I've always been a starter... an entrepreneur. When I graduated from high school, rather than head off to college, I decided I was going to start my own business. I asked everyone to give me cash for graduations gifts. I took that cash and whatever I could pull together and rented a storefront fifteen miles from home in Pullman, WA. At the height of the craze, I opened a baseball card shop.
At the time, I was driving a 22 year old Chevy Nova. An ugly green color. But it had a huge engine. That thing could really fly! But my hometown of Colfax is an infamous speed trap. And the corridor between there and Pullman was heavily policed. So I kept my speed under control to avoid tickets.
One evening, as I headed home, a police car followed me out of town. Several miles down the road, the officer pulled me over. He walked up to the car, asked me for license and registration. He looked them over and then asked if I'd been speeding.
I'd been followed for the last several miles by a cop. WHY would I speed?? How stupid would I have to be? And besides that, since when does a cop ASK if you were speeding. I simply told him that no, I hadn't been speeding. He told me that I needed to make sure I didn't, and let me go.
I was totally confused. Why had this man chosen to pull me over. Was he bored? Did I look like someone he had a warrant out for? Did he think I was drinking? I had no idea what he'd been hoping to find, but I was glad he hadn't found anything to complain about. I thought nothing more of it.
Until about a week later when he pulled me over again. This time, he asked me if I'd been speeding. He asked if I traveled this road every day. He wanted to know why. When I told him it was for work, he asked what I did for a living. This time, it felt like harassment.
The FOURTH time he pulled me over, he inspected my car. He bounced on front and back bumpers. He looked under the car from every direction. He made a point of looking in through every window. Then he came to my window and said "didn't I just pull you over last week?"
"What did I get you for?"
He looked at my drivers license. Studied it. Asked "Is this really your ID? You don't look 19."
I can kind of understand that question... in the license I was clean-shaven. And by this time I had a full beard. I was regularly told that I looked like I was thirty. But really?
I asked him "Why would I have a fake ID that says I'm too YOUNG to drink????"
He took his time taking my license and registration back to his car. Finally, he returned to my window and let me go.
Four times he pulled me over. Not a single ticket. Not even a warning. Someone suggested I file a complaint. But I expected that would only make me a larger target. The officer was a bully. I knew how bullies worked. And I was shopping for a new car, anyway.
Sure enough, after I got my new car, I never encountered that officer again.
It was a relatively easy fix.
A couple of decades later, I ran into another bully of an officer. Again, it was on my commute. This time in a bright pink VW Beetle. I was on my way to work at the coffee shop. I'd gotten about six blocks from home when the cop pulled me over. He came to the window and asked "do you know why I pulled you over?"
I said I had no idea. He asked what I was doing out so early in the morning. When I told him I was heading for work, he wanted to know where that was. He made a show of shining his flashlight into the windows and inspecting the interior of my car (it was early enough in the year that it was still dark at 6:00). He looked under the front and rear, and kicked the tires. Finally, his inspection complete, he asked for my license and registration. That's when he finally informed me that he'd pulled me over due to expired tags. He gave me a lecture and wrote a ticket.
He was curt and rude. He was a jerk. He was a bully. I took care of my tags that day (and traffic court removed the fine) and never saw that cop again.
Those two officers made me feel violated. They treated me unfairly. And it hurt. It made me angry.
But at least I knew it wasn't about my skin color.
I can only imagine what it would feel like to be pulled over because the car looks too nice. Or you're in the "wrong neighborhood." Or to be questioned by police just for walking down the street.
In my life, the police are a resource when there's trouble. When people break into the "zombie house" next door, I call the police and they come evict the trespassers. But if my "normal" interaction with police was the two I have described here, I think I'd go out of my way to avoid police. I would expect every interaction to be trouble.
My worst experiences are the norm for a lot of our black citizens. And it needs to stop.
We need to root out the bullies and the power kicks early. At the first sign of such behavior, we need to question whether these men are suited to police work. We need them to see themselves first as peacemakers, and second as apprehenders of criminals. Any officer who expresses disdain for the public he protects should be reassigned.
The vast majority of police officers are good guys. But those few who aren't need to be rooted out long before they shoot someone.