|Talk to almost any black person any
place in the country and you will hear accounts of pretextual
traffic stops. Some say they have experienced it many times. All
of those interviewed--not criminals trying to explain away
wrongdoing, but people with good jobs and families--described an
experience common to blacks, but almost invisible to
whites. The stories of several of these individuals illustrate
what the experience is like and how it has impacted their lives.
Karen Brank, a licensed social worker in her
early thirties with a young son, had never been in trouble with
the police. But one morning, on her way to work for a monthly
staff meeting, all of that changed when Brank was pulled over for
speeding. Brank recalls being one of several cars that were
traveling down a main thoroughfare at about the same rate of
speed. The officer who stopped her told her she was going too
fast. He then asked for her license and registration and took
these items to the squad car. When he returned, the officer told
Brank that there were outstanding warrants for her arrest for
unpaid traffic tickets. Brank remembered the tickets because she
did not get many and told the officer that she had paid them
weeks before. But when she could not produce a receipt to prove
payment (and who could have?), the officer said he would have to
Brank was stunned. Arrest me? she thought. What
do you mean arrest me? I'm not a criminal--I'm on my way to work!
This could not be happening--and yet it was. It turned out later
that the warrants were incorrect. Brank had paid, but a clerical
error had kept the tickets in the computer system. Additional
squad cars arrived, making the area around her car look like a
crime scene. Mistake or not, minutes later Brank stood by the
side of the road in handcuffs so tight that they left ugly red
marks on her wrists for several days. She was distraught,
breaking down in tears standing next to a public street. She can
still feel the sting of embarrassment.
I was really upset. I was like, "Why are
you guys handcuffing me about some tickets?" They had me
standing outside with all these people passing by. It was so
Months afterward, the pain she experienced
during these moments still becomes visible on her face as she
recalls the incident. She was put into a squad car and sat there,
afraid to say anything.
I didn't say nothing, because I figured if I
said anything, if I moved, that would just give them permission
to beat me. And I did not want that to happen because I have a
Brank watched as the police searched her car.
She says that the other officers on the scene--perhaps four or
five--exchanged high fives with the arresting officer,
accompanied by phrases like "good job" and "you
got another one." Eventually, she was taken downtown and
released. Brank felt unable to go to work that day. In the days
that followed, her co-workers could tell something was wrong, but
for some reason she hesitated to tell them what had happened.
"I didn't want anyone to know. I was so embarrassed."
Brank is firmly convinced that she was singled
out from the other cars around her, which she says were going the
same speed, because she is black. She is sure that a white person
would not have been handcuffed and humiliated the way she was.
But the police officer who stopped her denies this. "The
only reason I stopped her was because of a
violation--speeding," he says, adding that he caught her on
radar. "I don't care if you're black, blue, beige, brown,
whatever--if you're violating the law, I'll stop you." And
he categorically denies that any high fives or congratulatory
words were exchanged.
James, a well-dressed, 28-year-old advertising
account executive with a media company, also has been stopped for
numerous traffic offenses. "I'm not one of those guys who
says, 'Oh yeah, blacks, we've just got it bad," ' he says.
But being stopped repeatedly by police is such an unchangeable
part of life for him that "it's like the fact that I'm
James described an incident that took place
recently in an upscale neighborhood, where he had visited a
friend. After socializing for a while, James left the house and
got in his car to leave. As soon as he pulled out of the
driveway, James noticed that a police car was following him.
Although he drove with extra care, the officer pulled James over
and questioned him, accused him of weaving, checked his license
and registration, and threatened to give him a citation for not
wearing a seat belt. "I think he saw a black male in that
neighborhood and he was suspicious," James says. Months
later, the anger James felt that night remains fresh.
I feel like I'm a guy who's pretty much walked
the straight line and that's respecting people and everything.
But if cops will even bother me, that makes me think, well, it's
gotta be something . . . [W]e just constantly get harassed. So we
just feel like we can't go nowhere without being bothered . . .
I'm not trying to bother nobody. But yet I got a cop pull me over
says I'm weaving in the road. And I just came from a friend's
house, no alcohol, no nothing. It just makes you wonder--was it
just because I'm black?
