When I was pulled by a sheriff's deputy at 3 a.m. recently, I panicked. I'd just left a party, but hadn't been drinking, nor was I speeding. An officer approached my window and told me my tags had expired. As he checked my record from his patrol car, I prayed that all would go well. Then a second patrol car with flashing lights showed up, and the two officers talked for a long time. As moments ticked by, I became more and more apprehensive. I felt like bursting into tears, because I didn't know what was going to happen next. Finally, one of the cops approached my car, handed me a ticket, and told me to drive safely.
Why was I so afraid? I haven't always been afraid of the police. As a child, I was taught that they were our friends, and unless I'd done something wrong, I shouldn't fear them. But what a difference 30 years can make. As an African American, I'm especially nervous because I've heard so many accounts of racial profiling--and routine traffic stops that turn ugly.
My 23-year-old nephew is a 6-foot-4, 275-pound gentle giant with a clean record. Yet to the overworked, underpaid cop, he may appear no different from a hardened criminal--someone to be thrown face-down to the pavement if he speaks in the wrong tone of voice. I'm constantly reminding my nephew to keep his license and registration with him, and if he's ever stopped, to be very polite and not make any sudden moves.
I realize that there are many good police officers who would not harm a suspect unless they felt their own lives were in danger. Law enforcement personnel risk their lives every time they approach another vehicle, and when they must wrestle down angry and resistant suspects, I respect their bravery. I appreciate the good cops' determination to serve and protect. Those are not the ones I fear. The problem is, how do I know what kind of cop I--or my nephew--might encounter?