THINKing Outside the Box

I had just begun to park on the street adjacent to my house when I noticed the cruiser behind me. Officer M. asked for my license.

I complied, asking him why I had been pulled over. Answer: “I’ll let you know in a second.” Taking my license, he returned to the cruiser, and presumably found on his computer that I was properly licensed and had no outstanding citations, warrants or other impedimenta on my record.

He returned to my car, and again rebuffing my question as to why I had been pulled over and proceeded to question me: “William”, he said, “Have you ever been in jail? Have you ever been arrested? Put on probation? Are you sure? Is there anything you’re not telling me?”

I replied with little indignation and some heat that the answer was “No” to his questions.

He then asked for the registration and proof of insurance, for the third time refusing to tell me why I had been pulled over. I gave him the documents telling him that the car was registered in my wife’s name. He asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood; I told him I lived here. “You have a different address on your license, William.” “Yes Officer, my wife and I are separated, I live here now.” “Sit tight, William.” He returned to his cruiser, presumably to check that the car was “clean”. It was. When he returned, he told me that he had pulled me over for having tinted windows. “Why the interrogation, Officer?” “I don’t know you, William. I have to be sure of who you are, William. That’s why I ask the questions, William.” I’m about to cite you for the windows and the tail light, William, you don’t want that, do you, William? Or, I could let you go with a warning. . . ”

I took the license and registration back, thanked Officer M. for the warning and drove to the San Juan Capistrano Office of Public Safety. I spoke with the Deputy Sheriff, (he’s white) and this is what he told me:

Technically, Officer M. was within his rights to pull me over. Both the tinted windows and the tail light gave sufficient probable cause. Technically, an officer doesn’t have to tell a motorist why they’ve been pulled over until the moment they release them.

I also spoke with the Desk Sergeant (he’s black) the following day and he confirmed this. He had obviously been told about my earlier visit and the reason for it. He went to great pains to assure me that they would never countenance profiling.

(If you’ve read this far, I want you to decide whether you think I’m paranoid or was profiled. I really want to know what you think, so please e-mail me your thoughts. Next, week, I’ll publish a tally of the responses.

Now, this is what I think:

OK, Officer M., technically you had a reason to pull me over, but the tint on the driver and passenger windows, installed by the factory in 1982 is not so dark that it in any way obscured the view into my car; and in any event, the front windows were both rolled down so I don’t know how you could tell they were illegal. The few square inches of missing plastic off the yellow part of my passenger side tail light did not in any way affect the functionality of the light.

But, if it was only a traffic stop for such innocuous violations, why the mystery and offensive questions that had nothing to do with the traffic stop, particularly when you have that sophisticated computer in your cruiser that no doubt told you I was one of the law abiders? Why the patronizing use of my first name as if I was some punk teenager or wannabe gangster with an attitude and not a man that is at least twenty years your senior, and who should have been addressed as Mr. Bridgeford from the moment my identity was ascertained?

Why the implied threat at the end of the interaction to cite me if I took exception to the manner in which you behaved?

Why the full court press by your superiors to assure me that you are really a great cop that was perhaps a little too zealous to be tactful?

No, Officer M., I’m not calling you a racist, but you profiled and you used the taillight and window excuse as a way to extricate yourself.

Traffic violations be damned; the first thing you saw was my black face and that’s why you pulled me over. It’s a face that is certainly a rarity in the neighborhood where I live; indeed, mine is the only one that I have ever seen.

Maybe you figured I just didn’t belong there and needed to be checked out.

Maybe you thought it was too nice of a car for a minority to drive. Maybe you wanted to impress that trainee you had with you that day. Maybe you just have a testosterone problem. Well, you have your reasons. You have also reaffirmed a complaint so often heard by law abiding citizens of color. I wonder how you would feel if someone showed such an utter lack of regard for the dignity of your mother or wife as you did to me?

Whatever your reasons, my respect for your fraternity has diminished just that much. There’s an old saying where I grew up that goes, “Don’t piss on my back and tell me it’s rain.” I’m going to carry an umbrella just in case I have the misfortune to run into you or one like you again.

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