Police Stops: What Would You Do In This Situation?

Saturday afternoon, July 16, 2016,  as we were driving  along  Swinton Street in Delray Beach, FL, we came across a suspicious looking traffic stop, with two one-man police cruiser parked in the travel lane.  The officers in question were in the process of taking a younger looking black man from a fairly nondescript SUV. (The picture attached to this article is a file photo, and it will become important for to you to know that shortly.)

What was Suspicious About It?

Delray Beach is a hamlet that thinks it’s a city in Palm Beach County, right on the Atlantic Ocean, with Boynton Beach to the north and Boca Raton to the south. It is, to put it bluntly, a place where a small number of fantastically wealthy people have homes, but is becoming a harder and harder place to live if you’re not one of them. I’m not one of them.

What was suspicious about the traffic stop is that it is practically impossible to get a ticket in Delray Beach.  No one drives the speed limit or, conversely, drives slower than they walk. Drivers habitually make left hand turns from the right hand lane, and right hand turns from the left hand lane, stopping at green lights and running the red ones, and then they flip you off when you blast them with your horn..

Many of them are senior senior citizens. (I’m considered middle aged, if that,  in West DelRay.) The further west you go in Delray (which ends where the Everglades begin,)  the older the people get…but Delray Beach has two very unusual characteristics, a very high percentage of houses of worship of the Christian persuasion, in a largely Jewish community, and one of the highest numbers of substance abuse treatment beds per capita of any community in the United States.

I don’t find this amusing, because I spent twenty years running drug rehabilitation programs and ended up accidentally retiring to a community in which drug treatment services appear to be the most important industry in the area.  The realization that so many of the younger (and some not so younger) people in this town are in rehab explains some of the traffic anxieties in the community.

Back to the Traffic Stop

I slowed down, because I had to give way to oncoming traffic, which gave me enough time to glance over quickly to see what was going, and it seemed to be an ordinary traffic stop….except that there is no such thing as an ordinary traffic stop  in the United States any more.  What made this stop significant, as I said, is that it is practically impossible to get popped for a moving violation in Delray Beach and, when you do, you never see two squad cars showing up to deliver it.

Nothing Went Down on Swinton Street

Swinton Street is a narrow two-way street, with one traffic lane in each direction, and basically no on street parking, although people park on the shoulders all the time.  The road passes through a succession of communities ranging from economically challenged (read: mostly black people live here) to quite stable (read: mostly white people live there.)

The area where the stop took  place is predominantly a black neighborhood,  but it is currently undergoing gentrification, which means that black owners and renters are being pushed out to create room for new, mostly white,  higher income renters. There’s a building boom going on in South Florida, with housing values going up by double digits for the past three years, which makes the land under the more modest dwellings worth more than the houses themselves, sometimes much more.

These factors combined to make the traffic stop “interesting” because people – or at least white people – don’t often get stopped for moving violations, because all those rehabilitation beds have resulted in Delray Beach having a much bigger drug problem (where there are people in recovery, there are always people looking to sell drugs) than a typical community of the same size, and because of what has been going down in places like Minnesota and Louisiana.

I was driving. I kept on going.  We didn’t stop. I thought about stopping.  My significant other, the passenger in this case, thought about stopping, but neither of us said anything to the other.

Second Thoughts about  Second Thoughts

The next day, we -Satya and I – were talking about having passed the traffic stop, and we discovered that many thoughts passed through our minds at the same time.

Satya worried that something might happen to the driver, and almost asked me to stop….but didn’t.

I was concerned that something might happen and, if it did, we could very well end up in the line of fire, so I kept on going.

Now, as a more or less semi-retired, part-time reporter, I habitually pull over to gawk at unfolding events, looking for stories. Usually, Satya tells me to grow up and keep my eyes on the road.  This time, our roles were reversed. She wanted to stop. I wanted to keep going.

I’m not a coward, but I was armed with licensed firearm and, given the events of the past two weeks, I didn’t think it would be a good idea for me to play the “citizen reporter” with my cell phone camera while being armed and white.

You see, that’s the key part of this story. Armed and white. I knew that there was a very low likelihood that I, as a white, middle aged (okay, let’s face it, senior) citizen would get shot down in the street the way Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were, but I also knew that after the events of the past five days, most cops aren’t going to be receptive to being filmed while doing their jobs.

The Camera as a Trigger

Given the recent publicity about what civilians can and cannot do when they come across such situations, I didn’t think I would get arrested. (But the black man who uploaded the first video of the Alton Sterling killing was in fact arrested as a result of doing so.)

If I were arrested, however, and my legal, licensed firearm were found on my person, I knew that, while it was unlikely that I would end up getting shot, I wasn’t going to be allowed to just walk away from that situation without having to answer some serious questions. I also thought that my recording what might have turned out to have been a completely innocuous incident might turn that incident into something more emotionally charged. That’s what happens when you point cameras at people: they start acting out, playing to the cameras. At the same time, cops will normally become more defensive because the very act of filming their activities suggests that you suspect them of being in the process of doing bad things, even when they aren’t doing anything of the sort.

