In recent months there has been an increasingly voluminous outcry against the actions of police, especially against minorities. I won't pretend to be able to relate to what it's like to live as a minority in America, but at the very least I can give my own personal experiences with law enforcement.
As a young child I don't recall even seeing police all that much. They didn't come through our quiet, affluent, golf club community all that often. The most exciting law enforcement activity I recall was a night when some high school kids drove down the street, swinging a baseball bat at mailboxes. Their joyride ended up not lasting very long.
I vaguely recall police coming into my elementary school at one point and fingerprinting us under the guise of "being able to identify lost children" though I was far too young to think through the ramifications at the time.
My personal interactions with law enforcement didn't begin until I was able to drive; at that point I became a target.
One day in 2002 I was driving from my AP classes at a community college campus to my high school in the middle of the day and my normal route was closed for construction, so I detoured through a neighborhood. As I came over the crest of the hill I ran into a speed trap and was stopped for doing 40 MPH in a 25 MPH zone, which I thought was crazy because there wasn't a single speed limit sign. I told the officer I thought it was 35 MPH zone and I had never driven on this road before. I later returned to the street to check and it turned out there WAS a speed limit sign, but it was half the size of a normal sign and it was completely obscured behind a tree limb.
As punishment for this ridiculous ticket I ended up having to take a driving school class with a bunch of reckless and drunk drivers to get the ticket reduced to a non-moving violation. My privilege certainly played a role here, as my parents could afford an attorney to work the legal system on my behalf in order to attain that reduction.
Later that year I was driving a friend home around midnight and my radar detector went off; I noticed a cop lying in wait on the side of the road and paid him no mind since I wasn't speeding. A few minutes later as I was driving down a 2 lane suburban road at 50 MPH I noticed a pair of headlights rushing up from behind me at high speed. The car then started tailgating me and I felt threatened, so I sped up. At this point the red and blue lights went off. I was pretty upset because I knew there would be severe consequences if I got another ticket; I'd probably have my car keys taken away for a while. My father had already informed me that if my insurance rates went up then I'd have to get a job to pay for them, which would be quite difficult given my academic workload.
Me: "What seems to be the problem, officer?"
Officer: "You can't be driving around with blue lights; it's a felony to impersonate the police."
Me: "Excuse me? What?"
Officer: "Those lights you put on your hood are blue; if you don't remove them then we're going to have a problem."
Me: "I swear they are white; the package described them as white."
Officer: "Well they look blue to me and that's what matters."
Not having any interest in creating more trouble, I popped the hood and disconnected the lights to satisfy the officer's power trip. For context, these are the tiny lights he was so concerned about:
Not longer after this incident, I was driving through the parking lot at school when a woman started backing out of a spot. She didn't see me and backed into the front of my car, causing minor damage to my turn signal. The police came, wrote up an incident report, and left.
The next year I had another incident in that same parking lot. Someone walked down an entire row of cars and keyed them. Whether by chance or by devious planning, they chose a row of cars that were behind a treeline that obscured the view of surveillance cameras. Once again the police came, wrote up an incident report, and left.
In college my police interactions became a bit more intense. Some of which were due to working as a resident advisor at a private off-campus dorm that was on the same street as all the bars in town. As such, I'd have to work the occasional 3rd shift at the front desk of a dorm which resulted in some interesting interactions.
- Drunk / homeless folks trespassing or being belligerent.
- A guy selling counterfeit athletic gear in the parking lot.
- A drunk college student who had lived in the dorm the previous year wander in and pass out in what used to be his bed, but now had a girl sleeping in it.
- A colleague had his motorcycle stolen from the parking lot.
I don't recall fearing for my safety in any of those incidents.
I was a victim of crime multiple times in 2005 and 2006. I drove a 1994 Honda Accord which, it turned out, was one of the easiest cars in the history of automobiles to break into. On several occasions I'd walk out of my apartment to find my car with the stereo ripped out of it. The cops would come and write up a report, my insurance would pay to replace the stereo, and the cycle would repeat.
In 2007 I was driving home from a party around 1 AM and got stopped due to speeding. I was coasting down an extremely steep hill near my apartment; I knew this was a popular speed trap and should have just ridden my brakes. Unfortunately, when you're a college student speeding late at night you get to do a full DUI stop. The officer who pulled me over even called for a backup unit!
I got to walk the line, follow the flashlight with my eyes, and blow into a breathalyzer. They didn't tell me what I blew, but I can only assume it was under 0.08 BAC because they said "OK you can go."
My heart was pounding throughout the entire incident because I knew that despite the fact that I wasn't harming anyone, nor was I driving recklessly, it would set me back financially and professionally to have such an infraction on my record.
Several times over the next few years I ran into roadblocks while driving around after midnight; thankfully never after I had been drinking. In one case I was on a rural 2 lane road and the cops at the roadblock were so bored that they asked me to "show us what she can do" and peel out from the roadblock in my Nissan 350Z. As time went on I became less and less interested in roaming around late at night, because the cop:citizen ratio clearly shot up and made it more likely for me to be targeted.
