So, by now perhaps some of you have seen this:
Okay. I’m gonna be honest. Obviously I’m not a police officer; but if I were, I might have gotten a liiiiiiiiittle bit nervous when the motorist, Levar Jones, “dove head-first back into [his] car,” as the Officer Sean Groubert explains in an effort to justify the use of deadly force. My anxiety level probably would have hiccupped, I admit.
I know that guy, Levar Jones. No, not personally. I’ve never met him in particular. But I swear, he is damn near half the guys I went to college with. He’s a lot of my friends. He’s my brothers. He’s my nephew. When he zipped himself around and leaned into his car, I’m assuming Officer Groubert translated that body language as something like, “Let me get my gun and off this f*cking pig before he locks me up.” But to me, Jones’ body language conveyed something very different. To me, that nervous, fidgety spin and reach (after patting his pockets) was code for “Oh sh*t, I’ve been pulled over! Wait, where’s my license? Let me hurry up and get it before this cop thinks I’m being non-compliant!” That’s what many of my friends and relatives would have been thinking. That’s what they’ve often said to me when recounting interactions with police: a frantic, desperate, life-or-death race to over-comply as quickly as possible, before the cop suspects non-compliance.
I used to feel the same way. I distinctly remember in my teens and 20s being pulled over and hustling to strategize on how not to get shot by the police officer. No joke — that was my actual goal during a traffic stop. Literally. I’d look in the rear-view mirror and begin a focused planning process. Get it together, Tiff. You’ve got about eight seconds to minimize the odds that this guy will shoot you. It was a harrowing experience, with all the drama of a Hollywood suspense thriller. Everything would suddenly go into extreeeeeme sloooooow moooooootiooooon. All sounds would be muted except for my own heartbeat and belabored breathing (replete with cavernous echo). A gratiutous bead of sweat would fall from my temple (in slow motion of course) and hit my arm with a reverberating thud. Then a cacophonous chord of off-key strings would wail to a high-pitched crescendo, just like in the horror flicks…. The whole shebang. And all the while, this ominous avatar of unhappy endings approaches my car with torturous deliberation: a heavily-weaponized herald of woe. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
And that was when I encountered police by myself. If my brothers or male friends were in the car, oh. Multiply the terror by a thousand. By ten thousand.
I don’t feel that way any more, for several reasons. First and foremost, I’ve now met and gotten to know a lot of police officers. I’ve trained with them and been trained by them. And after a few building-clearing exercises with simunitions, I can say I’ve had the ocassion to enter an unknown space where anything could happen. And I was scared. Out of my mind. I thought the adrenaline was going to burst right through my skin. And that was just training! Despite my dread, I knew deep down it was all pretend and I wasn’t going to die. So I can’t even imagine the real-life version.
Anyway, that experience gave me just a nano-smidgen of what police must feel like when they encounter a total stranger in an unpredictable situation, especially with all the craziness in the world today. I have since learned some simple things I can do to help put officers a bit more at ease — not because I fear they want to shoot me, but just because I’d hate to visit that feeling of terror on some poor bloke who’s just trying to do his job. After all, it’s not his fault I was speeding.
But here’s the rub. My nephew, my friends, my brothers — most of them haven’t had that experience. So when they get pulled over, in their mind this situation is balanced on the edge of a knife. In the interest of not getting shot (or arrested or beat up), they are soooooo anxious to comply that a quick movement is misconstrued. And the southward derailment that they were so desperate to avoid suddenly befalls them, as it did for Levar Jones (whose apology for being shot nearly reduced me to tears).
There are evil, hateful people in the world. But I think far more often folks are just afraid. Everybody’s scared. It’s a powder keg. And whether it’s a race thing or a culture thing or a generational thing or some other thing is really less important than the ultimate fact that all too often we simply speak different languages. There’s just got to be a better balance struck between caution and paranoia, and that goes for civilians and law enforcement. It breaks my heart that so many people who I love are afraid of the police. It also breaks my heart to hear Levar Jones pleading for an answer to one question: “Why did you shoot me?”
I’ve got more to say on this. But at 850 some-odd words, I better stop for now…