The Broken Headlight & Local Law Enforcement- Was it DWB??


Is there a difference between the way people are approached by law enforcement in the big city or small towns? Is there a difference between locations? Is there a difference between races or sexes? Unequivocally, there is a difference between sexes-male and female. The police approach women less aggressively than men, and that tends to reflect the societal perception of women in general. We are seen most often as less threatening than men in most areas. Women are still seen as the ‘weaker sex’, even in the 21st century.
We see that there is, indeed, a difference in the way the average police officer enters a situation, from a traffic citation to being suspected of a crime of any sort. Comedian Dave Chappelle, famous for stand up comedy, tells a joke in one of his routines in which he makes a point about the police and the black experience. Incredibly funny, but so reality-based observation of life. His bottom line made the point that black men are seen completely different than whites in the same situation. Roughly, he, a black man, is riding in a car driven by his white friend. They are pulled over and the police, asked HIM for his ID. He wasn’t driving. Why? If you give an answer to explain this request and it involves making excuses, justifying this, I can honestly say to you, my friend, that you are part of the problem in society and should be parts of the solutions.

No eyes wide shut! A few days ago, I was pulled over by the police just a block away from my home. I was driving at night without my headlights on. It was a friend’s car, and wasn’t certain whether headlights were automatic or not. Turning headlights on at night had to be done manually, and my car has an automatic sensor. Lights turn themselves on. Pulled over to the side of the road, two police officers one on each side of the car, approached the car.  After hearing about so many recent traffic stops gone awry, the thought of being pulled over by police was frightening. This is a relatively new feeling regarding law enforcement. Never before had I felt real fear of cops, because where I grew up, they were your friend-people just like the rest of us.

Before I continue telling about this night, I will back up a bit. Some time last year, around midnight, I was pulled over by the police in my neighborhood. I don’t live in a ‘gated’ community, but it is a decent working to middle class area, with predominantly families of color. On this night, I almost ran a red light, but didn’t, but also unaware that a headlight was out. You know that when black people are seen in what some perceive as ‘fancy’ cars, there is a perception of an undeserved luxury, especially when driven by young people. Well, I’m not that young and have lived my entire life driving ‘fancy’ cars. It’s a family thing. Pulled over to the side of the road, the usual two person approach, from the first words spoken by the officer on my side, there was just stale prejudice. The officers were white men around 25-30 years old. He asked, no ordered me to turn the car off, take my keys out of the ignition and then produce license, registration and insurance.

Not understanding why I was pulled over, because I didn’t run any lights or blow through any stop signs either. It was the headlight. When the officers first got out of their car and walked to mine, the one on my side who asked for my drivers license-the usual- then asked me where I was ether going or coming from. I’m not sure which, but either way, was that his business? He asked me what was in a cup that I had in my center console[a Wendy’s cup from lunch earlier that day] Meanwhile I am reaching into my wallet trying to pry my license from the ID slot. The same officer said to me that I seemed a little nervous, too. Duh, isn’t everyone who gets pulled over by the police?

He took my ID back to his car while I waited in my car. Did I mention that he asked that I remove the keys from the ignition, hand them over to him and then he placed them on the roof of the car while I waited for their return. Next, the officers return and then asked if I didn’t mind if he searched the car. For a non-working headlight?? He did, since I consented and there was nothing in my vehicle that was illegal. After all of this, I received your basic traffic ticket that would be dismissed upon replacing the bulb in that defective headlight within 24 hours. I now ask, wasn’t that a bit excessive for a traffic stop?

That ordeal has given me more empathy towards individuals and groups who claim racial profiling or feel they have been targeted for minor infractions across the country. I was exactly 3 blocks way from my home.

A few nights ago, driving a friend’s car, I was pulled over. Yes, again! This time, it was because of no headlights at all. In my car they’re automatic, and since the lights on the dash were lit, there was no cause for alarm for me to manually turn them on. Actually, I thought that all cars today in the 21st Century, have similar systems, and although my car is a Cadillac, and my friend’s car a Jeep, still no cause for alarm. This stop was legitimate.

This time, the officers who stopped me were African-American or ‘of color’. The stop was normal. I explained that it wasn’t my car, and turned the lights on. They still took my ID, checked it out and returned it to me. Actually, after a few minutes waiting, I wanted to tell them that my ‘fiance’ was a PBA attorney. Those words, with or without the card, hold a little weight with all of law enforcement. In fact, I knew the commanding officer of that police precinct. But, none of this info was important because nothing about this stop became critical-no search, no asking for contents of beverage cups, no ‘you look nervous’, either. They even let me get out of my car, and approach their vehicle to speak with them. In other places, other people or in different situations, that would not be allowed, and I may have been shot. Not this time.

What can be attributed to differences in approach of police officers when pulling over Joe or Jane Q. Public on a minor traffic stop? For the same reason? My car, my race, my gender, my attitude…. I definitely rule out attitude because my attitude was and always is respectful when it pertains to police, and anyone else, as well.

What’s the difference, and how do more uniform procedural practices apply for white and black, men and women? All’s well that ends well, but did it have to be so distinctly different from one routine stop to another? That is a major area in which subjective factors influence procedures and thus, outcomes. It is also situations such as routine traffic stops which contribute to outcries about police treatment of persons of color, and the dislike and distrust of law enforcement by African-Americans.  Targeted and felt as though placed under siege within one’s own community is wrong on so many levels. I felt that.

There was a time when the general disposition of young people, men of color was described best by the rap group, N.W.A., “F..k the Police”, and fueled their chanting of the words:“Fight the Power” to young people everywhere. I don’t advocate for that in the pure sense, but do agree that absolute power must be fought when ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Just be careful out there! Know your rights, assert your rights and defend your rights! Just be certain, absolutely certain, that you are in the right!


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