Home-buying while Black: Man, son, realtor held at gunpoint by Michigan police
The police in Wyoming, Mich., responded to a house that was being shown by a Black real estate agent after a neighbor called, officials said.Credit...Wyoming Department of Public Safety

Police handcuffed a Black man, his teen son and his real estate agent as they were touring a home for sale in a Michigan neighborhood after a white resident falsely accused them of breaking into the house.

Roy Thorne, 46, and his 15-year-old son, Samuel, had been searching for a new house in the Grand Rapids area for several months with Eric Brown, a Realtor who is also Black. On Aug. 1, they met Brown at a brick two-story house for sale in the suburb of Wyoming.

Samuel was the first to notice police officers surrounding the home, his father told The Washington Post. Samuel alerted his father, who then looked outside and saw there were several armed officers communicating using only signals. Thorne, an Army veteran, told his son and Brown to get down and stay away from the windows.

On Saturday, police released video recorded by officers’ body-worn cameras and a patrol car’s dashboard camera that showed the three males being handcuffed after officers ordered them to come outside with their hands in the air. Brown, Thorne and his son can be seen complying with the officers’ orders and were subsequently released about 10 minutes after being detained.

“I was very worried,” Thorne told CNN on Friday, adding that he “really got paranoid” when he saw the officers surrounding the house. “I can’t say that my adrenaline wasn’t pumping. I was worried but I was just more concerned about getting my son out of that situation.”

The officers can be heard telling Brown, Thorne and his son that a neighbor had reported them to police on suspicion of breaking and entering the home. A person was arrested in the house on July 24 for breaking into the vacant home, a Wyoming police captain told WOOD-TV.

The neighbor told police on Aug. 1 that the same person had returned to the house in the same car they had been driving previously, which was a Mercedes. But when police arrived, a Chevrolet and Hyundai were parked in front of the house.

Several officers can be heard apologizing in the video after releasing Brown, Thorne and his son. The Wyoming Department of Public Safety defended the officers’ handling of the situation and said race “played no role” in their response to the 911 call. 

“While it is unfortunate that innocent individuals were placed in handcuffs, our officers responded reasonably and according to department policy based on the information available to them at the time,” according to the department’s statement.

But Brown and Thorne pushed back on the suggestion that race wasn’t a factor in the situation.

“I don’t get how we were treated as a threat when we’re clearly not one,” Thorne told the Post, adding that the house had dozens of showings in the three weeks it had been on the market. “If we were White, that wouldn’t happen.”

Brown said it was “difficult to justify” that type of “tactical response” from police officers. “A SWAT team is what it felt like,” he told the Post.

There’s a long history in the U.S. of people calling 911 on Black people while they engage in mundane activities. These false accusations can be extremely dangerous, with a disproportionate number of Black people killed in police shootings.

Thorne told CNN that he had a message for the person who called the police on him: “Report a crime; don’t report everyday activity.”

“We’re just like you,” he said. “We occupy the same space. We do the same things. We go to the same places. If you see a crime, report a crime. But if you see people, Black people, any minority, don’t report people doing normal things. … You don’t realize that you can change their life or have their life taken.”