It seems to me that most police officers are decent people who chose their line of work for more or less the right reasons. However, there are what I call the Barney Fife types in our police ranks. On the Andy Griffin show, Barney was a the caricature a person with low self esteem who became a sheriffs deputy so he could be a “big man”, wear a pistol on his hip (even though he had to keep his only bullet in shirt pocket), and order people around. While Barney’s antics were funny on TV, there is nothing funny about real life police officers who fit that description. Evidently we don’t pay police officers enough to be able to weed these bad apples out during the selection process. The problem is that they are indistinguishable from other officers until their actions betray them.
While I agree that a poorly suited white police officer is probably more likely to use abusive tactics on a black man, that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t abuse and even use violence on someone of his own race. After all, these are bullies hiding behind badges who are unlikely to be punished by their superiors for bad behavior. They are likely to be abusive to just about anyone under the right circumstances.
Over the course of a long enough, just about everyone has experienced abusive police tactics. My own experience was rather mild, but it does illustrate how bad apples with a badge can easily resort to violence.
About twenty years ago my wife and I were driving through Mississippi on Interstate I-10 on my way back to Alabama after a visit to Louisiana. Now that particular stretch of I-10 was known for speed traps. Police officers were known to hide their police cars in little spaces they carved out in the dense trees growing in the medium. There they would sit with their radar guns waiting for hapless motorist speeding down what looked like a pretty desolate stretch of highway. The word was that they wouldn’t bother stopping anyone traveling less than five miles over the speed limit, so thinking I was pretty smart, I set my cruse control at 4 miles above the speed limit and went barreling down that stretch of road.
After 10 minutes I looked my rear mirror and saw flashing blue lights. As I pulled over two comforting thoughts went through my mind. First, I was exceeding the speed limit by only a few miles an hour. Second, I was happy to see that the car with the blinking blue lights had Mississippi Highway Patrol markings. In my experience Highway Patrolmen throughout the nation are a lot more professional and easy to deal with than your run-of-the-mill local yokel cops. Under the circumstances I figured that at worst I would get a speeding ticket which would cost me only small fine and that I might even get off with only a warning. I pulled over on the shoulder of the road.
As the police cruiser pulled up behind my car I fished my driver’s license out of my wallet and rolled down my window. As the highway patrolman approached my car with his hand on his huge fire arm, I put my hands on the steering wheel so he would see that I was not going to try anything funny. As he approached my car I saw that rather than the sharply uniformed officer I had expected, there was a overweight guy waddling in my direction in a uniform that looked like it had be slept in it for week. It strained to cover the guy’s big gut. He reminded me of a stereotypical rural, big bellied Southern sheriff.
When he reached my window his very heavy Southern drawl did nothing to dispel my original impression, “Boy, do you know how fass you was going?” “Yes sir,” I meekly replied, “I was traveling about 4 miles over the speed limit. “No”, he said, “you going 20 miles over the speed limit boy”. I had notion to tell him, “I’m not your boy!”, but then I remembered that for going that fast he could charge me with reckless driving and that would be a huge fine. So I said instead, “No sir, I know I wasn’t going that fast. I had my cruise control set at a much lower speed, so I couldn’t have been going any faster”. His face scrunched up into an angry scowl and he literally shouted, “Are you calling me a liar boy? Get out of that car!”
Sensing that I might be in deep and serious trouble, I switched over to my most subservient and diplomatic persona as I got out of the car. I said “Look I wasn’t calling you a liar sir. I just think that there must be some kind of mistake. Do you think maybe something is wrong with radar unit?” I guess he thought I was no longer challenging him because his face relaxed a bit and he said, “There’s nothing wrong with my radar son”. Seeing an opening I asked, “Could I have a look at your radar unit sir?” I thought I had made a big mistake, because that angry scowl reappeared on his face. After glaring at me for about 30 seconds, he appeared to make an internal decision and then turned and started walking back towards his police cruiser. Turning his head he said over his shoulder, “Come on boy, I’ll show it the radar”. (I learned later they have some kind of rule that says that they have to show you your speed on the radar unit if you make that request.)
When we reached the police car I looked through the window at the unit. Sure enough it read a speed that translated to 20 miles over the limit and figured out what he had done. He had purposely not reset the radar after his last stop in order to collect a bigger fine. Then I noticed a technicality which I had recently read about that might get me off. I said, “I see from that sticker that your radar unit that it hasn’t been inspected in over two and a half years. A device like that one is supposed to be inspected and calibrated at least every six months or it can’t be considered to be accurate.” Well it instantly became apparent that this was not the right thing to say because you would have thought that I had slapped his face. That scowl returned with a vengeance. He pulled out his night stick and waved it menacingly in my direction as he shouted, “You better shut up boy and get back in your car or I am going to beat you within an inch of your life!” I quickly did as I was told and he got in his car and wrote out my ticket.
I didn’t say a word when he handed me the ticket. He pointed out the court date, but suggested strongly that I pay the $300+ fine through the mail. As I drove home I promised myself that as soon as I got home I would call someone and complain about the officer’s behavior, and I did just that.
Later while reading the ticket carefully I found the name and number of a judge I could call if I had any questions. I called the number intending to voice my complaints. I figured I would initially get connected to a clerk, so when a male voice answered, I asked to speak to the judge. “Speaking” he said. (Wow I thought, a judge that answers his own phone; this must be small time outfit.) I had just launched into the first of my litany of complaints about the highway patrolman when the judge cut me off, “I don’t think I like you talking like that about my brother in law” he said before he slammed down the phone. I was stunned, and defeated.
I sat right down and wrote out a check to cover the fine, dropped in an envelope along with the ticket, addressed and stamped the envelope and dropped it in the mail box. I consoled myself with the thought that it could have gone worse. I didn’t realize how much worse it could have been until several weeks later.
My wife and I were visiting with an old college friend and his wife when I told him about my encounter on Interstate I-10 in Mississippi. After I related the story in great detail my friend said to me, “You were very lucky”. Not feeling lucky at all about incident, I challenged him, “What do you mean, lucky?” “You could have been badly hurt,” he replied and then went on to tell me a tale of his own. It turned out that one of his employees, an engineer, was traveling that same stretch of road a couple of months earlier when he was stopped by the very same highway patrolman. He too had a confrontation with the officer and it didn’t end well at all. The officer beat him several times with his night stick and the victim ended up in the hospital. My friend told me that his employee had filled suit in Mississippi against the patrolman and the matter was still pending.
I decided that maybe I was lucky after all. Later when I thought back on my incident I reached the conclusion that it really could have been much worse. Perhaps it was the law suit that was filed against patrolman that stayed that officer’s hand in my case. Perhaps the patrolman had learned that there were consequences for beating people up with a nightstick. Perhaps if the early incident had never occurred it would have been me in the hospital with a concussion.
As I wrote earlier, these could probably be classified as minor incidents; after all no one got killed and no one was permanently injured. However, they to serve to illustrate that anyone can be subjected to police violence for something as simple as a traffic stop and there is very little we can do about it. However, I shudder to think how that incident would have gone down had I been black. On the other hand, had I been black I probably would have kept my mouth shut and accepted the ticket without argument.