My Experience With Cops

This Sandra Bland story is super sad. I can’t comment on the race part of the story, which is obviously the most important part of the story. But I thought I would share a couple of experiences that I’ve had with cops.

If you drive often enough, you’ll deal with a cop now and then. The insane parking rules in New York City guarantee parking tickets. Someone once told me that it will cost you $200 in parking tickets before you get the hang of the rules. In the seven years that I had a car and lived in Manhattan, Steve and I probably had about $300 to $400 in parking tickets. Once we moved back to the suburbs, there were more issues.

One time, I was pulled over for speeding. I had an asshole cop that time. He pulled me over. I asked nicely what I did wrong. He said, “give me your license.” I asked what I did wrong. He said, “give me your license.” I did. He went back to his car, looked me up on a computer, wrote me a ticket for speeding, and walked away. I had to look at the ticket to figure out what I did wrong.

Another time, I drove past a school bus. After living in the city for so long, I hadn’t dealt with school buses and didn’t know the “no driving past a school bus” law. It was a fairly large error. That time, the cop was polite and even apologetic, but gave me the ticket and the points on my license.

I made a right on red at a corner with a “no right turn on red” sign. The sign was placed very far away from the corner, so I didn’t see it. The cop didn’t have a great attitude, but noticed that my license said that I had moved to New Jersey a week ago. She gave me a warning.

I was driving down a suburban road, and my cell phone rang. I pulled onto a smaller street, stopped the car, and answered the phone. The cop that driving behind me thought my behavior was suspicious and stopped behind me. He asked fairly aggressively what I was doing. I held up the phone and said, “my kid called and I didn’t want to talk and drive.” He sheepishly waved and drove off.

Each time, I had a totally different experience. It’s hard to know how to deal with police in these small matters, when you don’t know if you’re going to be dealing with a rational human being or a pumped up, authority-freak.

The Texas Standard has an excellent article about the details of the arrest of Sandra Bland. They point out the officer made multiple mistakes, which escalated events and led to Bland’s arrest. Even if Bland was acting aggressively, he could have taken steps that would have diffused matters.

Some people think that cops use these small traffic violations to increase their revenues and exert authority. They use minor laws, like seatbelt violations, to remind us of their power. While African-Americans have bigger problems with local law enforcement, cops aren’t popular with other groups either. While most of our encounters with jerky cops don’t end violently, it’s still an unpleasant situation.

Law enforcement procedures are under the microscope this year. We need to re-examine our methods for recruiting and training police officers. We also need to take a hard look at some of the laws on the books. The petty stuff needs to be handled in very different ways from the bigger stuff.

16 thoughts on “My Experience With Cops

  1. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I haven’t been stopped by the police in over 20 years. I must look really respectable. I don’t drive much anymore, but that’s really only the past five years.


  2. I started worrying about this in 2009, after the incident with the Cambridge cop and Henry Louis Gates Jr. It was so clear to me that the cop was on a power trip and escalated the situation and behaved in a way that deserved discipline, retraining, and perhaps firing.

    And I was shocked that so many people thought Gates was equally at fault for being pissy about being harassed in his own home, and that Gates had the same or even greater responsibility to be civil and deescalate the situation that the cop – a public servant! on duty! – had to be civil and professional.

    Things need to change but it frightens me how far we are from a societal consensus on what conduct is permissible in a police officer.


  3. My experience mirrors Laura’s, except that I drive a lot less, so my encounters with cops are less frequent. Some of them are jerks, definitely. It’s hard to know how much difference race makes in these encounters.

    I have to note, however, that policing is dirty and sometimes dangerous work, that someone has to do it, and that making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep is cheaper than them uniforms . . . . You can demonize police officers as racist, but they encounter a lot more actual black people than most college professors (or most corporate lawyers).


  4. Actually as a professor at a public university that draws from a big city a few hours away by train – we are cheap and mostly safe- I encounter a lot of black students. Over the last few years I have become more afraid for young black men than of them. Parts of this country now seem to me like Russia or some third world country, where you don’t know what will happen when a cop stops someone. At least the terrible things get publicized and investigated, but that’s small comfort.


  5. We teach a lot of future cops, too,and I have respect and sympathy for most of them too. But even if one in 20 or 30 cops is bad, they can do a lot of damage out there on their own.


