All to often we read of bad and even tragic encounters between police officers and the people who those officers have sworn to protect and serve. No doubt there are instances in which the police officers overreact to a situation, and perhaps even do so with malice. Police officers are, after all, human, and come with the full compliment of frailties and personality failures that all of the rest of us come with. I am not apologizing for bad cops any more than I would apologize for bad ultrasound techs, bad politicians, bad parents or bad writers. All should, and with some compassion (with the possible exception of bad writers) be shown the error of their ways and in circumstances where it is merited, punishment meted out.
Police officers do have a rather unique occupation however. Except when they are addressing a class of kindergartners at a public school on how to safely interact with strangers or, well, I don’t know of any other such scenarios, tend to be dealing with the rest of us when we are at our worse. When a police officer responds to a call concerning some sort of trouble, sees something in a neighborhood which looks amiss, or pulls a car over on a street, road, or highway for one reason or another, the result may be that a split-second decision will determine whether that officer and the object of his attention goes home to his or her family that night or departs the scene in a body bag.
It is for that reason that I tend to be slow to jump to judgement when I read or hear about another alleged case of police brutality. I repeat, police officers can be brutal just like I can, and have, been brutal. I am not making excuses for bad behavior. Nevertheless, I will never know what happened moment by moment in the mind of the police officer or in the mind of the object of his attention when I hear of a reported incident of police brutality. The best that I can do is to support a thorough investigation of any incident by as neutral a third party as is possible and then be satisfied with the conclusion drawn by that party.
All that being said, I do have personal experiences with being the ‘object of the police officer’s attention,’ and now propose to tell three tales which I hope will give a little insight on how this relationship between server and served sometimes looks at ground level.
In the fall of 1964 I was fifteen years old and found myself sitting in science class next to an extraordinarily pretty girl. One day this extraordinarily pretty girl invited me to go see a guy named Billy Graham who was throwing some sort of shindig at the football stadium where the San Diego Chargers played. The girl could have asked me to peel the skin off of my feet and stick them into a bucket of salt and I would have agreed instantly, so the next evening I found myself at the Billy Graham crusade and before the night was over, to my considerable surprise, I was a Christian. As best as I remember I did sincerely responded to the message presented by Mr. Graham that night, but the most important thing to me at the moment was that I now was able to attend church with the extraordinarily attractive girl.
Nothing came of this mutual attendance at church. The girl already had a handsome, athletic, studly boyfriend away at college, none of which adjectives described me in any imaginable way. I did however meet Roy Maxwell at that church, and he and his step brother Marty Corbin and I became an inseparable trio, even though Roy and Marty attended a different high school than I did ( a thing which meant much in those days). We hung out together and did all of the teenage boy things until Roy got a girlfriend. I was initially annoyed by that since it interrupted our horsing around and also probably because it highlighted the fact that I couldn’t win a girlfriend if I had a hand with four aces. Even worse, she was a student of Hoover High, which was my school. Quelle horreur! The traitor!
As it turned out, Carole Jenkins was a very nice girl and I came to like her as a friend very much. In fact, our friendship lasted for several years until I fell off of the end of the universe after returning home from Vietnam, but that is a different story. In addition to being very nice, Carole had the additional advantage of belonging to a family that was very rich. I have no idea what Carole’s father did for a living, but the Jenkins family lived in a gigantic house situated atop Del Cerro, a hill on the eastern edge of San Diego. I don’t suppose that you could call the Jenkins residence a mansion, but to a kid living in a stucco cube in a working class neighborhood of East San Diego it looked pretty much like a mansion to me.
I was used to other kids having advantages that I did not, but in one area I did have a leg up. I had a driver’s license and my father was very liberal about allowing me to use the car. At least once each week I would drive to the Maxwell residence and pick up Roy and Marty and drive up the winding road which climbed past rank after rank of large homes which got bigger and nicer as we neared the top of the hill. After a few weeks of this we began to feel like we actually belonged up there. We were soon to find out how wrong we were about that.
