One o’clock in the morning. July. You’re a white cop patrolling an affluent section of town. As usual there isn’t a car on the road. Typical. Inaction waiting for action. You notice a Mercedes 300D pull into a large colonial and observe a man, woman, and two children exit, open the trunk and begin to take out suit cases. “Back from Disney World” you think to yourself.
Two in the morning, same neighborhood, a BMW with one male driver. He’s driving 25mph, exactly the speed limit, not swerving, but, you think, “he’s probably had one too many but is almost home”. He slows down and you notice one brake light is out, but then he turns into the driveway of another large house. Probable cause to check him out, tell him about his brake light, discover he’s impaired right in his own driveway, make absolutely sure this is his house? “A public relations nightmare, forget it,” you say to yourself.
Three A.M., you’re feeling pretty good. Just had a snack and a bull session with a couple of officers from the next town at the City Line Dinner and heard some juicy gossip about a town official and his secretary. You pull around a corner as see a block ahead a dirty old white van make a turn around another corner. You step on it and race down the bock and see that the van has barely gone a hundred yards. It’s cruising at about 15mph. “Lot’s of families on summer vacation,” you notice on the list of the vacant houses you’re supposed to keep an eye on. You hang back and observe, hoping you’ll get a better bust than just an expired ops or at best a decent outstanding warrant or maybe a screw driver and crowbar that could be burglar tools (like that would stand up in court). “Come on,” you say out loud, “make your move.”
“Crap!” He’s picking up speed and turning to leave the neighborhood. He’s made you. You grab your mike and call in the stop and hit the over-heads. You pull up behind the van, call in the plate, your back-up is a minute away. The van is a beater, a quick count, four equipment violations at least, probably no insurance. At least it won’t be a total loss. Already you know they were casing the neighborhood. You approach the vehicle by the book, and then some, gun drawn and out of view behind your leg. You notice inside either:
Three white males in their late teens to early twenties.Clean shaven. College sweatshirts. Empty beer cans. “Whatsamatta offiser” the driver slurs. “Were we doing something wrong, sir,” one of the passengers adds.
Three black males in their late teens to early twenties. Clean shaven. College sweatshirts. Empty beer cans. Whatsamatta offiser" the driver slurs. “Were we doing something wrong, sir,” one of the passengers adds.
The question I pose is obvious. What difference does race make in this scenario? It isn’t a trick question to root out latent racism, in fact there’s no trick here. But your racial attitudes and prejudices will effect your answer and in reality, how you’d respond on the street in a real situation like this. You have to take into account all factors in a stop like this. There are two possible crimes involved, impaired driving with open alcohol; or casing the neighbor with a B and E planned. College students pull B and E’s too. Drinking is sometimes involved with amateurs. Blacks and whites pull them. In fact, rich kids rob their parents and neighbors. Poor kids and rich kids drive beat up old vans. They stay out all night and drink beer. They cruise neighborhoods at random.
But, there has to be a reason, even pure chance, that these particular young men are in this particular neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning. Does one of them live there? Are there black families in the neighborhood? Race is an issue here because if there aren’t and you know this right off, your suspicions should be raised. But it is just another fact and it doesn’t mean you’re a racist. Race is only a statistical tool here, a question of what is more likely. It is simply more likely that white kids have a reasonably innocent reason for drainage around this white neighborhood than black kids. Just stats, but nothing you should risk your life over. But like I said, white kids rob their own neighbors too, so the fact that the kids are white shouldn’t lull you into complacency. A gun is a gun in anyone’s hand. Racism works both ways, pre-judging someone negatively because they are black or positively because they are white makes you not only a racist but a less effective officer. Or a dead one.
Racism is, plain and simple, prejudice. It means one judges someone based merely on their race. It means that race influences how you think about someone’s character before you find out who they are. Racism is not taking into account situational factors. For example, what is a white kid in a Lexus doing in a virtually all black neighborhood which is known to have a drug dealer on every street corner? Is it prejudice or reverse racism to consider that there is a good chance he’s there looking to buys drugs? Of course not.
Can you be a good cop and still be a racist? If you never act inappropriately on your racist beliefs and define good cop as adequate in most situations, perhaps. But you can’t be a great one; not the best of the best. Because racism makes you less of a person, less objective, less self-aware. It clouds and distorts your judgement and impairs critical thinking. Consider, the racist officer in these two situations, both of which have happened:
You’re in a fight for your life, in a dark alley, the perp is berserk, going for your gun which is in your hand but he has a death grip on the barrel and is trying to point it back at you. He wants you dead and you know it. Then you hear the words “police, freeze” and you look up and see a black man in jeans and a torn pea coat holding a badge in one hand and pointing a .40 cal Glock at both of you. In that moment the perp is confused and relaxes his grip on your gun and you pull it free and find yourself pointing your gun at a shabbily dressed black man who is pointing a gun at you. “I’m on the job!” he says as he seems to shift his aim to the perp you were wrestling with. But, you think, badges are a dime a dozen, and my life is on the line here. Does the fact that he’s black enter into your decision in the next half-second? If you harbor racist attitudes deeply enough, that split second could mean the death of a fellow officer. The only things right to consider are the facts: if he wasn’t an officer, he would have already shot you being the main one; plus scumbags who have the presence of mind to flash a badge while aiming a police issue Glock .40 cal. and using the lingo are probably nonexistent.
You make a routine traffic stop. White guys … okay, you saw this one on television. They were white, armed, and wanted you dead. And almost made it happen to one or two officers. Happens all the time. I won’t bore you with details, but here’s one I’m familiar with. My friend in Michigan was backing up another officer on a stop, he came up on the passenger side and noticed two men in the front and a woman, all white, in the back with a jacket on her lap. She didn’t observe him, but he watched as she put her hand under the jacket and withdrew a .45 automatic. As he later told me, he smashed the window with his .357 and put the barrel in her ear. The occupants of the car, it turned out, had just robbed a liquor store. The woman was holding all the weapons.