My final cop story happened a few years ago in my neighborhood when I approached a stop sign at a 3-way intersection, one of which marked an alley where you hardly ever saw a car. Most drivers would just pause briefly and never come to a complete stop. I was typical and slowed down almost to a stop, but not quite, when to my horror I saw a police car in the ally. I slammed on the breaks. After I had come to an abrupt halt, the front of my car extended into the intersection about a foot. I motioned for the cop to go first. He motioned for me to go first. When I motioned again for him to go first, he rolled down his window and ordered me to leave first. I thanked him and waved back as I departed, thinking how lucky I was to have seen him. His car then screeched out of the alley, with lights flashing, and he pulled me over.
“What have I done, officer?” I asked in my usual contrite tone reserved for cop encounters.
“You ran the stop sign!” He replied.
“But I couldn’t have, officer. I stopped. You saw me. I even motioned for you to go first. You directed me to go first.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but if I hadn’t been there, you would have run the stop sign!”
I thought for a moment and realized that he was right. Had he not been there, yes, like most drivers, I would have eased through the intersection without coming to a full stop. Guilty as charged. But would this hold up in court? Did the law apply to situations where the illegal action never happened? Would potential bank robbers go to jail because there were two cops standing in front of the bank causing them to decide robbing the bank was not a good idea because it was too risky? I could see myself arguing before a judge that, yes, I would have run the stop sign, but no, I didn’t. Surely, I would have won my case, but fortunately I did not have to go to court because a call came in on his phone announcing an emergency that required his immediate attention. He paused in the middle of writing the ticket, sighed, and commented, “Dodged a bullet this time, but never run this stop sign again!” Off he screeched to the emergency.
I now make a complete stop at that intersection.
So, what to make of my five encounters with the police? Are there any lessons to be learned?
These questions come at a time when the behavior of some cops has been alarming and received considerable media attention. Many unarmed Black men have been murdered following a routine incident. Most of these incidents have involved White officers killing Black drivers, but not all. There are questions about the culture of policing, police training, over reacting, and outright racism. A national outcry has focused on police reform and there have been demands to “defund the police.” And, of course, this is nothing new. During the era of Jim Crow in the South, police were complicit in outrageous acts of racism to a far greater degree than now.
My stories by comparison, of course, are trivial though I think may provide some hints. Here are my takeaways:
- Policing is a very hard job, and the vast majority of cops are good people, trying to do the best they can. While it seems that the reporting about bad cops and bad cop behavior is on the increase, these incidents are tiny given the size of the U.S. population. There are almost 18, 000 police stations in the U.S. and just under 800,000 police officers. For the past several years arrests have averaged about 4.5 million each year, one every few seconds. Of course, there will be incidents where bad things happen, and there will be bad cops. These issues are important and police reform needs to continue; but in the big picture, the number of bad actors and bad cop actions is small. We need cops, and most do their jobs well. “Defunding the police” makes no sense.
- The mistakes that are made often are caused by ignorance, misinformation, ineptitude, or misunderstanding. In the “Dragons” story, because of the Dragons license tag, the cops assumed I was part of a real gang that was tormenting Nashville. I do not know if such a gang existed—and tend to think not—but at least one of the cops seemed to think so, and made the initial decision to arrest me. But they backed off when they realized who we were—preppy kids from one of Nashville’s upper class neighborhoods. As noted below, this issue has its problems. In the “Fascist Police State” story, it is understandable why the cops assumed that Don was a no good hippie harassing them and understandable why poor Mrs. Finkelstein assumed that police no longer care about helping old folks. The misunderstanding, of course, was due to someone’s mistake by providing to the police the wrong apartment number. In the story about the wedding day incident, the officer was just a kid who probably had not paid attention in his high school civics classes if he even had taken such classes. You would have thought that he would have heard of Washington DC, and that shortcoming will remain a mystery. These were all honest mistakes and could have happened anywhere.
- The speed trap was outrageous–placing a small, speed limit sign of 15 MPH sign only yards from a 55 MPH in a deserted area–and should be illegal. I suspect the judge would agree with me and that was the reason he reduced my guilty plea from speeding at 60 MPH above the speed limit to nine miles over the speed limit.
- There are still race and class issues in policing just as there are race and class issues in our society. In the Dragons story, the cops were all White. Had I been an African American I probably would have been taken in for questioning; and if I had been wearing jeans and a tee-shirt and had slicked down hair with duck tails—the sure sign of a white hoodlum—I also doubt that the cops would not have let me go so fast. A lot depends on biases and preconceptions. Justice is often trumped by prejudice and misconception. In the last story, my encounter was with an African American cop though I do not believe that his behavior had anything to do with race. He was just annoyed that people often do not obey stop signs as they are supposed to. But if I had been African American and stopped by a White cop in a Southern town, I would probably have interpreted this as just another example of White harassment, and I would probably have been right. I would say the same thing about my encounter in Niles IL in “The Slammer” story, if I had been a person of color arrested by a White cop under false pretenses, I would conclude that this was just another example of racist harassment. I suppose that it could be considered an improvement that the Niles cop was an equal opportunity abuser.
- There are bad cops, just as there are bad people in most professions. “The Slammer” story is the most enigmatic of the five. I still do not know what was going on with the cop but based on the comments from my friend in Chicago, it seemed that he was looking for a bribe. I still wonder what would have happened if he had brought me to the Cook County Jail.
Thanks for reading the Cop Stories and as always I welcome comments, objections, and insights.