So, on Monday evening while Baltimore was burning, I had not one, but two encounters with South City’s finest.
Most people have strong opinions about police: they’re either pigs whose sole purpose is to protect private property (you might as well carry a gun, because they’re “under no legal responsibility to help you if you’re the victim of a crime”) or modern-day Wyatt Earps who are always right and the bad guys are always wrong (and if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about). My take is somewhere in between…in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need law enforcement, but we don’t live in a perfect world.
But, due to age and too much news, I have to microanalyze and attach almost cosmic significance to every mundane event in my life. But, in the words of an early-1990s made-up hip-hop version of The Monkees, sometimes things make you go hmmm.
So, Monday evening, I’m sitting in the lobby of the music store where I teach, waiting for my six-thirty student to arrive. The door opens, but it isn’t the kid…it’s his dad. And, I do a serious double-take because he’s dressed in full cop gear: Kevlar, gun, Batman belt, uniform, boots, the whole nine yards. I never knew before what he did for a living (some parents give me their life stories, and some of them I barely even meet), but yeah, the dad of my six-thirty-p.m. Monday student is clearly a police officer. And, he’s with another cop.
I don’t know this man well, but I’ve given his son lessons for two years. The son is soft-spoken, doesn’t smile a lot or make a lot of eye contact, but he’s in a garage band with his buddies and plays baseball and runs track. Listens to a lot of Avenged Sevenfold and Marilyn Manson. Whenever I get him to smile, really smile, or laugh, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
The dad is equally soft-spoken. I know he has an eight-month-old son, and a couple months back when I made a critical billing error, he was cool about it and paid me for the back lessons even though I was ready to write it off as my own mistake. I’ve seen him enough-and seen him with his son-enough-to feel like I know him.
So, I give him my typical cop greeting: “I didn’t do it.” He and his partner laugh, even thought I’m sure they hear that all the time. He tells me his son is leaving track practice and will be along in a moment, and I tell him no worries, the slot after his son is vacant in case we need a few extra minutes.
Moments after they leave, his son comes in. I razz him: “Hey, these two cops were in here looking for you.” He winces and we get to work.
In some peculiar way, the fact that I knew this man before I learned he was a police officer made all the difference. If he pulled me over, or if I was involved in some kind of disturbance and he was called, would it make a difference in lowering the tension or defusing the situation? Probably. In a perfect world, would you know the police on your street outside of their jobs? Would a police force drawn from the community they’re charged with policing be less likely to overstep their boundaries? Almost certainly.
Lessons were done for the day; I was driving home in the cold foggy dusk when I see blue-and-red lights in my rear-view mirror. Great. I pull into the gas station where I was planning on gettting gas anyway and wait. I’m next to a pump and not sure which side I’m going to be approached on so I roll down both front windows. Two cops approach, one on the driver’s side, one on the passenger side.
The one on the driver’s side is younger; he informs me my headlight is out. The one on the passenger’s side literally looks like me: tall, fair complexion, shaved head. The tall bald one tells me the shorter one is in training.
He asks for my license, registration and insurance card. I start to reach for the glove box; then, remembering decades-old advice from my dad, announce “My registration and insurance are in the glove box.”
“No worries, sir,” the bald one says. I reach for the glove compartment and get the registration; of course, I don’t have a current insurance card. “That’s okay,” the trainee answers. “We’ll just borrow that for now.”
They go back to their car for what seems like an eternity. Why does it always take so long? I figure I’ll just get what’s known as a “fix-it ticket”…no fine or points, just send in proof that the problem is fixed.
While I’m sitting, another police SUV slinks by, and I make eye contact with the driver…and lo and behold, it’s the dad of my 6:30 p.m. student. His expression is unreadable, but then again, I’m not really in trouble.
I get a fix-it ticket…no points, no fine, just get it fixed. My two cops seem genuinely sorry to have bothered me. In fact, their treatment of me is so gingerly and deferential that it’s almost comical.
Before they leave, I have a question. “Is it just me, or is there more…activity tonight?”
“We’re doing training,” the bald cop answers. I get gas and flash the peace sign to them while they drive away.
Maybe I’m overanalyzing, but what made the difference-in both situations-was that I knew the cops, that I looked like them, that they were clearly from my community and from the same demographic I was.
Am I naive enough to believe this is the norm?