Monday, June 15, 2020

Let's Talk About Privilege and Police

I had a friend who lived in Riverdale, right near the College Park border.  I had a car at the time, and she didn't, so much of our hanging out was me driving to her.  When I read this story, it sounded familiar. (Please feel free to read that whole thing and then come back.  I'll wait.)  My friend and I witnessed anywhere from three to six police cars showing up for what looked to us like traffic stops. We saw teams of officers gathered around handcuffed folks in parking lots.  I had a co-worker who talked about being pulled over late one night - and due to the at least two cops must be present rule - she and her friends had to sit in the car, cold and tired, waiting for another car to pull up.  (Interestingly I was pulled over in that same county by a solo police officer.  I am not doubting the rule.  I am saying that rules get bent at police officer's discretion all the time.)  
As I tried to list for myself the number of times I've been pulled over by police, I realized, other than a few sobriety checks, none of them involved multiple police cars.  Not one.  I've been pulled over in DC, at National Airport in Virginia, and in at least three counties in Maryland, including PG County.  And the reality is, I'm white presenting, I for a while drove a Volvo, often, I basically looked - as much as possible - like the most non-threatening kind of driver.  I also had no visible queer or queer ally paraphernalia.  
I'm focused on being pulled over as a driver, since that is my primary experience with police.  It wasn't until recently that I realized how much my own personal police interaction went down when I gave up my car.  
But again, I'm white presenting, I'm female, I look like I belong in most neighborhoods.  But I think one of the things that is true for anyone that has been pulled over, it is inherently nerve wracking.  I generally don't worry that I won't survive police encounters.  I do know that any police encounter can cost me money, time, or both.  Now, you can say, Tara, not if you aren't doing anything wrong.  And well, therein lies the question.  What actually counts as wrong?  I was once pulled over because the light over my license plate was out.  I personally, regularly checked my head and tail lights, but had not checked the light over the license plate.  Technically Maryland law does not require me to have a license plate light, only to make sure my license plate is visible.  So essentially, I was pulled over for something that was not illegal, because the police officer decided it was suspicious, and he wanted me stationary while he called in to make sure nothing additionally suspicious popped.  
Fortunately for me, I was headed home and had time to spare.  I left that encounter with no work order, and no ticket because I had literally done nothing wrong.  And we accept that as normal.  Same with sobriety checks.  We have accepted that at any given moment, an armed officer can stop and check in to decide if my behavior is in compliance.  
I could keep sharing stories of my own police encounters, but it isn't the point.  It doesn't matter that I survived all of mine.  I mean it does, because, yes, preferred outcome. It doesn't matter because surviving police interaction should not be a privilege.  
I also want to express, I don't think this is the fault of individual police officers. Some of them, sure.  But it is a broken system.  We have established a system where police are expected to be first responders for mental health, for homelessness, they are expected to interfere with people in order to prevent crime before it happens.  The only way to do that is to regularly infringe on the very citizens they are charged with protecting.  Police officers are in schools, they sit in stores, they are there to be threatening.  
We can keep layering in new policies to try and fix this, or we could accept that we built a bad system.   It wouldn't even require starting over.  Here in DC we have violence interruption programs, we have mental health services, we have programs that address homelessness, addiction, and sex work, and we have an alternative justice program.  Investing more in any and all of these programs, along with others to support housing and education would solve many of the things we currently rely on police to do.  We have ways to make life in the city better for everyone.