Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mr. Officer


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 respectable 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 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 he experienced, 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 70 year old ladies. Recent news coverage show tasers can have deadly outcomes as well.

When asked to discuss "Gates Gates" on 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 conversation 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.

14 comments :

RiPPa said...

This was a good read, and I can understand how a mother of a Black male would feel the way you do.

I'm 39yrs old and my mother who lives all the way in NYC still reminds me of how to deal with the police.

I firmly believe that much of what happens in traffic stops if people were more aware of their constitutional rights. If one does, he/she should have nothing to fear or even say to a police officer.

They say knowing is half the battle and I believe it. The police on the other hand "assume" that you're not as knowledgeable, and they take advantage of that in some cases.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I completely support your actions taken to "educate" you male-child. To me, you pro-actively took a safe life saving measuring to ensure that your son "got the message". Again, great post, and thanks for sharing.

--Morphus

vicksburgnews said...

There are lots of report of disrespectful officers coming into the public view in Vicksburg. People are coming to the Vicksburg Mayor and Alderman meetings and voicing their concerns in public. That's not a bad idea. Apparently the the previous mayor would not listen to these concerns, but the new mayor does. I'm so glad to see it.

I had a brief encounter with the local police just for making a u-turn on a 4 lane street. He pulled up next to me as I was getting out of the car after I parked. I was calm and answered his questions and acknowledged everything politely. My father taught me to do that. I suppose all he really wanted was to look at who was driving that red 350Z through town and razz me a little. But it is upsetting and it took me a while to let it go. That's really all you have to do. Just let it go. The officer thought he was doing doing the proper thing and I understand and accept that. We all need to learn to deal with those in authority> For most of us, that means dealing with an authoritative boss. Its very trying. One of the last things my mom taught me was "to hold my taters". That's an old expression which means simply hold back and don't let them provoke you. It got me through the difficult last years at work before I retired.

Renee said...

Really great post, I have been trying to teach my son that Officer Friendly (which is what they are called by schools) is not really friendly. The color of their skin could mean a death sentence with the wrong cop.

Anonymous said...

I often say we must teach Law early to young men. We have allowed so many things to teach our kids that they act the way these things have taught. I say speak correct english and respect the law and you will be fine. I don't talk back to no one so why would we do that to the police. Great work as usual. stay great!

Tanya Derbowka said...

And here I thought that the police were supposed to be public servants. "Serve and protect". While I understand and applaud your efforts to educate your son, it really pisses me the hell of that it is even necessary. The police aren't supposed to be bullies of the state. And how come we get all outraged by the unjust police actions in other parts of the world, yet accept police brutality in our own back yards?

Jim Boyd said...

As our American society comes closer and closer to MLK’s dream (”I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character!!”), it takes more and more work to earn racial victim status here in the good, old USA.

This effort proves it.

Congradulations, Genma Holmes. Your son is now a victim. You’ve relegated him and his thoughts to second-class status

Jim Boyd said...

Oh... Moderated. My comments will never see the light of day here.

Anonymous said...

My dad gave me the exact same instructions and I follow them to this day. I will also emphasize them to my kids when they can drive.

1) Keep you hands on the wheel where they are visible. No sudden moves.
2) Yes sir/no sir
3) Zero attitude

These rules have served me well, I've been pulled over a few times in my life. My mom who is white was made to get out of her car and clean the headlights with snow by a police officer--this was in winter while she was wearing office attire and shoes.

Not sure if he was being a jerk, or if they really needed cleaning. My mom can get lippy, but she didn't here and she did what he asked.

Great article.

nk said...

It never happened. The whole story is a lie.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Mom.

99% of the time, your son would be fine. What you're training him for is the "worst case." That rare (in this day and age, anyway) truly racist/corrupt/thug cop who is just looking for an excuse to give you the business. Lip off to a guy like that, and you're literally taking your life and your freedom in your hands.

That said, some people are naturally smart-alecky, and even a good cop may not be able to resist the urge to teach that person a bit of a lesson. I'm not saying they wouldn't deserve it, or that the cop would do anything illegal, just that it's straight-up stupid to needlessly antagonize ANY stranger, let alone one visibly equipped with a gun, and the legal authority to use it.

Just be nice... even if the cop isn't. NEVER fight an LEO on the side of the road, even verbally; you'll lose. Fight on a level playing field, and that's in court, accompanied by your attorney.

nk said...

Your comments are on my site, but I guess mine will never make it on yours.

Some friendly advice. You may wish to consult with an attorney before confessing to conspiring to get someone to violate an innocent person's civil rights while armed with a handgun. We, that's Americans, don't like that kind of thing these days.

Genmaspeaks said...

@ Mr Boyd,
As our American society comes closer and closer to MLK’s dream (”I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character!!”), it takes more and more work to earn racial victim status here in the good, old USA.

This effort proves it.

Congradulations, Genma Holmes. Your son is now a victim. You’ve relegated him and his thoughts to second-class status

Hi Mr. Boyd,
Thanks for the visiting my blog and posting your responses several times today. Well let me see where to begin...My son has character, thank God for that. It comes from hard work and by God's grace and mercy. Teaching him to respect others does not reduce to him to victim it helped make him a man who values others. Teaching him to submit to the authority of others is part of that training. My father was a police officer, my brother in law covered President Bush 41, another brother-in-law was MP Desert Storm and Iraq, and a brother in law worked for TBI as well as several other officers who are friends, all supported our efforts. And by no means would we ever "relegate" our child to a second class citizen. I suggest you spend time on my blog, reading about my ups and downs of parenting. I love my kids and I share my stories about them often. My granddaddy and his love of politics are mention as well. I weave my stories from my perspective and how they intersect in today's society.

By the way, no victims here. We are God fearing, tax paying, devoted family who do not claim perfection but love life. We love the great, old USA. Thanks for the dialogue and thanks for dropping by my blog.
Sincerely,
Genma Stringer Holmes

Oh, one more thing if you want to read more about my son, check out my blog post called "It Takes a Village". I thanked the community for their love of my son. He's a college graduate, in med school, and employed by the Team USA (US Olympic). The photos of him helping blind runners become athletes will run in Sports Illustrated. He plans to become a sports medicine doc, no second class thinking kid here!

Genmaspeaks said...

@ Nk
Thanks for your comments. This blog is about encouraging others to do better and to look at life outside the box. My posts are mainly about my grandfather's teachings and my family life. Sometimes things are funny and sometime they are not. That's life. This may not be a blog for you.

But thanks for dropping in.