PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It was business as usual at the Garrahy Judicial Complex until Brooklyn Crockton was blocked from entering a courtroom.
Crockton, a law student at Roger Williams University, said a sheriff pulled her out of line and began asking her questions.
“He asked if I was the defendant,” Crockton recalled. “It kind of threw me off balance. I was aware that situations like this had occurred with other law students, but I just couldn’t believe in that moment that it was happening to me.”
After Crockton, who’s Black, explained to the sheriff, who’s white, that she was there representing a client as part of Roger Williams University’s criminal defense clinic, he offered a quick apology.
But it didn’t stop there.
Crockton said the sheriff approached her several times after she’d entered the courtroom, adding that he kept speaking to her as if she’d never set foot in a courtroom before.
“I was getting anxious each and every time because I really just wanted the interaction to be over,” she said.
Crockton vented about her experience in a TikTok video that later went viral.
“I have never been more embarrassed in my entire life,” Crockton said in the video. “I felt like crying in that moment.”
“You hear about these stories all the time with Black attorneys, but when it happens to you, it is just so visceral that you don’t even know what to say,” she continued.
In the video, Crockton said she was dressed appropriately for court, and she believes it was the color of her skin that caused the sheriff to mistake her for the defendant.
“You can’t outdress racism,” she told 12 News. “It doesn’t matter how well you are dressed or what you put on. Someone will still look at the color of your skin and judge you based on that.”
Crockton said she told her supervising attorney and law professor Andrew Horwitz about what happened.
Horwitz told 12 News this isn’t the first time he’s heard of this happening to attorneys of color.
“I don’t think we can train bias out of people,” Horwitz said. “I think the best we can do is make people aware and conscious of their bias.”
“The right kind of training will help us all recognize the biases that we carry,” he added.
While Crockton said she forgives the sheriff for his actions that day, she still felt it was necessary to share her experience with others.
“This just fits into a larger conversation we need to be having about implicit bias,” she said. “It’s not only in the legal industry. It’s in every single industry that’s out there.”
Crockton said this was the first time in her life she has been blatantly discriminated against. While it wasn’t something she was expecting that day, she knew it would happen eventually. She said she’s grateful it happened because it helped her find her voice.
In a statement to 12 News, a spokesperson for Roger Williams University said after learning about what had happened to Crockton, the college immediately reached out to the Rhode Island Judiciary, as well as the state’s Division of Sheriffs, to address the situation.
“Roger Williams University School of Law is grateful that Brooklyn is sharing her personal experience with bias in the legal system to help bring attention to a pervasive and national problem,” the statement reads. “This requires collective and concerted action, and we are committed to being part of the solution. We are extremely proud of Brooklyn for her strength and leadership to bring light to these issues.”
A spokesperson for the Rhode Island Judiciary clarified that the Division of Sheriffs is not under their supervision, though employees for both entities are required to undergo implicit bias training.
“An encounter like this is an opportunity to talk about and challenge the assumptions we make about the people that come through our courthouses every day,” the spokesperson added.
The Rhode Island State Police, which oversees the Division of Sheriffs, told 12 News they are conducting an internal investigation into the incident, but refused to comment further. It’s unclear at this time whether the sheriff involved will face any disciplinary action.