Delores Mae Jones wasn’t speeding. She didn’t run a red light or make an illegal U-turn. It should have been a short drive home from Lenexa to Overland Park that March night.
But there she was in a swarm of red and blue lights and sirens. And then police pulled out their guns.
How did we get here?
Delores had one of those long days dashing meeting to meeting to an evening of motivational speakers and conversations with friends at Unity Temple on the Plaza. Finally, after 10 p.m., she could eat dinner.
So she went to Applebee’s, the one off 95th Street in Lenexa. She ordered quesadillas, mozzarella sticks and the brownie bite. Comfort food.
It was midnight by the time she headed home to Overland Park in her white BMW 335i convertible, a gift she'd bought herself two years ago for her 46th birthday.
“It’s beautiful,” she says. “I fell in love with it because of the burnt orange leather interior. It’s so much fun. People stop me all of the time to ask about it.”
She never thought it would be the police stopping her. Not like this.
Shortly after she left the restaurant, she noticed a car following her. But in the dark, she couldn't see it was a patrol car. Then everything happened all at once. Flashing lights. Sirens. And a swarm of police all around her.
“I put my window down and stuck my head out of the window,” she says.
“What is going on?” she wondered.
Over a speaker, an officer told her to put her left hand out the window, and then her right. He told her to grab the door handle with her left hand and open it. Next it would be her left and right leg out the door. She stood and put her hands up as told.
Delores, standing there in stilettos and a form-fitting dress with no bags and no weapon, her hands sky high, was told to turn around and walk backward three steps.
“I go, one, two, three,” she tells me. “By this time I am past the trunk of my car. And that’s when I see a cop on the sidewalk with his gun pointed directly at me."
An officer told her to turn around again.
He asked whether anyone else was in the car. No. And then he told her to walk backward again toward his voice. Guns were still pointed.
“Cuff her,” a cop said.
It’s then she knew why.
“Ma’am, do you know you’re driving a stolen car?” he asked.
“Sir, that is my car,” she responded.
She was taken to the backseat of a police car, where she tried to explain. She had reported her car stolen two weeks prior, on March 5, but got it back. And if someone would go get her purse from her car, they would see her insurance card with her name and the car. Everything would check out.
“Eventually they realized it is my car,” she says. “But another cop asked me my name again. In that moment, I wanted to say I am a radio show host, I am a journalist, but none of that mattered.”
“God protected me tonight,” she told them instead.
The life coach, known as the Comeback Coach, is often featured on KCTV-5's "Better Kansas City" morning show. Through her “Car Chronicles,” she records videos and gives advice from her car. Her phone is mounted on the dash for safety.
She wanted to grab it and record the police that night, because driving while black is real and black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people. She was scared.
But she was also fearful her phone would be mistaken for a weapon.
Two days after her March 16 encounter with the police, Sacramento cops would mistake Stephon Clark's iPhone for a gun and shoot at him 20 times in his grandma’s backyard.
Instead, she recorded her fears and tears immediately after the police let her go. She couldn’t understand why a stolen car would bring a barrage of guns.
“I could have died tonight,” she says at one point in her cellphone video, trying to hold back tears. “If I had stolen a car, why would you point a gun at me if I have no weapon?”
Nobody apologized, she tells me as we sit together in the lounge of her building. But this case wasn't cut-and-dried. It's complicated.
Back when she reported her car stolen, she had stayed the night with friends in Parkville. She woke up in the morning and saw that her car wasn’t in the driveway.
Police asked her then whether her car might have been repossessed. She didn’t think so. She had worked things out with her bank. Police didn’t see her car on the repo list, so they took her report.
Later that day, she called the bank. Her car had been towed. Three days and $1,300 later, she got it back. She didn’t realize it was on her to tell police her car had been recovered. She didn’t know this mistake would put her life on the line a week later.
After she left Applebee's, an automatic license plate reader captured her BMW at 95th and Monrovia in Lenexa. Officers were dispatched to investigate a stolen car. Police say they couldn’t catch up to her car until she was northbound on Interstate 35 at 75th Street, in Overland Park. So Overland Park police were called in to assist.
“Because a stolen auto is not only a felony crime but is often associated with other felony crimes, standard law enforcement procedure is to conduct a 'high-risk' car stop on them,” says Officer Danny Chavez, a Lenexa police spokesman.
This means a lot of cops. It means some of them have firearms drawn. "As a matter of routine procedure in all 'high-risk' stops, the occupants are handcuffed and detained until the facts are sorted out," he says.
What happened to Delores, he says, is unfortunate and rare but not unheard of.
Retired Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté told me police can't afford to assume innocence.
"You treat everyone as an armed suspect until you prove otherwise," he says. "An auto theft suspect could be violent. You don't know who is in the car. You can't assume because a woman is in a dress and heels that she is unarmed. You have to get the situation under control, and then you get their story. Because everyone has a story."
When he explains it that way, it is hard to argue. But if you are an innocent person at the center of this standoff, whether it is five minutes or 15, one gun or many, it feels intimidating, dehumanizing and unnecessary.
John Williams, a Kansas City defense attorney, says we all could use some empathy.
“I think we need to start believing in each other. Police have to believe that not everyone you stop is a violent criminal, and particularly when the person complies with your requests to show their hands, to walk backward, to pull the car over. You know you have to believe that person is not bad.
"And minorities have to believe that all police are not bad. Otherwise, we just have a vicious cycle.”
Forté concedes everyone could use some more understanding and communicating.
"What we can do in law enforcement is a better job at sharing with people. I'm sure a lot of people don't know they need to ensure the police are aware when their stolen car is recovered.
"I encourage people to do ride-alongs with the police and see them as humans. They care. A lot of people don't understand the role of the police. And a lot of police don't understand people in crisis situations. There needs to be continued crisis training beyond what is taught in the academy."
For Delores, this incident is a reminder to be thankful. March 16, the day it happened, has long been a special day in her family.
Nineteen years ago on that day, her grandmother — the woman who raised her, the one she calls Mom — was shot in the stomach, breast and arm in her KCK home. The shooter was the father of her sister’s kids.
“She told us God told her to play dead,” Delores says. “It saved her life. Every year we celebrate the day my mom and sister survived. It didn’t dawn on me that the day we celebrate their survival could have been the day they found out I was dead.”
But she’s here. And her goal, she says, is conversation, not confrontation.
“God left me here for a reason,” Delores says. “If I can positively inspire someone and encourage them, I have done my job. I know the police were doing their job. I just think we need to think about how they do their job. It’s supposed to be 'protect and serve,' not 'wait and let me decide.'"
If Delores had her hands on a gun that night, she would have been considered a threat. She was treated as a threat without one. But cops with their hands on a gun — a show of force — they're just doing police work. Why is such aggression normalized?
I get it. Police work a high-stakes career. It's scary, and they aren't all out to get us. But we have to rethink protocols that cultivate fear and control. Is that the only way to protect and serve?
Jeneé Osterheldt is a Kansas City Star culture columnist. On Twitter: @jeneeinkc.