It would be a mistake to think that pretextual
traffic stops are limited to younger blacks. Michael, 41, is
tall, attractive, and well-spoken. He is the top executive in an
important public institution and has been stopped by the police
many times. One afternoon, Michael was driving to a local high
school to work out. As he approached the parking lot, he saw a
parked police cruiser, so he drove with extra caution. "As I
pulled up and put it in park and turned the key off, this police
car comes screeching up behind me--the lights flashing, the whole
deal," Michael says. The squad car blocked him in to the
parking space, so he could not leave. But when the officer walked
up to the window, he immediately noticed Michael's official
identification. Without offering any explanation for why he had
treated Michael as if he were a dangerous criminal, the
officer "just backed away and he was gone. Just
Michael was angry and frustrated at being
treated this way, but it was not the first time it had happened.
As he has done many times before, he distanced himself from the
experience as a kind of emotional self-defense.
You've gotta learn to play through it. Even
though you haven't done anything wrong, the worst thing you can
do in a situation like that is to become emotionally engaged when
they do that to you. . . . Because if you do something, maybe
they're going to do something else to you for no reason at all,
because they have the power. They have the power and they can do
whatever they want to do to you for that period of time. . . . It
doesn't make a difference who you are. You're never beyond this,
because of the color of your skin.
For many blacks, the emotional cost is
profound. Karen Brank missed work and experienced depression. For
some time afterwards, she felt a wave of fear wash over her every
time she saw a police car in her rearview mirror. In that one
brief encounter, her entire sense of herself--her job, the fact
that she is a mother and an educated, law-abiding person working
on a master's degree--was stripped away. Kevin, an executive in
his thirties with a large financial services corporation, a
husband, and father with several young children, says his
experiences have left him with very negative feelings about
police. "When I see cops today, I don't feel like I'm
protected. I'm thinking, 'Oh shoot, are they gonna pull me over,
are they gonna stop me?' That's my reaction. I do not feel safe
To cope, African-Americans often make
adjustments in their daily activities. They avoid certain places
where they think police will "look" for blacks. Some
drive bland cars. "I drive a minivan because it
doesn't grab attention," says Kevin. "If I was driving
a BMW"--a car he could certainly afford--"different
story." Some change the way they dress. Others who drive
long distances even factor in extra time for the inevitable
traffic stops they will face.
But nowhere does the effect of racially-biased
traffic stops become more painful than when blacks instruct their
children on how to behave when--not if--they are stopped by
police. Michael remembers, "[M]y dad would tell me, 'If you
get pulled over, you just keep your mouth shut and do exactly
what they tell you to do. Don't get into arguments, and don't be
stupid. It doesn't make a difference [that you did nothing
wrong]. Just do what they tell you to do." ' Officer Ova
Tate, a thirteen-year veteran police officer and an
African-American, told his teenage son not to expect special
treatment because Tate is a police officer. "[If] you're
black, you're out in the neighborhood, it's a fact of life you're
going to be stopped. So how you deal with the police is how your
life is going to be. They say you did something, say 'O.K.,' and
let them get out of your life." Karen Brank's son is young,
but she says that when the time comes, she will know what to say
to him. Perhaps thinking of her own experience, she acknowledges
the emotional cost, but knows it cannot be avoided.
[The police] are supposed to be there to
protect and to serve, but you being black and being male, you've
got two strikes against you. Keep your hands on the steering
wheel, and do not run, because they will shoot you in your back.
Keep your hands on the steering wheel, let them do whatever they
want to do. I know it's humiliating, but let them do whatever
they want to do to make sure you get out of that situation alive.
Deal with your emotions later. Your emotions are going to come
second--or last. These instructions will undoubtedly give black
children a devastatingly poor impression of the police, but
African-American parents say they have no choice. They know that
traffic stops can lead to physical, even deadly,
confrontations. Christopher Darden, the African-American
prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case, says that to survive traffic
stops, he "learned the rules of the game years before . . .
Don't move. Don't turn around. Don't give some rookie an excuse
to shoot you." This may seem like an overreaction, but given
the facts of life on the street, it seems likely that most
African-American parents would agree.
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