Have you ever been stopped by a cop for a reason that made absolutely no sense? Everyone has a story. I have learned by trial and error that my attitude often determines the outcome of the situation. When my sons were becoming older teens who wanted to drive, my fear of an attitude with a police officer was overwhelming. National headlines have given credence to the pain of mothers who have lost sons as a result of routine traffic stops that lead to death, especially for young black men.
Whether we like it or not, an officer is in charge when one is stopped. The questions, the tone, and the information that is written in the police report are orchestrated by the officer. What I have tried to instill in my sons is to keep the conversation respectful but short. It is “yes sir” or “no sir” at all times, regardless of what others may think.
Keep your hands on the steering wheel and your body relaxed to help the officer remain unruffled, I would plead. No jerky movements, I have counseled. Your body language and tone of voice is being scrutinized by an officer with a badge and gun. By staying calm, you can keep the interaction limited. Paying attention to your mom’s instructions can add years to your life. Ages ago in a small town in Mississippi, my grandparents imparted the same words to me.
My sons are part of the Millennial Generation. Their curiosity can be mistaken for defiance. A question like, “What did I do?” can land them handcuffed in the back of a squad car if they are dealing with an officer, who has no patience for young people questioning them. Questioning a cop can be perceived as disrespectful and unacceptable. The more questions peppered at an officer can extend your time with him/her. That extension of time can lead to: unfair treatment, embarrassment, humiliation, or in many cases, “accidental” death.
I warned my eldest, on many occasions, that driving around with friends could attract a cop’s attention who may assume he was participating in gang activities. Of course, my kids believed these tirades were illogical and I was being overprotective. For some folks, you have to show them the light.
To put my words into application, I once asked a recent graduate from the police academy to help my eldest son understand that my worries were valid. He assured me he would teach him an unforgettable lesson. Several evenings later, my unsuspecting man-child was stopped by the graduate and was asked a slew of unimportant questions. Where are you going tonight? Is this your car? Why are you out so late? What do your parents do? The list was endless. The barrage of inquiries was intended to irritate and distract. As my son started to lose his composure and show his annoyance, the officer became more “aggressive,” my son said later.
Consequently, he ended up on the hood of his SUV faced down and was told to address the officer as “Mr. Officer, sir.” After a being given a fictional ticket and the fright of his life, he came home shaking with rage. As he tried to explain his terrorizing encounter, I continued the interrogation by asking about his actions that provoked the officer. I could hear the disbelief in his voice as he tried to repeat the sequence of events. I was not interested in the cop’s behavior but his responses to the cop. I saw the white-hot anger on his face. I remind him that his exasperation was what others experienced daily. You are lucky to be alive and you should never forget tonight, I told him. The next day, his dad shared the same sentiments, Son, you may be right but anytime you have a run in with a cop, YOU have to remain in control. He has a gun and a badge. You have to live to tell what happened.
Some criticized me for the extreme measure I took to teach that lesson. But when I see the disproportionate number of traffic stops that turned deadly for young black men, I am glad he was stopped by a trusted friend. I advocate mandatory cop interaction classes for all drivers. Tasers have replaced guns as weapons of choice by officers who have used them on everyone from teens to seventy-year-old ladies. Recent news coverage show tasers can have deadly outcomes as well.
When asked to discuss ‘Gates Gates’ for a national radio show last month, I declined. My frank thinking would not have fit into the national conversation about the Harvard Professor’s arrest. Was it racism at play? To me, the real story was the inconsistency in the 911 recording and the police report. Focusing on Gates’ education or his statue in life had nothing to do with the arrest. Common sense from driving down Hwy 61 in Mississippi and Andrew Jackson Blvd. in Hermitage, TN has trained me to keep the exchange with an officer to a minimum. If I am treated unfairly by an officer, then my influence and contacts would be used to seek justice in a court of law. It is better to walk away alive with a bruised ego, than to end up in jail or worse … in a morgue.