Not too long after we began to drive to Carole’s house a series of break-ins occurred on Del Cerro hill. First cars and then houses were hit by people who knew that Del Cerro is where one was most likely to find treasure worth the risk, in their minds at least, of burglarizing cars and homes. The good citizens of the Del Cerro neighborhood took predictable umbrage at such nefarious doings and demanded, and received, a heightened police presence in the affected area.
As a result of this elevated police vigilance Roy and Marty and I began to attract attention as we drove up the hill in my Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor through a forest of Cadillacs and Lincolns and the occasional BMW and Porsche. Three young men – old men did not usually adopt the occupation of burglar – in a cheap car (relatively speaking) was going to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and we began to grow accustomed to being stopped by the police nearly every time that we went to visit Carole, and having our identification checked before being granted permission to proceed. The whole thing took on the air of a routine until one evening when that routine came to a sudden, screeching halt.
On that night we were climbing the hill on our way to Carole’s house when the predictable red and blue lights snapped on behind us. We were very used to this by now and so I pulled over and rolled to a stop next to the curb. Having done this drill several times before I decided that this time I would make myself super helpful and maybe speed things up a little bit. With not the slightest idea that my actions could end very badly I slipped my hand down to the handle on the Mercury’s door, pulled it up, pushed the door open and emerged and began walking back to where the police car was just parking behind me. To make matters worse, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I reached around into my back pocket to extract the wallet containing the identification which I knew that they would momentarily be asking for. That’s me: Mister Helpful. Always looking for a way to make a bad situation better.
This was probably my first lesson in the importance of perspective. The police officers did not see a citizen emerging from a car to save them a walk and reaching for his wallet to save them the trouble of asking for identification. Instead, they saw a car that was out of pace, inhabited by three youngish males, with one of the emerging from the car and advancing towards them while reaching for, what? A gun?
“Get your hands up” came the shouted command. I was stupefied by this response to my good intentions and took another step forward while still pulling at my wallet. Both of the officers pulled out their revolvers, with one going down to his knee and the other remaining standing. Both barrels were pointed squarely at your’s truly. “Stop moving and drop your weapon” shouted the officer who was standing. I had no idea what they meant by ‘weapon’, but I figured out what ‘stop’ meant right away and did. “Drop the weapon! Drop it!” repeated the policeman. I didn’t have a weapon, but I did have my wallet in my hand and reasoned that if I dropped it I might somehow keep from getting shot.
“Turn towards the car and put your hands on the trunk” came the next command, and by now I was getting into the spirit of the moment and moved just as fast as I thought would look non-threatening. The kneeling policeman rose up and the two of them began to walk towards where I stood with hands on the trunk of the Mercury and within an inch of peeing my pants.
One of the officers patted me down, searching for any sort of weapon, and when none was found the other bent over and picked up my wallet. The first policeman turned me towards him and asked “What the hell do you think you are doing here? You just about got yourself into some serious trouble boy.” “I was just trying to be helpful” I replied. “We’re driving to my friend’s girl friend’s house and we’ve been stopped a bunch of times. I just thought that I would speed things up a little.
At this point the officers knew that they were dealing with an idiot, not a criminal. They holstered their weapons and breathed a big, long sigh of relief. “Son, don’t ever do that again. We don’t have any idea what you intend to do when you get out of your car. When a police officer pulls you over just stop your car, turn off the engine, put your hands on the steering wheel where he can see them and let him do his job. Everybody is going to have a much easier time of it if you will just do those things.”
The officers returned my wallet to me and let me get back into my car. Roy and Marty were pale as ghosts and began to babble incoherently as I fired the little Mercury up and drove the rest of the way to Carole’s house. That night I enjoyed the spotlight, a position that I was not accustomed to, as we told the tale to Carole, who was not used to being involved with people who were held at gunpoint and nearly shot by the police.
Roy and Carole would in fact end their relationship soon after this incident but, as I stated earlier, Carole and I continued our friendship several years more, long after I lost contact with Roy. I hope that I might run into Carole someday, although that is extremely unlikely. Maybe I will see her at my high school’s fiftieth year reunion. “Hi. Remember me? The guy who was almost shot by the cops in 1965? How’ve you been?”