I was pulled over by a cop on Sunday.
This was not my first run-in with the police, and this encounter was much more positive than the first. A few years ago, I was with a friend who was in a commercial vehicle and, being lost, we ended up on the Taconic State Parkway – which prohibits commercial vehicles. The GPS we were using, I believe on my phone, had us take this route. We did not have a commercial GPS on us (I didn’t know that was a thing), We were pulled over by a state trooper who apparently trained, studied, and perfected the art of being a world class asshole.
We were admonished, ridiculed, and talked down to. We apparently pissed this trooper off. He said everything but, “who do you think you are and who do you think you are being in this neighborhood?”
The person I was with was an older black man, his early forties, and this clearly was not his first police encounter. While I was secretly seething and incredulous, I got the sense my friend was clearly indoctrinated to the fact that in his experience this is how the police behaved. The police do not help black men when they end up in places they presumably don’t belong, like the Taconic State Parkway well outside and North of New York City.
When I apologized and attempted to explain that the app on my phone mistakenly routed me this way, his snarky response was, “if your app told you to jump off a bridge, would you?” I didn’t say anything. After the rambling chastisement, I finally reminded the Trooper, as kindly as I could, “but we’re still lost. Is it possible you can direct us around the parkway as my GPS keeps leading me back to it.”
My friend seemed unphased, as it was not his first rodeo. For me, it was a life-altering experience. I always knew that it really didn’t matter how well spoken I was, or the fact that I wasn’t wearing a hoodie, that I had a certain income, and am college educated – now I had received confirmation.
It was as if part of me wanted to cry out, I pay my taxes, and I am a good citizen! I am respectable damn it – why aren’t you treating me as if I am?! The trooper basically responded to me, you’re black – no one gives a shit.
In a very different interaction with the police, I also have been broken down on the Long Island Expressway with a female friend, at night, and I happened to be on the passenger side of the car at the time – as I planned to walk to the nearby gas station.
The truck made it to the shoulder of the expressway, but barely. When the police officer arrived, he was blaring some order from his car. I was not in the vehicle, and I couldn’t see (because of his headlights and others) or actually make out his words because of the noise of the traffic whizzing by. I thought my best bet was to reveal myself with my hands above my head. I also realized I was also not where he expected me to be coming from, as I was outside the vehicle, wearing dark clothes, and on the wrong side of the car. But should I have had to have thought about all of that?
To this day, I still don’t know what he was shouting, but once he realized we were broken down, he was extremely helpful, and the inaudible commands stopped. I couldn’t help but think that interaction, too, could have potentially been very different.
So flash forward to Sunday, I was once again encountering a cop with a million thoughts.
The cop approached the car, I rolled down the window. “This encounter is being recorded. Do you know what you did back there?” I replied I did not. “Did you realize you didn’t yield? Now, you don’t need to yield to me because I am a cop, but you need to yield because if you don’t yield the people in the left lane will get stuck in the middle of the intersection waiting for you to go. There are some signs coming up that ramp that you’re supposed to yield.”
Let me just say I don’t know if I would agree with the officer’s version of events. However, and most importantly, he was respectful and set the tone from the beginning of our encounter. He introduced himself, explained himself, spoke calmly and even though he later gave me a $125.00 ticket, he behaved respectfully and in a manner of which I would expect an officer to treat a citizen. I, in turn, treated him with the respect in which I believed a law enforcement officer was due and not to mention I didn’t want any issues.
According to The Washington Post, as of May 17, 2017, 363 have been killed in the circumstances similar to those of Michael Brown in Ferguson (there description not me). The database was started in 2015. So far, apparently, two fewer people were killed same time last year, although the data is a few days old so we may have caught up to killings in 2017. It would appear that nothing has changed. The database does not take into account deaths in police custody, fatal shootings by off-duty officers, or non-fatal shootings.
Simply put as a law abiding citizen, I don’t think you should feel as though you’re rolling the dice while interacting with the police.
As a black man, I should not have to wonder if I might be shot today just because an officer may be less patient with me because of the color of my skin, or have an irrational fear of me because I am black.
Citizens should be respectful, but I firmly believe the police have a responsibility to protect and serve and to do all they can to fulfill that promise, not shoot, kill, and ask questions later because they were frightened or hold biases about black people that effect there work.
The cop I interacted with set the tone. He set the tone – not me. I responded in kind and to be honest, I was too nervous and fearful to have gotten his name, but he was a wonderful officer, and more should take a lesson from him.
It also was not lost on me that the interaction was being recorded. I also, unlike my Taconic State Parkway experience, was in the car with my white husband, Asian girlfriend, and Panamanian friend from Brooklyn. We’re denizens of New York City, so we’re like the United Nations! But several times I thought to myself, there are too many witnesses and other people who are not black for this to go horribly wrong – and that’s a shame that I had to think that to make myself feel better. The Taconic experience was also not being recorded.
I believe there are good officers, but there are bad officers too and some seem to become trigger happy when interacting with people of color. It also appears to be the main point that opponents of the Black Lives Matter movement seem to not realize. There are some bad cops out there with racial biases, and when the situation is life and death, one bad apple is too many.
For those who don’t know the fear of worrying about being pulled over by a cop and wondering if they will come out alive, God bless you. For the rest of us, we can only hope for a day when in America there truly is equal treatment and justice for all. For those of you who think this is not an issue, bless you for being fortunate enough to be steeped in your own privilege that you haven’t noticed.