Caught off Guard
As a peace officer, I try to train my mind and emotions to be on guard and alert for anything that may seem out of the ordinary. It is a survival skill that every cop develops over time. If you are not careful though, it can cause you to become slightly jaded, hardened, and distrustful.
I made a traffic stop the other day that caught me off guard and brought me screeching back to reality and the reasons I initially entered upon this path to begin with.
We have a decent sized four-lane highway with a grass median divider that runs through my jurisdiction. This highway is where I spend some time operating a LASER speed detection device to deter speeders. The speed limit is 55 miles per hour, but as a general rule I do not begin stopping cars until they are going about 69 mph and usually give warnings unless the vehicle is traveling faster that 73 mph. I have always tried to live my professional and personal life by the tenant that if you desire mercy in your life, you need to show mercy to others and it has served me well.
While monitoring traffic, I saw a small Toyota truck that was going 70 mph, within my personal guidelines to stop, but usually only for a warning. I jump in my patrol car and catch up to the truck so I can make a traffic stop. The truck pulls off the road and I make my normal approach to the driver’s side window.
The driver is a Hispanic male and he is speaking to me with a heavy Spanish accent. My personal opinion is that I don’t care if you’re red, green, black, brown, white, or purple and whether you speak Spanish, French, English, or Swahili. My attitude initially is the same, I am courteous and I introduce myself and let the driver know why I am stopping him. I always greet the driver with a “Good Moring” or “Good Afternoon” depending on the time of day. I take being a public servant seriously and treat every traffic stop with customer service being a priority.
After my initial greeting and introduction, I explain to the man that I stopped him for going a little too fast and told him I was going to be right back after I issued him a warning. He seemed a bit nervous, but that is a normal reaction for most people.
I go back to my cruiser and make sure he has a valid license and fill out his warning. He comes back with a good license and I make my way back to the driver.
When I get back up to the window, this man is almost in tears. This catches me way off guard and I stumbled on the words to make sure he is okay. He said he just wanted to thank me for being so nice to him.
Nice to him? I was still at a loss.
Apparently, he was stopped for a cracked windshield in a nearby jurisdiction and the officer conducting the stop all but traumatized this poor fellow. He goes on to tell me that the other officer rushed up to his window yelling at him and using profanity. He said that the officer called him “bad” names and made him get in and out of the car several times. He went on to say the officer gave him a citation for the cracked window (a very minor infraction) and threatened that if he didn’t get it fixed he would find him and lock him up.
I wasn’t at this other stop, so I can’t judge the events or even verify that they are true, but based on my training and experience with interviews and interrogations, this guy was shooting straight with me.
If You Ain’t Got Nothing Nice to Say
I have never felt more ashamed of my profession than at that moment trying to explain to this poor guy that not all cops are like that. I find myself apologizing more and more for officer misbehavior. Treating anyone in the way this man described being treated is not only immoral, it should be illegal and comes close to violating your oath of office.
What on earth was accomplished by berating and verbally abusing this man? You could tell by his truck’s condition and his clothing that he was a hard-working man. Was it really necessary to issue this guy a citation for a minor equipment violation that was going to take money from his family and food off the table? You have made a person hate all police just because of one moronic officer.
Brother and sister officers, THIS is why people despise us. This is why you can’t get a person to wave back at you to save your life. This is not why we joined this path. We are here to serve the people and protect them while enforcing the law, not to build ourselves up into some kind of pseudo-locker-room-hazing because we were picked on as kids. This is just feeding into the stereotypes that people have of peace officers.
We have to begin to repair the poisoned relationships with a large part of our population. Every time a cop oversteps their bounds or abuses their entrusted power a camera is there to show the world that we are all a bunch of power-hungry monsters. And it should be! Any officer who is scared of being taped is suspect in my eyes.
We have cameras in our cars and many of us have them on our uniforms, so unless you plan to violate someone’s rights, why be so adamantly against a citizen filming you? We need to do a better job of policing ourselves and punishing officers for misconduct or we will forever lose the favor of the people we swore to serve.
Nothing says you have to be a monster to do your job. Being polite will diffuse many of the heated situations that we run into. If we mimic the actions of the monsters we are supposed to be fighting, how are we any different than those we claim to despise? I am not advocating letting people run over you or losing control of a scene. Officer safety must always come first, but a “Yes Sir,” “Yes Ma’am,” and a “Thank you” can move mountains. Godspeed Roughmen.
Philip Nelson is a 21 year veteran of law enforcement and has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the written Word. In addition to his law enforcement experience, he holds a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice, is a law enforcement instructor, firearms instructor, and has served most of his career in supervisory and management roles. He enjoys engaging on the topics of leadership, management, and supervision. He has been featured in The Good Men Project online magazine and Heart and Humanity Magazine. He lives just southwest of Atlanta, Ga. with his artist wife, their two dogs, and a parrot.