14 November 2010

What To Do with Officer Friendly

Back in January, a police cruiser and I passed each other going separate directions on a deserted highway winding through a small town. I checked the rear-view mirror as he passed me, ever-wary of being pulled over. An Alabama State Trooper pulled me over once in my first year of driving because I neglected to notice a headlight out, but I'd avoided catching any police officer's attention -- until then. His lights came on, and I automatically switched lanes and pulled into a quiet residential street. I am always wary of being pulled over by the police because I rarely remember to put the state-mandated insurance card in my car. This week I had it in my leather jacket, though, and considered myself fortunate indeed.

Were this just a routine traffic stop, it wouldn't be particularly memorable -- but it ended up in my being frisked. I have never cared much for authority,  but neither have I ever been a troublemaker. Throughout my life people remarked at how well-behaved and nice I was. I followed the rules -- my rules -- for behaving decently, in part to keep authority away from me. When authority targeted me,  I feel anger and indignation.  Little wonder I found Stoicism, with its emphasis on individuals following principled rules for themselves and not depending in outside authorities, or anarchism with its ever-defiant contempt for outside authority, so likable.  Because I do not trust authority, and because I so seldom cross its path, when the officer came to my window I was nervous. I handed him my library card before realizing that wasn't what he wanted, and when I tried to hand him my insurance card he also got the car's title and various other papers.

His reason for pulling me over was that he thought my seatbelt was undone. It was not. I suppose ordinarily he would have bid me good-day, but my nervousness piqued his curiosity. He explained to me that when he spotted nervous behavior from people he detained, he assumed they were nervous for having something to hide. My autonomous nervous system was in full gear, my face sweaty, my hands shaking, and my arms visibly vibrating.  The officer, who I'll refer to as Officer Friendly,  suggested that someone carrying a few kilos of drugs might be nervous.

I chortled at the prospect of my being a drug courier, at which point he asked me if I minded stepping out of the car -- at which point he frisked me. By this time my fear was ebbing away, quickly, replaced by astonishment and amusement that I was being frisked. We talk for a while, and he's still concerned about my being nervous. He wants to know why.  Though I let him frisk me and even search my car, I wasn't so foolish enough to explain to Officer Friendly that I was wary of abusive policemen and of authority in general. Instead, I told him that I hadn't been pulled over in many years and was not expecting it.  He wanted to know why I didn't bump into police officers much, and as valiantly as I tried to tell him that I was a simple fellow who didn't clash with anyone, I think he got the feeling that I was some survivalist character who only came down from my mountain to fetch supplies. I suppose my leather jacket, scruffy face, and car interior didn't help: on this day, it contained my laundry bag, an overstuffed bookpack, perhaps a dozen books, and odds and ends resulting from a week of commuting.  He searched the car, repeatedly inquiring if I was sure I wasn't hiding anything -- if I was sure there were no drugs or concealed weapons in the car. "I'm a man of peace," I felt like saying as I stood in front of his cruiser's camera and resisted the urge to wave at it.

Officer Friendly and I chatted as he searched my car -- with my permission. I'd given it unthinkingly, not realizing he had to ask, and that I had the right to resist him. But he was such a friendly fellow, so likable, that I readily agreed to everything he asked and came away from the situation very amused.  I have no use for drugs, and my only use for a gun would be euthanasia in the event of terminal cancer or such,  so I had no objections to him searching. I had a copy of Red Emma Speaks  in my backpack, but I could just say that was for research purposes on the off-chance he recognized the book as being a collection of anarchist Emma Goldman's writings.  In retrospect, though I should have been more cautious, I still think he was justified by my behavior at the start. That has not stopped me from trying to correct my ignorance, which I did in part tonight when I watched this documentary from the American Civil Liberties Union, called "BUSTED: The Citizen's Guide to Surviving Police Encounters".

The movie consists of three skits in which police officers confront people on the road, on the sidewalks, and in their homes. Each skit has two parts: in the first, the confronted citizens respond as I did and wind up in jail when the police officers seize all the opportunities naivete has given them. In the second, as the ACLU spokesperson narrates, the people 'flex their rights'.  The acting only seemed wooden in the third skit, the video itself should prove helpful to Americans who do not know how to respond in police situations.


Apprentice Philosopher said...

I've got to say that this is one of the most informational and pertinent blogs I've ever read.

I've had similar encounters with the police but have never been frisked or submitted to such extensive intimidation like you describe.

The video was amazing as well. I think I'll wait until I have tenure somewhere in order to join the ACLU but they do have a lot of good resources like this that are available for free.

One of my close friends is a local police officer and he had told me many of the same things that the video covered. So, I know that many of these same things apply in Alabama although that state laws are different in different places.

However, I also make it a personal priority to keep a constitution on my person and in my car and house. While this may seem a bit quixotic, I do it partially for easy reference and partially in case something like any of these scenarios should happen.

Thanks for such a great post and I'll definitely be sharing that video!

smellincoffee said...

It's a shame that the ACLU, one of the few national organizations with the clout to stand strong and make a difference, is regarded as 'suspect'.

You might also like a similar film from the same group: "Ten Rules for Dealing with the Police".

I've been meaning to get one of those little pocket Constitutions, though I doubt a small-town cop would take kindly to a citizen pointing at the appropriate amendments -- I figure rather than tweak his nose, I'll just hide behind "I do not consent to searches" or "I have nothing to say" until he goes away.

You're quite welcome, glad you enjoyed it. I sent it to a couple of groups at Montevallo, hoping their presidents and such will arrange screenings.