Cydney Cooke speaks at an Ontario City Council meeting. (The Enterprise/Angelina Katsanis)
ONTARIO – The mother with her newborn baby strapped to her chest watched her young children zoom happily across the grounds of Aiken Elementary School on their toy four-wheelers.
Suddenly, two police cars appeared, converging on the family.
Cydney Cooke, the mother, was stunned to learn a passerby had called police, reporting her children.
To her, it was another instance where she suspected her family’s race – Black – may have triggered the call in June.
“On arrival I found several children, the oldest around age 5, with toy 4-wheelers,” according to the Ontario Police Department report on the call. “I had to walk close enough to verify the largest toy was a toy, which made the parents upset and feel they were being harassed.”
“The family was Black, and their frustration was understandable,” the officer wrote in his report. “I cleared without action. Aiken school grounds has children playing on it daily outside of school times with no complaints to law enforcement in the past.”
Police soon left without taking action.
Cooke, whose family lives across the street from the school, recounted the episode in an interview. She has been a community activist in Ontario, seeking election several times to local positions and leading the successful effort to recall Freddy Rodriguez from the Ontario City Council.
She said that two police cars had pulled up to where her children were playing as her grandmother, returning from church, watched from across the street.
One officer “walked up with his hands sticking straight out,” Cooke said. “He was shaking his head the entire time, like, ‘Why would somebody put me in this situation?’”
Cooke said that when she called the Ontario police station to inquire about the incident, Officer Aaron Phillips immediately called her back to apologize.
“He told me that he didn’t feel right even coming to approach us,” she said. “Nobody ever calls the cops on anybody at Aiken. You see everybody who goes and plays over there. That that could happen right across the street from my home was the worst feeling in the world.”
“We have a staff that hasn’t demonstrated any lack of tolerance when it comes to diversity,” said Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero. “We certainly make sure our staff is always professional and doesn’t allow impartiality or bias to come into play when doing their work. I haven’t seen that and I won’t tolerate that.”
Cooke said that she had known since the day of the incident that the complainant had been a teacher in the Ontario School District because the officer mentioned it to her. Still, finding out the identity of the complainant via a records request to the Ontario Police Department was a blow. The two have mutual friends, and Cooke’s child used to attend the school where the caller was a teacher.
The caller did not respond to an interview request from the Enterprise.
“My biggest thing has been finding out who did it, and that’s what’s been hurting me the most because I know a lot of people in this town,” Cooke said. “When you call the cops on somebody, that’s when the situation has escalated. It’s not the first step when confronting a neighbor.”
Cooke said that as one of few Black people in Ontario, she is accustomed to scrutiny.
“I get, you know, the stares,” she said. “People will literally stop in Walmart with their cart, their husband, their dog, and look. They don’t even know who I am most of the time. Ontario people know who I am, and sometimes I get the ‘Hey, Cydney!’ That kind of makes it more terrifying to be as public as I am.”
Still, Cooke said, her family values the Ontario community.
“We have received a lot of love,” she said. “We were shown a lot of concern after a lot of people were made aware of what happened to us.”
Cooke said she hadn’t talked to the caller, so she wouldn’t judge that racism or prejudice was the motivation.
“People may expect one outcome or see what they’re doing as helping,” Cooke said. “(It’s) the best way that they possibly could’ve thought about the situation, but they’re not seeing it from another person’s perspective. It could be disrespectful to a certain person’s culture. For my culture, the cop thing is a little kind of a stickier situation due to current events.”
In 2020, protests of police violence directed at Black Americans erupted across the country, including in Ontario.
News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.
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