I’m a middle-aged white guy. I was born lucky (i.e., white male American, with loving, affluent, involved parents) and just kept getting luckier, so I have had very little interaction with the police in my life.
But let me tell you a little story. It will seem incredibly trivial — perhaps even offensively so — compared to the brutality and murder meted out by cops against black folks (and other folks too), but there is a point to it.
Last year, I was pulled over by a police officer.
I was driving my grandmother to a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t know where I was going, and she only intermittently knows where she is :-), so she was giving me directions, turn-by-turn. We came to a 4-way stop. Since I didn’t know whether I was supposed to go straight or turn left or turn right, I came to a complete dead stop and waited for my grandmother to tell me which way to go. As I looked up the road to my left, I noticed a police cruiser parked on the shoulder. Gramma eventually said to take a right, so I did. Moments later I saw flashing lights in my mirror.
I had no idea why I might be getting pulled and I was extremely surprised when the officer told me it was for not stopping at the stop sign.
I said, “I absolutely did stop.”
He said, “Sir, you didn’t even slow down.”
Simply put, that was a bald-faced lie. (And also utterly ridiculous — the cop was claiming that I approached an intersection, going 20 or 30 miles per hour, and executed a 90-degree turn without braking, in an SUV.)
I exclaimed, "What?!" and emitted a few demure sounds of disbelief, while my grandmother piped up and said, “That’s not true at all.” The officer made it clear he wasn't in the mood for a debate, so I shut up and gave him my license and paperwork, and he returned to his cruiser.
Turns out we were within sight of Gramma’s doctor’s building, so after a minute or two she started to get out of the car, saying she’d just walk. However, the minor bit of arguing I’d done was apparently enough to spur the cop to call for backup (!) because there were now three squad cars present (in case this highly dangerous situation went south, I guess), so I jokingly told her, “I don’t want you to do that Gramma, they might taser you.” Gramma’s too old to give a crap, so she got out and walked, and nothing happened, but I’m willing to bet the cops wouldn’t have been so easy going if it hadn’t been an elderly white lady hobbling away.
Anyway, to wrap the story up, I got a ticket and it cost me $265 (including the cost of an online remedial driver’s course to avoid getting points), and that’s the end of it.
But here’s the thing: that wasn’t the end of it, not really, because that cop flat out lied, and I will never, ever forget it. It has permanently damaged my trust in the police.
I mean, I already knew that cops often falsify police reports, especially to cover up their own brutality and protect their peers, but that was abstract and those cases are severe and, in a perverse way, understandable, insofar as cops who have done something really wrong have a motive to take extraordinary measures to cover it up.
In a weird way, the fact that this cop’s lying was so trivial, so unnecessary, so unmotivated by anything other than a desire to write a ticket (it was the 30th of the month, maybe it’s true they have to fill a quota) — somehow that’s even more damaging to my trust than knowing that cops lie about super-serious matters.
As a result of this incident, I am now inclined to disbelieve any police statement on any matter whatsoever, no matter how trivial or serious. I can’t imagine anything that would ever make me trust a police officer again. Not fully anyway. There will always be doubt and wariness. And there will always be a kernel of anger and resentment.
I’m sure there are millions of people who, if they were to read this diary, would laugh ruefully and say, “Welcome to our world,” or “Welcome to the real world.” I get that. But there are millions more who are just like me — they've never personally experienced stark dishonesty by the police, and they don’t appreciate how it feels.
I am trying to imagine what it must be like to live in Ferguson, where the police issue an unfathomable number of citations — far more than are issued in other cities, far more than could possibly be justifiable — and a large percentage of them are obviously bullshit, either because the infractions are so trivial that police in a normal city would let them slide, or because there aren’t any actual crimes, it’s just Ferguson cops making shit up, or both. How can there be any trust between police and citizens in that town? Then layer on top of it the empirically documented racial discrimination. Then layer brutality on top of that. If I lived in Ferguson, and I was black, I would be seething, all the time. God bless the people of Ferguson for having the decency to bear all that, year after year, and god damn the people who practice and promote systemic injustice (including me).
Aren’t there lots of police officers who are decent human beings? Surely. Aren’t there plenty of dedicated detectives going above and beyond to bring justice to victims? There must be; I see them every week on 48 Hours and Dateline. I’m not so jaded that I’m not going to call 911 if the need arises. And chances are, if that happens, I will end up being grateful for the police.
But my immediate reaction when I hear the police account of an alleged crime is skepticism. I instinctively doubt that the police account is true. For me, that’s new. For others, it’s been that way for a long time. For still others, it’s not that way yet, but it will be, sooner or later.
What kind of society will we have when nobody trusts the police? Because that’s where we’re headed.