From 2008 to 2018 I lived in a predominantly African American suburban neighborhood in Durham, NC. I served on the HOA Board as treasurer for half of that time. The neighborhood had over 400 houses and actually had a decent number of law enforcement officers who owned homes there. I constantly saw them recklessly speeding through the neighborhood in both marked and unmarked cars. The rules, it would seem, did not apply to them.
There wasn't much violent crime in the neighborhood, but we would have rashes of break-ins. They almost always occurred during the day while the homeowners were at work; simple smash and grabs where the thieves would be in and out in 3 minutes while the police response time was more like 15 minutes. We'd have officers come to HOA meetings to discuss these issues and their message was clear: homeowners should not rely upon the police to prevent break-ins - the onus was on each homeowner to manage their security.
At 7 AM on January 1, 2012 I was awoken by yelling outside of my house. I looked out the window and saw a woman driving a car and telling a man to leave her alone. The man kept jumping in front of the car and not allowing her to move; it was clearly a domestic dispute. Not wanting to get in the middle of such a dispute myself, as they can quickly turn sour against a Good Samaritan, I called the police. I impressed upon them that this seemed like it was on the verge of violence. It took 20 minutes for the police to show up, at which point the confrontation had inched its way out of my view - I never found out how it concluded.
Over the coming years I became fascinated by law enforcement and the justice system; it became a hobby for me to understand how it was supposed to work in theory and how it actually worked in reality. For many years I ran @ncpolicelogs, a Twitter account that tracked odd law enforcement stories in North Carolina. In order to me to find these stories I'd spend 20 - 30 minutes every day browsing through the police blotter sections of every online newspaper I could find in NC.
In 2012 I attended a 6 week (night) class - the Durham Citizens Police Academy. I received presentations from every division within the department and learned how they operated. I even got to do a ridealong with a patrol officer. It wasn't a particularly exciting Wednesday night; I only remember 4 events:
- Sitting outside an apartment to make sure someone's stalker didn't show up
- Doing a walk around somebody's house who asked it to be checked while out of town
- Telling a drunk guy to stop walking in the middle of the street
- Showing up to a domestic violence call only to be told help was no longer wanted
My general takeaway regarding the life of a patrol officer is that it is best described as lengthy periods of extreme boredom with the rare interjection of extreme adrenaline. I suspect that one of the underlying causes of citizens having to worry about police interactions is that cops are often just looking for something to do.
In 2015 I bought a Lotus Elise and transferred my BITCOIN license plate to it. A few days later I got pulled by a State Trooper because his license plate scanner told him it still belonged on my truck. Thankfully he was appeased by seeing my registration card that showed the license plate as BITCOIN. To this day it pains me to hear stories of innocent people being targeted by law enforcement due to a database / paperwork error.
The icing on the cake came in 2017 when the Durham police department shut down my entire neighborhood and targeted me due to a false report filed by an anonymous attacker.
The Corporal in charge of my case told me within 48 hours that the trail had run cold while tracing the call and that they were going to hand the case over to a federally sworn investigator who would call me next week. They never called. I wrote about this incident in detail a year later:
Years later I tried to follow up with the Financial Crimes unit of the Durham Police Department. I managed to get a single callback but then my subsequent phone calls and emails went unanswered.
Have I ever experienced police brutality? No.
Have I ever been a victim of crime? Several times.
Have I been inaccurately targeted by police? Several times.
Have I ever seen justice as a crime victim? Only for the most trivial of the crimes - the vandalism of my parents' mailbox.
Do I feel more safe or less safe when I'm around law enforcement officers? The latter. Cops are apex predators who wield a monopoly on violence and broad immunity from paying consequences from their actions.
While I don't cower in fear around law enforcement, neither do I feel "protected and served." Just a week prior to writing this, I was driving on a highway and saw a State Trooper rushing up behind me with their lights activated. While I knew that I hadn't been speeding since I had cruise control activated, I still had a moment of apprehension. Why? Because I knew that there were more reasons than I could possibly count for why an officer might decide they had cause to pull me over, and once I was pulled over there were innumerable other reasons the officer could use to screw with me in order to make it look like they had a productive day.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that due to the complexity of the modern justice system it's impractical to live a normal life and not break any laws. So the question for citizens is not "how to I not break laws" but rather "how do I stay below the radar of law enforcement?" We know that law enforcement has limited resources and will generally prioritize catching egregious offenders who cause the most harm.
My status as a privileged white male enables me to limit my interactions with law enforcement, thus reducing the chance that I have to deal with our flawed justice system. But I am by no means immune to being targeted. It is a travesty that, as a citizen with no criminal record who pays significant taxes for government services, I also feel the need to modify my own behaviors and expend additional resources to protect myself from my own supposed protectors.
My thoughts go out to those who are not so fortunate.