Years ago, when I was just beginning to learn about the news business, I was present at quite a few events while they were happening. Later, when I saw the homogenized, pasteurized, sanitized and edited coverage on the air, or in print,  it often looked nothing like the event in which I had been either a witness or a participant. Big surprise there, right?

This happens all the time. When you are shooting an event, or editing the footage, everything you see is inside the frame. That’s just the way that cameramen and editors are trained, to focus on the frame.  The reporters are supposed to have a wider field of vision, but it often doesn’t turn out that way. It is also true, however, that, if you are the participant in an event, you’re probably not going to remember it the same way that a more impartial observer might remember it.

You, as a member of the audience, have no way of knowing (unless someone tells you, and that’s hearsay) what happened before the filming began, or what happened after the cameras were turned off. That information is usually lost forever.

But, being aware of all these things, I made the decision not to stop because there didn’t appear to be anything going on that I could do anything about one way or the other, but there was a significant possibility that my presence at the event could make things worse for everyone involved.

The Militarization of US?

Last night, I spoke this incident with a close friend of mine, and since I haven’t asked her permission to talk about her, I will just call her “Sharon,” which is not her name. “Sharon” is a retired state legislator, city counselor, management consultant and community activist whom I have known for around 30 years, if not longer. She’s black, but she bears an uncanny resemblance to my late mother, who wasn’t black, but both “Sharon” and my mother had some Native American blood, so that might have been the connection.

We talked, as we always do, about the political situations in which we find ourselves. More than a month ago, we discussed the probability that there would be attacks on police officers if the random shootings of black people kept up their pace, which, if the statistics can be believed, are down significantly over the past 20 years. Nevertheless, we were both concerned about the possibility of police shootings becoming a regular event in the United States, and what might result from that.

We speculated then, and speculate now, that random shootings of police officers by black people could result in a further escalation of tensions between  black communities and police forces around the country. We both felt that the large numbers of younger police officers (these days I’m older than any of the cops I see on the street) who have seen duty in Afghanistan and Iraq are contributing to the militarization of American police forces, because many officers have served in places where they could be shot from ambush at any time which makes people understandably nervous.

You do as you have been taught. You do what works. In Afghanistan and Iraq, an aggressive reaction to even the slightest intimations of danger become commonplace. Then, those soldiers come home, put on police uniforms, and go back out onto the street, bringing with them the knowledge and experience they picked up overseas.

I’m not saying that all of the officers involved in the shootings have military backgrounds, Some do, I think. Others don’t What I am saying is that the percentage of U.S., police officers who have had recent military experience is much higher than we might think, if we ever bothered to think about it. Those officers are contributing to the military “look and feel” of many American police forces which, in some cases, have been accused of looking like an occupation army, which is probably hyperbolic, but hyperbole only exists because there is an underlying reality of which the hyperbole is an exaggeration.

The Question is What Would You Do?

I asked “Sharon” what she would have done, which was another way of asking, “What do you think I should have done?”

She said, and I quote, “Black as I am, I still would have stopped and gotten out of my car to watch.”

Well, if  “Sharon” can do that, so can I. The next time, if ever, I come across such an incident, I will stop.  I will watch.  I am not going to film what I see, because I really think that civilian cameras being pointed at police officers could make things worse, as they already have on numerous occasions around the world.

So, I have made my decision. Should I ever be in those circumstances again, I will do what Sharon says she would have done. Stop, watch, and if necessary bear witness. (I will however leave my gun in the car if I get out.)

The question, however, is what would you do? Would you stop?  Would you pull out your phone and start filming whatever was going on. Would you step forward to protest a violation of a citizen’s constitutional rights, and did this article change your thinking about what you would do?

I don’t ever want to be in the position of encouraging anyone to do anything that is beyond their capacity. If you can’t handle yourself on the street, don’t intervene. If you don’t have a really firm grip on your temper, walk away, because you are more likely to become part of the problem than part of the solution.  If you are suffering from black guilt, don’t  act, because you would be acting out of self-interest. If you act at all, remember that you are acting to prevent or curtail violence, not trigger it.

If we really want to play a role in making things better, this may be what it comes down to, going out onto the streets, stepping forward when bad things are about to happen and putting our white faces (and our white lives) on the line to stop people from being killed, and to prevent our society from being torn apart at the seams.

So, okay, now the ball is in your court. Seriously, what would you really do?  

Postscript:

I deliberately did not post videos of any of the shootings. You’ve seen them already, and posting them again just pours fuel on the flames besides, though tragic, it isn’t news any more.  I did check with the Delray Police Department. There was apparently a warrant served at the address in question. One individual was arrested. No injuries were reported.

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