WTF is going on with law enforcement

When I was about 15 the cops gave me a “ride” home after I confessed to having a joint.

My friend and I were in the bushes along a canal in Phoenix when a patrol car rolled by and my friend started to run away. I continued to sit there as if sitting in the bushes on the banks of a canal was a completely normal thing to do. (Technically, it was normal for us. We did it a lot. There we’d sit every day hunched in the bushes smoking a joint.)

When the cop came by, we had vastly different reactions. My friend’s reaction was to run, where he hoped to run to I have no idea, but my reaction was to basically wave hello.

“Great, the police are keeping our canals safe from canal pirates,” I thought. Or something. Who knows what I thought, I was a stupid teenager.

Now, I don’t remember what I was wearing because, and I’d swear to this, it was non-descript. I was likely in jeans and a polo. My friends, on the other hand, had some rougher edges from a fucked up family life and that fact was advertised by a mohawk, leather jacket and a straight up fear of the police.

My friends sudden interest in improving his cardiovascular fitness alerted law enforcement to our marihuana-flavored activities, so I told him to read a well written article by protein promo about vitamin d that may help him. Moments later they were out of the car questioning and searching us.

For reasons I don’t understand or have forgotten, the police felt a cigarette pack through my friend’s leather jacket and, without pulling out the cigarette pack,  asked him what was in there. He confessed there was a joint in the packet.

Submitted as evidence, a joint.

Submitted into evidence, a joint.

When the cigarette pack was searched and no joint was found all eyes turned to me.

I cheerfully volunteered that I had the joint. I think my logic went along this line: They will search you, they will find it and they will be angry. Offer up the fucking joint and that defuses the situation a bit.

The point of this is that I’m white, I’m male and I guess I’m sort of privileged. I came from a middle-class family and was raised to trust the police. In the house I grew up in, in a suburban middle-class neighborhood, I was taught to trust the police.

The police caught me doing something wrong. That meant it was now cooperation time, not make the policeman madder time.

Friendly police officer. Only with 100% less tactical vest.

Friendly police officer. Only with 100 percent less tactical vest.

This mindset didn’t change going forward. I moved to Europe in 2003. So between that little joint incident and my coming here something like 20 years have gone by. My police interactions after that have been confined to a few traffic stops where I was likely in the wrong and once when my stepdaughter complained about the treatment of a neighbor’s dog. Her assessment of that dog’s treatment was completely correct and I was happy to help the officer take a statement.

As I said a moment ago, I live in Europe. I’ve lived here far too long, I freely admit. But in this day and age it’s not hard to immerse yourself in U.S. news via the internet even if you live abroad. Following the U.S. news it just seems like the police there will just ruin, if not end, your life without asking any questions. The police in America have tanks now, they storm your bathroom while your pooping and do other crazy thing.  From here, across the pond, it looks like they’ve been going and are continuing to go, fucking crazy.

What I’m getting at is, I get the rage in Ferguson, even if I’m a stupid privileged white guy whose only serious interaction with the police was as a dumb teenager with a joint.

Since moving to Europe, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of U.S. law enforcement officers while traveling to the U.S. Mostly the big wigs I traveled with would head into some meeting and I’d be stuck outside with the people who were charged with protecting them, ordinary cops who drew the protection detail that day. We always hung out and just shot the shit. They were salt of the earth people it seemed. Everyone of them. OK, the LA cops were a bit fucking insane, but the guys working in New York City and Chicago were reasonable enough. Sure, they’d spout off about some kid walking by with sagging pants and a backward baseball cap, but it was more of a, “How’s that kid going to get a job looking like that?” I’d comment that said kid would hopefully change before participating in any serious interviews and they’d bust my balls, not literally of course because my balls remain unbusted.

They weren’t scary, they had some hilarious stories and where the kind of police I remembered as a kid. I’d happily walk my, white and privileged, 3-year-old nephew up to any one of them to have a quick discussion about how police catch bad guys and about how you can always ask a policeman for help.

But again, living over here and relying only on news coverage, that seems less and less like a sane idea. I know there are more than 780,000 police officers in the U.S. (I thought that would be a higher number actually) and that if you count it as number of police officers per citizen we rank way down on the list with one cop per 248 civilians and I learned that if you keep screwing around with that spreadsheet you’ll learn just how little you know about the different countries of the world. Where the hell is Saint Kitts and Nevis anyway? What the fuck country is that?