  6. I’ve been stopped twice in my 34 years of driving; once when I was 17, driving over the speed limit on a college campus, in a zone where they changed the speed limit a year after; the campus policeman gave me a ticket, but I never felt afraid. The next time was five years ago, when I drove through a crosswalk where there was beefed up enforcement (that was a bad day, for more than the ticket, and, I suspect, my driving had been influenced by my emotional state).

    My natural demeanor reflects my size & ethnic origin (which would probably be correctly described as compliant) and I’ve never felt the slightest bit uncomfortable in those interactions. But, I don’t’ for a second imagine that my experience generally translates to others. I’d imagine that this particular interaction is one where I might have “privilege” compared to a tall redhead (that is, the biases of an average policeman would suggest that I am likely to do what they ask me to, that I am no threat to them, that I’m unlikely to have been drinking, that my my voice is quiet and that I seem very sad and apologetic and accepting of their authority). Not all of those things actually are true about me, but they are the biases one would have based on stereotype.

    Anyone else remember the questioning by John Roberts which folks interpreted to mean that he’d *never* been pulled over by a policeman?


  7. Growing up with a drug dealer as head of household, I had some interactions with police, especially after each time somebody was assaulted in the household. They’d drive me to school so they could question me on the way, even though I was told to stay out at night when an assault was planned (that’s not the reason they gave me, they just said “don’t come home until after midnight” which is hard when you’re 14 and there’s no place to go). Of course us kids had been effectively influenced never to talk to anybody from the government no matter how bad things were, because “they’d break up our family, we’d have to go to foster homes and never get to see each other again.”

    As an adult my interactions with police have mostly been at my request: reporting somebody trying to break down the door at 3 am, or asking for help when an angry driver followed our car to a bakery parking lot and started assaulting my husband. But I pass as white and have always been treated respectfully by the police as an adult.


  8. I don’t get stopped all that often, but when I do, the cops are always…..cold, surly, and amped up for action, as if I’m going to be A Problem. And they almost always search my vehicle, even though I don’t give permission for it. Last cop that pulled me over (he claimed I made a rolling stop; I didn’t), was professional enough when he asked for my license, registration, and proof of insurance (all in order), but for some reason started getting on my ass about the possibility that I was driving a stolen vehicle. VIN numbers are printed out with a bar-code tag now instead of the older metal tags. Cop just took it upon himself to start searching my vehicle (no, I didn’t give permission!) to see if all the VINs matched (he claimed it was illegal to not have the metal-tag VIN plate)….while I dug out the paperwork to prove I bought it from the dealership brand-new, so if he had any questions about it being stolen, he should take it up with them.

    What got to me was….he started being an asshole after he checked out all my paperwork, which was all in order. He could have seen from any brief check that I don’t have any criminal record and had no moving violations for what—-decade-and-a-half? I even had the “good driving award” from the Secretary of State, LOL! It’s almost like he was pissed that he thought he had a surefire arrest, and found out he pulled over Somebody’s Boring Mother instead.


  9. Orin Kerr has some good articles on the legal issues on the Sandra Bland arrest in the Washington Post. I would trust him more than I would Rhonda Fanning in the Texas Standard, since he is a lawyer, with a Harvard degree, and a Fourth Amendment expert, and Rhonda Fanning is none of the above.


      1. George Pataki. Ben Carson.

        Seriously (not really), MH raises an important issue. Knowing that most Apt11D reader are the same sort of snobs that I am, and since the Yankees were losing and the brownies were baking, I have compiled the following list.

        Chafee–Brown; Clinton–Wellesley/Yale; O’Malley–Catholic U./Maryland; Sanders–Chicago; Webb–Annapolis/Georgetown; Bush–Texas; Carson–Yale/Michigan; Christie–Delaware/Seton Hall; Cruz–Princeton/Harvard; Fiorina–Stanford/Maryland/MIT; Graham–S. Carolina/S. Carolina; Huckabee–Ouachita Baptist; Jindal–Brown/Oxford; Kasich–Ohio St.; Pataki–Yale/Columbia; Paul–Baylor/Duke; Perry–Texas A&M; Rubio–Florida/Miami; Santorum–Penn St./Pittsburgh/Dickinson; Trump–Pennsylvania; Walker–no degree.


  10. Quick note as I am in Ireland right now. 🙂 We did one of those black cab tours in Belfast about The Troubles (btw, very biased in favor of Catholics; it was kind of funny). And listening to the driver-guide, it struck me how similar his descriptions of police brutality against Catholics was to issues in Ferguson/Baltimore/Texas today. It’s the same thing–abuse of power, oppression of the politically weak.


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