Friday, July 22, 2016

Pulled Over

Over the past few weeks, as there has been much discussion in the media about the supposedly unjust rates that black people are pulled over by police, it has caused me to reflect on my own experience with local police and my alleged "problems with the law."  It may surprise you to learn that I have been pulled over by the police some two dozen or so times which, in my mind, calls into question the notion that black drivers are pulled over more than white drivers.  You may respond that my anecdotal evidence isn't worth much - and I agree.  But then I must also call into question those anecdotes of black drivers who have allegedly been pulled over for little or no reason.

To be sure, the vast majority of times that I have been pulled over were for nothing, or almost nothing.  Upon reflection, it is clear to me that the officers who pulled me over on almost every occasion did so because they had probably cause to do so based on my exceptionally minor infraction.  In other words, they used the occasion to do a deeper check into who I was and what I was doing.  Let it also be known that in almost every case, the officers in question were justified in pulling me over.  I had indeed broken the law, even if the majority were extremely minor offenses.  In all of the times that I have been pulled over, I have only been ticketed twice - one of which was thrown out in court.

I also feel like I should add that I am perhaps the safest driver I know - just ask my wife - and as a general rule, I delight in following traffic laws.  Seriously.  I'm one of those people who thinks that driving is an inherently dangerous thing to do, and the more everybody obeys the rules, the safer we all will be on the roads.  So I take driving and traffic laws very seriously.  And when stopped by police, I am of the mind that polite compliance is of the highest priority.  The police are the authority on the roads, and are to be respected.

The very first time in my life that I was pulled over was in South St. Paul, on the corner of Marie and 14th Ave. (I remember the location because it was on the corner of the cemetery in South St. Paul).  I was a junior in high school and was driving a 1982 Chevy Caprice Classic wood-paneled station wagon.  The car was quite old by then, and I thought it might be fun to dress it up by painting some ironic flames on the hood, which I did.  Soon after, I came to a four-way stop, with a police officer stopped to my left.  I had clearly arrived at the stop sign before he did, so I left the stop sign first.  As soon as I had made the turn, the lights came one, and I pulled over.  When I rolled down the window, the cop told me that I had "squealed my wheels" when making the turn.  Apparently this was enough to warrant a stop.  I don't recall the tires squealing, but I'll take his word for it.  He then proceeded to shine his flashlight all throughout my car windows to see what was inside (it was at night).  No ticket.

Another time I was driving a Chevy S15 pickup truck that was also old and was suffering from electrical problems.  These problems meant that most of my dashboard indicator lights weren't working - including my bright lights indicator.  While driving down Robert St. I was pulled over for driving with my high beams on, and I went through the usual background and license check.  No ticket.

Still another time, I was visiting my sister in Rosemount one night and began the trip back to South St. Paul via Highway 3.  A section of the highway in Inver Grove Heights is full of twists and turns in the road.  While navigating these turns, it's virtually impossible not to touch either the yellow center line or one of the white shoulder lines, but that's what I was pulled over for this time: swerving, and suspicion of drunk driving.  It was a Sunday night, and I told the officer that I hadn't been drinking, but was just tired.  "Did you wake up early for church this morning?" the officer sarcastically asked.  "Yes, actually," I responded.  No ticket.

While I could go on and on with story after story, I'll leave you with one final anecdote: while working as the janitor at Riverview, one morning on my day off I went into the church at about 8:00 to set up for a meeting that I had forgotten to set up for earlier in the week.  Since it was my day off, when I had finished setting up I went back home (it's about 3.5 miles from the church to where I was living at the time).  Going from West St. Paul to South St. Paul via Wentworth Ave., astute drivers will notice that the speed limit went from 35 mph in West St. Paul to 30 mph in South St. Paul.  The change takes place at the city limits.  By the time I crossed over into South St. Paul, I guess I was still doing the West St. Paul 35 that I was used to.  I was nabbed by an officer, who ticketed me for speeding.  He also informed me that my tabs were expired (which I didn't know at the time).  When he came to my window, he asked if I had been drinking, to which I replied that I had not (it was only 9AM after all, and I wasn't really a drinker).  "But I'm smelling alcohol," the officer said.  "I'm not sure what to tell you.  I haven't been drinking," I replied.  "Get out of the car please," he said.  And then I went through the field sobriety tests on the road.  I hadn't touched a drop of alcohol, so I have no idea how he was "smelling alcohol."  He gave me a ticket for speeding, a warning for the expired tabs, and expounded on the merits of sober driving, with which I agreed.  I got in my Ford van and went on down the road.  I didn't make it home, however, before being pulled over again.  Driving down Southview Ave., another cop passed me going the other way.  As I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw him quickly whip a U turn and turn on his lights.  At this time I wasn't sure if he was after me or someone else, so I just proceeded to turn into our alleyway.  He followed me, and I drove into my parking stall at the house I was renting with my sister.  He boxed my car in, so as to eliminate any means of escape I might take.  As he got out of the car I reached my hand out the window and said, "I just got a ticket."  Then he got back in his car and went on his way.  So yes, I was pulled over twice within a 3.5 mile drive.

Why was I pulled over for these offenses and many others which I haven't even talked about here?  It obviously wasn't because I was black.  Is it because I'm a mean looking guy who has a look about him as though he's up to no good?  I doubt it - at least I've never been accused of that before.  Is it because I drive souped up, fancy sports cars?  Hardly!  Every car I owned up until last year has pretty much been a beater.  So then what is it that has led to all of these pull-overs?  I can only answer that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In other words, I did something that was technically against the law, and the police stopped me for it.  They were in the right and I was in the wrong almost every time - even if it was something minor and stupid.  Is it possible that a black person who has been pulled over several times was profiled and discriminated against?  Yes.  Is it also possible that they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time like me and committed a minor infraction that the officer used to do a more extensive check?  Yes.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that's the story behind all of the times I've been pulled over.

I'm not necessarily trying to make a point by sharing my experiences, and I'm not trying to draw some kind of political conclusion or anything like that.  As someone who has been pulled over two dozen times, I find it interesting.  I should also note that for the past four years it has been my privilege to serve as a volunteer chaplain for the West St. Paul and Mendota Heights police departments.  I greatly appreciate the work our boys in blue do every day.

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