am not immune. Newton is not immune, and the Newton Police Department is not immune.”
She added that the police department would be updating its use of force policy to ban chokeholds and to require officers to intervene when witnessing excessive force, as well as reevaluating its training for officers.
Duncan recognizes the apologies only came after his public video and protests in the wake of Floyd’s death. But he believes — for now — in the sincerity of the city’s statements.
“Of course, every word is hollow until you find out what happens next. But their intentions, like most people’s right now, are to eradicate this type of thing from happening again. The proof is in the pudding. That’s where we as citizens need to hold these people accountable to make sure they follow through,” he said.
Julian Benbow of the Globe staff contributed to this report.