I have a personal protocol for dealing with police officers during traffic stops. It goes something like this:
Don’t get out of the car unless told to. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t take them off until the officer asks to see your driver’s license and registration. When the request comes, repeat it so the officer knows that you understand, and that your next movement is simply in service of complying.
When I lean over to get the papers from the glovebox, I take care not to do so too quickly. I keep my left hand on the wheel whenever possible. I keep my voice low, my tone polite.
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This is good protocol for anyone to follow. But I know that, as an African-American man who weighs just over 200 pounds, it’s doubly important for me.
Not because police officers ride around looking for big black men to shoot – that’s absurd. But because in the absence of detailed facts about me, the officer arrives with whatever crime statistics tell him or her about black men in general.
That’s a pretty narrow vision of black men, one that might not bode well for me.
Thus, the protocol.
It never occurred to me to verbalize all this to my kids until recently, when my college-age daughter and I were talking about the cases of Michael Brown, Jonathan Ferrell, Eric Garner and other African-American men whose deaths at the hands of police officers have made headlines.
Her voice rose to a near-shout as she decried the way police handle young African-American men. I could suddenly picture her saying this to a police officer. And I realized that, on the wrong day with the wrong officer, her exercise in free speech rights could easily turn into something entirely different.
I regretted that I hadn’t told her about my own rules far sooner – as I no doubt would have if she’d been a boy. Parents of black boys do this routinely, given the tensions that accompany so many encounters between young black men and police.
I explained to her that in our justice system, justification for the use of deadly force rests on the police officer’s perspective – whether he or she reasonably perceived imminent danger at that moment.
And as we’ve seen in the headlines lately, when there’s a black person lying dead, whites and blacks generally have very different views of what constitutes reasonable police behavior. This discrepancy is why the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have sent protesters pouring into the streets.
Some will say black people are just “crying race” when it’s actually a case of a “thug” (Brown) attacking a cop, or a stubborn man (Garner) refusing to comply with police orders. Or that police are right to approach black men with greater trepidation because they are more likely to be criminals.
We can argue about that. We can debate the particulars of Brown’s case. And we can speculate that Garner might be alive today if he’d been more compliant.
But the common thread running through these cases is fear. Our African-American president notwithstanding, that old stereotype of the big bad black man persists. The one who, in Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony, is so tough he can “bulk up” like Brown and try to run through bullets.
When one group is feared above others, and when fear is part of the rationale for using deadly force, should we be surprised that juries more freely back such force against the most feared group?
And, as protesters across the country are asking, how can that be fair for individual members of that group?
Not convinced? Consider Levar Jones, the 35-year-old black man an S.C. Highway Patrol tooper stopped near Columbia in September on a seatbelt violation.
Video shot from the trooper’s car showed Jones got out of his car, then tried to produce his license as the officer requested. But he broke part of my protocol: he did so too quickly. Seeing Jones duck back inside his car, the officer opened fire.
“Why did you shoot me?” a bewildered Jones asked.
“Well, you dove headfirst back into your car,” the officer explained.
He survived, thankfully.
The trooper was fired and charged with aggravated assault and battery. The head of the patrol said he “reacted to a perceived threat where there was none.”
He reacted to his own fear.
That fear is baked into the American justice system. Somehow, it must come out. Until then, I’ll follow my protocol, and teach it to both of my daughters.