The first time I was pulled over by a police officer I was just about to turn 17. I lived in a suburb about 30 minutes away from McKinney, TX. I was on my way to drop off a family friend after the homecoming parade, and I was in a rush because my date was waiting at my house to exchange mum and garter (if you are unfamiliar, don’t worry, it’s a Texas thing). I was definitely speeding through those suburban streets, making rolling stops, and generally driving like someone in a hurry. I was also on the dance team of my high school, and I was wearing my uniform. Unbeknownst to me, a police officer was following me from the time I left the high school parking lot until about 5 minutes into the drive. When he put on his lights, I didn’t see it for a few seconds because I wasn’t even checking my rear-view mirror. It was not my best moment.
When the officer pulled me over, he asked for the standard license and registration, which I gave to him. Then he asked if I knew what I had done wrong, and when he saw that I was a little too upset to respond, he gently told me that I had not stopped completely, that I had failed to signal at turns, and generally stayed above the speed limit the entire time. Then he asked if I had come from the homecoming parade. I said yes, and he told me to enjoy the game the next day, to be more careful, and then he let me off with a warning.
I will never forget that traffic stop, mostly because I feel so fortunate that it was my first real encounter with the police. Instead of being traumatizing, it was a teaching moment. He saw my humanity first and gave me the benefit of the doubt, and for that I am thankful. Because of him I have an idea of how law enforcement should work.
Before I go further, I want to say that I am bi-racial (half black, half white), the police officer was a white male, and this happened in Texas. Right now those ingredients are fraught, but to me they are not. I grew up in a community that was truly, at most moments, able to see beyond race in order to create community.
In the past months I’ve seriously considered how and when my attitude toward the police changed so dramatically. I left for college with the belief that police are there to protect me. When walking at night on campus I always felt safer when I saw a police officer. My experience with the police had always been positive, but I soon learned that was not the reality for everyone. Black men in my life began to tell me about their interactions with police, and they were dramatically different from mine. They included unauthorized searches, borderline assaults, and constant traffic stops with no justification. I always pushed back, because that was not my reality, and I had to believe they had done something to deserve it in order to justify my own understanding of society.
Now in 2015 there are so many videos, so many deaths, so many pending investigations, it is impossible for me to feel the same way about the police as I did when I was 16. As I watched the video of teenagers in McKinney fleeing from the out-of-control officer pointing a gun at them, my heart dropped as I thought of the many kids he could have hurt in that situation – black, white, and brown. I also thought about my own community, how close to McKinney it is, and how similar to McKinney it is. For the first time I truly thought “that could have been one of us.”
I want to be clear, by “one of us” I don’t just mean the black kids in the video. I mean any of the kids who were there that day – really any kid in any suburb in America. Kids get rowdy, parties get broken up (especially in the summer), kids get wasted, kids get high, kids test the limits. But imagine your kid going to a pool party, and this happening. How many times are cops called to break up parties? How many times does it end like this?
When I see police officers now my first instinct is fear. I am not alone in this, and neither are black/ brown people. I know for a fact there are white people across the country who believe the police can be predatory, and too many of us know the mantra about watching out for police when it’s time to meet end-of-month deadlines. When I think of that, it’s hard for me not to think back to the officer who pulled me over that night in 2006. He did not treat me like a public enemy, he did not treat me like a delinquent, he treated me like a kid who made a mistake, and he responded to me with kindness and respectful authority.
I want to go back to feeling how I felt about the police when I was 16. I may have been naïve, but in that moment I felt protected even as I was being pulled over. I wish I knew the name of that officer so I could thank him, so I can tell him what a positive influence he was in my life (I rarely make rolling stops nowadays). The ability to see the humanity in a community an officer protects and serves is the surest way to prevent incidents like the one that happened in McKinney. Unfortunately, it seems that not enough precincts are committed to that mode of policing to make that the rule.