As a teen I was warned more than once by my now late novelist, and previously New York detective, uncle to “stay the hell away from cops.” That was how I was raised on Long Island, New York. I was not alone: white, suburban, we nonetheless avoided police like the plague and did our best not to have to interact with them.
My uncle had been a young cop during rioting in the mid-1960s. By 1970 he was a narcotics detective – quite an “elite” position. He knew how tough being a cop could be. He encountered many real murderous thugs. (“We have a lot of people in jail for murder because unfortunately a lot of people do commit murder.”) He was almost shot on the job several times. His closest call was perhaps when he was working undercover and the target of a drugs sting searched him for a “wire”, except the guy did not check one place: luckily my uncle was wearing the recording device under his genitals.
A few times we experienced “his world.” I will never forget the time he was driving my (then pregnant with my future sister) mother and I (I was six) up to his cabin in the Catskills. He told her he had to make a quick work detour first and parked outside an apartment building. It was midday. Before he got out of the car, he handed my mom (all 5 feet 2 inches and 100 lbs of her) his police service revolver and said something like, “Anyone tries to get into the car, point it at him. If you see a gun, shoot him.”
Yet he also was forever disgusted by corrupt and oppressive police behavior. He said this to a much older me nearly three decades later about a case of NYC police precinct interrogation violence towards an arrested suspect: “You only THREATEN to do it. You don’t ACTUALLY shove anything up a guy’s a-s. I knew his dad. He was a good cop. His son, well, he’s clearly a moron, and he’s going to jail for a long time now.”
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Late in his career and after retiring and turning to writing he spent time lecturing young officers at academies across the U.S. as to how to engage with the public and deal with the temptations out there: “It’s raining. It’s dark. The guy you just pulled over for the broken light and you are about to arrest for having that pot in plain view on the seat, tells you to open his trunk. You do and there’s a wad of cash in there. More than you’d earn in ten years. ‘I don’t know whose money that is, Officer,’ he says. ‘Maybe it’s yours?’ Clearly he’s bribing you. You’re alone with him. No one else will know. How do you react?”
Indeed a traffic stop is the most likely place most people must encounter police. Here in Britain, it is not nearly as tense an experience as in the U.S. I know. Nearly 20 years ago I was stopped here for having a broken tail light cover. I explained: the car was due soon to be repaired after a minor fender bender. I suspect he was just making sure I was not drunk and the accident had not just happened. He breathalyzed me, which I passed because I had not been drinking, and he remarked on my being American and was not confrontational at all. No ticket. That was that.
In comparison, a decade ago, as we drove in Virginia, enjoying the empty interstate my wife was stopped by a (black) state trooper for speeding. (“They can drive that speed legally over there [in England] maybe. Here my daughter-in-law has a rather heavy foot,” my mom used to joke.) I had been snoozing in the passenger seat when she awoke me that she was being pulled over. I told her to keep her hands in view on the wheel. He walked up to our car I thought hyper-cautiously (we had NY plates, of course) and initially stood back behind her at an odd distance, I thought, as if he was preparing to draw his weapon if need be: “Ma’am, I been following you a few miles. You were going too fast…” And she knew she was. Finally he seemed to relax a bit. (But the English accent didn’t work on him. He gave her a ticket.)
Facing an armed populace (anyone could have a gun) is probably why police in the U.S. are quicker to draw their weapons than any other police in the “developed” world. But for the mass of unarmed Americans just going about their daily lives, police routinely behaving heavy-handedly, overly-officiously, and posturing from behind menacing dark glasses unpredictably and defensively – along with being heavily armed – is hardly reassuring when confronted by any of them. Unfortunately they do come across too often as if they are a quasi-military occupying force – yes, really – than as members themselves of, and as civilian defenders of, the general public. (None of which has been helped by the increasing militarization of police since 9/11/2001, including even small town police departments.)
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That is so even in affluent (meaning mostly white) neighborhoods. In ours in upstate New York (which is “very white”), it often feels like there are TOO MANY police with TOO LITTLE to do. So they are
patrolling sitting off road bends, running license plates, looking for some transgression upon which to pounce: “Sir, do you know you rolled through that STOP sign back there?” (Yeh, on an empty road, Officer, when there was not another car visible to the horizon. You got nothing better to do?)
Rural New York I am sure is not alone in that reality. I often joke that it can feel a bit like “East Germany.” I have lost track of how many times I have had a police car appear from nowhere and zoom up behind me for no reason I could fathom and tailgate – Running my plate? Checking for a handheld mobile phone? Observing seat belts? Seeking something wrong in my behavior? – and then dropping back and eventually turning off elsewhere. It is unnerving and feels like harassment and does not evoke exactly warm feelings in me towards police.
The major CAUSE for all of that is too many American voters’ mentality of “Damn it, there oughta be a law! (because I don’t like what other people do…. Me? I’m an upstanding citizen always.).” In “the land of the free” we have more stupid laws (not just traffic ones, like STOP signs on every corner) and petty ordinances than anyone can possibly keep track of. Too many invite police-public friction UNNECESSARILY:
“Sir, you are violating Section 4015, city ordinance 63. Please keep your hands where I can see them. There’s no running allowed on that grass.”
“I have to tell you, sir, you are in violation of the ‘Freedom To Walk Ordinance.’ You crossed there with your dog and today is a Tuesday. Is your dog tagged, by the way?”
“Ma’am, I am arresting you for violation of state statute 631, 1986, revised 2011, the ‘Save the Children Act.’ Yes, I know it is your house and they were having a sleep over. But you still served alcohol to 20 year olds. Please place your hands behind your back. You have the right to remain silent…”
My mother died because her heart stopped, but the reason it did that day was due to lung cancer. Similarly George Floyd’s reported heart condition or some substance in his system were not the reason for his death. He would not have died in that spot, at that instant, if he had not been sat on and kneed by those (now thankfully former) cops.
No one should die at the hands of police for a non-violent offense. Or under a knee. Indeed those “NFL taking the knee” player protests of a couple of years ago now have an awful and renewed new relevance and resonance.
I know I do not normally write posts like this. I felt I had to write something about it. Ducking it – particularly for a writer – would have been cowardly.