“Up against the car – spread ’em”
A little dribble of pee might have run down my son’s leg at that point. He didn’t include that detail in his story, but as jacked up as he was when he got home Monday night, I’d say it’s a distinct possibility.
“I’m gonna pat you down. You got anything on you that’ll stick me, poke me?”
“I’ve got this pocket knife,” Lou said to the cop, drawing it out of his pocket.
“A weapon! What’s this for? What do you need to carry a knife for?”
“I was just out fishing. I’m on my way home.” He pulls out the Swiss Army knife he got just two days earlier as a groomsman’s gift.
I’m not sure when it became a crime to carry a pocket knife (except for some time after 9/11 in an Airport) in your own pocket, in your own car, in a small community where over 80 percent of the population hunts and fishes and where over half are farmers – a population that would, logically, carry pocket knives, but whatever, Officer Dickhead.
I think that’s what I would have said to Officer Dickhead had he pulled me over for not having a front license plate, accused me of being a pothead and then pulled me out of my car to search both me and my vehicle. But, my 18-year-old son was probably smart to keep his mouth shut.
The officer who pulled him over had a legitimate reason for doing so, I suppose – a missing license plate. Although, it was displayed in the front window. I suspect if it had been me, the officer would have let me pass on through, but a teenage boy after dark? No chance.
Not having the license plate on wasn’t the biggest mistake my son made, though. His real offense was reaching down to get his drivers license before the cop asked for it. It makes cops feel like their safety is at risk. Ok. I can buy that. But the way in which the officer treated him throughout the stop – completely unacceptable. And I feel stupid to admit it, but I was completely shocked at what my son described next.
According to Lou, the officer walks up to my son’s car and, after establishing why he was pulled over, says, “Where’d you get that license?” Lou looks at the plate and says, “Well my dad just got these for the car…”
“The DRIVER’S license,” the cop sneers at him.
“Oh – down there from my wallet,” Lou points at the floor of the passenger seat.
“You got your weed stashed there too?”
“Oh really?” The cop asks him. “When’s the last time there was weed in this car.”
“Never,” says Lou.
“Where’d you get this car?” the cop asks.
“My grandma gave it to me.” The car in question, just so you can visualize, is a maroon 1992 Escort station wagon affectionately named Red Velvet.
“Oh, so you and your boys weren’t just out smoking weed?” Lou glances over his shoulder at his empty backseat. As he re-tells it, he wanted to ask the officer if he noticed the car was empty, but he decided against it. Probably a good call.
“Take off your belt.”
And I am not lying to you when I say that Lou starts loosening the belt of his pants.
“Not that one! The seatbelt,” the cop yells at him.
Now, if anyone out there is familiar with a 1992 Escort, you’ll remember that these sweet little cars have automatic seatbelts. The only way Lou knew how to undo the belt was to pop the door ajar. Mistake #2. Apparently the cop couldn’t see his hand shaking as he held his license or figure out that his naive responses indicated that he was scared half out of his wits by this cop.
“Out of the car!” he yells, “Out – now!” And that’s when the pat-down occurs. After taking the knife, he tells Lou, “Step over to the bumper. I need to search this car.”
Now I’m no constitutional scholar, but I’m pretty sure there’s an amendment about unlawful search and seizure. I think it says that there needs to be some kind of indication that you’ve done something wrong before they can search your vehicle. Or, they need to ask your permission, which this guy did not. Not that Lou would have said no – he had nothing to hide. But, I don’t think that’s really the point here.
I have to admit that I’ve seen all the stories in the news about police brutality and police harassing young people, particularly young black men. I’m going to be honest and say that my stance as generally been, “Well, if there’s nothing to hide….” And, judging from my own personal experiences with the police (which have been several. I’ve got a handful of speeding tickets under my belt, and I’ve gotten out of more than one ticket too, I’m proud to say), usually the police are pretty fair and respectful. And I’m sure most of them are. To most people.
But, I can tell you I’ve changed my stance on this one. This isn’t the first, but the second time my son has been (what I would consider) harassed by a police officer, being pulled over for a petty infraction that, committed by a middle aged woman like me, would never have gotten a second glance.
The car was searched thoroughly (by the cop. Lou asked if he wanted help, but he declined. Politely, I’m sure) and the officer found nothing, which is no surprise. After taking the knife back to the cruiser and doing whatever it is cops do back their in their cruisers while you are breaking out in a cold sweat waiting to find out if you’re getting a ticket, he came back and let my son go. He had to have realized pretty early in the stop that my son was no threat to him, whatsover. Yet, he felt like it was necessary to intimidate him anyway.
The incident had several effects on my son. He was humiliated that he was standing spread eagle against his car, being patted down like a criminal in the middle of our small town. No doubt there’s going to be gossip about The Doc’s son being a criminal (I’m not kidding. Everyone knows The Doc, nobody in this small town minds their own business, and everyone likes to fill in the blanks of a story that’s missing any details). He was scared out of his mind. He was angry at being treated like a criminal when he hadn’t done anything wrong. He resented the implication that he had been smoking pot or in possession of it just because he is an 18-year old boy. Being spoken to with such a condescending and accusatory tone immediately flared his defenses up. Thankfully, he’s mature enough to control the urge to return the same treatment as he was being given.
The incident had several effects on me, too. First, I was outraged. How dare someone treat my kid like that? He’s a good kid! With that reaction came the realization that I might be a little bit too overprotective as a parent. That reaction was reinforced when The Doc went storming out of the house to have a conversation with Officer Dickhead himself. Then, I was afraid. I was afraid not only for my son and what could have happened to him had he made the bone-headed choice to talk back to this cop. Kids make bone-headed choices all the time. It’s kind of part of being a kid. I teach high school, so I know this for a certainty. But I was also afraid for the other kids out there, and I’m going to say it even though it might not come across politically correct: I felt afraid for the black kids, especially the boys.
I know full well that had my daughter been driving that car, my husband, me – we wouldn’t have been stopped. And, if we had, we certainly wouldn’t have been accused of having drugs in the car, pulled out of the vehicle, patted down and searched. I know it. (I’m actually considering intentionally trying to get pulled over to test this theory, but a ticket would kill my insurance premium). There’s no doubt my son was targeted because he was a teenage male. In our small town, with a very small African-American population, I can only imagine what would have happened had that cop pulled over a black kid. This incident has, for the first time in my life, really made me feel suspicious of the police. Not for myself. I’m sure I’ll still be treated with the same kind of respect I always have been. But I’m going to forever more wonder about those stories I hear.
It’s a shame, really. With so many wonderful, caring, professional and respectful law enforcement officers on the streets, it only takes one encounter like this one to taint an attitude and a perception. The distrust that people feel – I understand it in a way I never thought I would. It makes me sad, actually, that this is the world we live in. It’s sad that a few people, given a little power, feel the need to use it to intimidate and antagonize others.
So in closing, and in the spirit of trying to find the good in everything, an important lesson here, my friends is this: don’t bend down until someone asks you to. Now that I look at it, I think that could be a helpful lesson in many-a situation. Thank you, Officer Dickhead.