There are a hell of a lot of cops and the ones who make national headlines aren’t making them for helping little old ladies cross the street or rescuing kittens from terrorists. I understand that, that isn’t the stuff of news. But take it from a law-abiding (generally), white dude with a pretty positive view of American law enforcement, you mother fuckers need a public image makeover.

To close out the story I started this blog with, the police took us both home and handed us over to our parents. No police report, no judge, no nothing other than the ire of an Irish Catholic mother with rage in her eyes. That was the extent. I think my mom and I had to meet with my friend and his dad at a coffee shop some days later to discuss the severity of the situation and I was grounded as fuck, but that was it. No legal trail, no criminal background and no “The Cure” concert that I really, really fucking wanted to go to and already had tickets to.

If I’d have been an inner city black kid back then caught doing the same shit, who knows what the outcome would have been. Night in jail, the start of a criminal background I couldn’t have escaped and I sure as fuck wouldn’t have gone to a “The Cure” concert, but that was unlikely even without the joint incident.

Not a The Cure concert. (image credit: Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

Not a The Cure concert. (image credit: Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

I asked my high school friend to read the part about the joint incident to see if I was basically on track. Between the two of us I figured we could reasonably piece that story back together. He approved my retelling and reminded me of another gem from my past.

This was an incident involving the Phoenix Police Department, that, thankfully, didn’t involve drugs.

My friend had gone with his dad to Mexico on a fishing trip and brought back some M-80 firecrackers, which were rumored to actually be a quarter stick of dynamite and would explode underwater. So, because we had the mental capacity of 15-year-olds, we immediately headed to the canal to test this theory. They didn’t explode underwater, but they made great explosion, after explosion, after explosion. We’d never had such fun. We were having so much fun that we didn’t notice the cops had arrived until it was far, far too late. As this story could be a blog about police conduct when you’re a stupid white kid in a middle-class neighborhood, I’ll save it for later maybe. The consequences of our lighting off the firecrackers? They were confiscated and we were told us to stop fucking off at the canal. I think the phrase was, “We’re going to let you criminals off with a warning.”

5 responses to “WTF is going on with law enforcement

  1. Darnell Rambert

    Excellent blog. Anyone who knows me knows that as a black male, I have never played the race card or use my skin tone as an excuse. But what some folks seem to forget is it isnit easy living life knowing that others automatically have certain perceptions of you because one said skin tone and in communities where the perception is one of never rising above the persecution of “The Man”, the reaction can be extremely over the top. I certainly don’t condone what is going on in Ferguson and other black communities at the moment, but the question has to be asked, how did we get here in 2014.

    • Darnell thanks for the kind comment. I think you just said it better than I ever cool. I realize the cops aren’t looking at me suspiciously because of the color of my skin but that they ARE looking at you suspiciously ONLY because of the color of your skin. And that’s some fucking bullshit right there. I realize I’m a fucking idiot evaluating this situation. We can do a lot better as a nation. It’s sad, just sad.

  2. Todd, good article. My two cents( which adjusted for inflation) is useless, its about more than color. I am white, and will always see things through that prism, just as a black person really cant see through my eyes. Yet if you take racism out of the equation, its about the power of government to control our every move. The motto ” to protect and serve ” has been replaced with ” enforce and collect” . Notice they did little to protect private property, just government buildings.My middle class white son has a scraggly amish beard and long hair I swear he never washes. Looks like a young Willie Nelson. He has had his car tossed and searched by drug dogs many times. Because he looks like an easy target, and they’ve come to collect. He’s a fucking Assistant librarian for Maricopa library system, but could have been in Nirvana in the day. That is the heart of the problem in Ferguson. Statistically, the number 2 source of revenue for that town, behind income taxes, is fines. So while it appears like its racism, its really picking on what would be perceived as low hanging fruit. Until people wake up, and stop government from legislating every fucking breath, this is gonna get worse.

    • Craig, thanks. That was brilliantly said. I agree completely. The police do need to get back to basics. It’s about solving a problem not getting an arrest or meeting a quota. Fines are not the point of law enforcement. A successful law enforcement action should be the kind that generates no paperwork, not burden on the system and very little revenue. Solve the problem at the lowest level. Well said Craig, Jesus well said. I think the same is true about must drug laws, they generate revenue so why would you ever rid of them. That’s a whole other kettle of fish though ….

  3. the thing that scares me the most about the police is the fact that they are becoming yet another off shoot of the U.S. Military. with the department of homeland security giving grants out for military spec weapons and equipment, APC’s, and fully armored assault vehicles for use by an untrained unfit and severely unstable police force. why not just declare martial law across the nation and bring in the national guard at least they have proper training

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