Get Home Safely

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I once watched a video on how to approach a police interaction. It was essentially a how-to video on how to remain safe… alive even. The video is called Get Home Safely. The first time I watched the video, I was actually in a room with other members of my community, some community leaders, and members of the police force. The video upset me. First, because why on Earth should someone have to tell anyone how to “behave” when they come into contact with those whose primary function is supposedly to protect and to serve? Next, because I knew way too many stories of people who had done nothing wrong and who had even done some of the things in the video that should have guaranteed they would Get Home Safely, yet they are no longer with us. The final thing that burned me up about the information in that video is that no matter how much I hated the undertones, I knew that, if I ever ended up in those situations, I was probably going to do everything the video told me to do.

I am not a pessimist. I believe in good people. I believe that even when evil is getting the spotlight, there is always some good to shine light on as well. Even as a young, socially aware and active black woman, I still find myself wanting to believe that “good” is not so far in the distance. Good people. Good intentions. However, if I’ve learned anything from my passion for people and my service and advocacy for others, it’s that you cannot always control how you are adversely affected by what you see, read, hear and experience. You cannot always control your emotional response to the information you have been exposed to and internalized. And finally, no matter how much good you expect to come from any given situation or encounter, you will not always be correct in your expectations. One night, in Cincinnati Ohio, I was wrong.

I was driving through Cincinnati, when I saw the cop car. I also saw my speedometer. I was probably going too fast. I slowed down, expecting to be pulled over. As the car pulled out behind me, I cursed a little. I expected a routine traffic stop. Even with what I had seen on the news, on social media etc, I expected that Police do their jobs. I saw no lights though. So now, there’s a police car following me to my exit. At this point the exit is about a mile away. I glance in my rearview and still I saw no flashing blue lights. Am I in the clear? Still knowing what I know, I hoped for a routine traffic stop.

As I pulled off of the exit I saw a sudden flash of blue. Now, I’m a little confused. Why now? I’ve been doing about 60 since I first saw the car, and when I first saw the car, it didn’t immediately signal for me to pull over. Instead, it followed me for a little while. It was at this moment I thought to myself, what if this isn’t routine? And I said aloud “uh uhn. I know who died in Ohio.”

Immediately off the exit, I saw a parking lot. The parking lot was less than half a mile away from the exit. I remembered at some point being told that, when driving at night, if you’re being pulled over, it is best to pull over in a well-lit area for your safety and for the safety of the officer. I remembered a police officer telling me that. So I pulled into the parking lot and stopped. I had done a good thing and I still wanted this to be a routine traffic stop. However, now I wanted it a little more desperately than before. I thought, “It’s okay. He’s going to come to my car, ask for my license and registration, ask me if I know how fast I was going, go back to his car, write me a ticket, come back to my car, return my information with my ticket and say “slow down and be careful” and I’ll go to my destination. I’ll be a little upset but it’s okay. I’ll be cooperative. “

I rolled down my window. The officer greeted me with a rather dry “hi.” I was pleasant and returned his greeting. He asked for my license. I handed it to him. He did not ask for my registration. He didn’t ask me if I knew how fast I was going. Instead, he stood at my window and glared back and forth between my face and my identification for a few seconds. Then asked, “What are you doing in Ohio?” I said “Visiting friends.” “On this road?” He asked. I said “yes” and gingerly pointed across to where the apartment complex was. We could see it from where we were stopped. I felt scared and was already getting upset with myself for being afraid. But this didn’t feel good. After staring at me for a few more seconds, still not asking for any other documentation he asked, “Now why didn’t you pull over when you first saw my lights?” Confused, I said, “I always thought it was safer to pull into a well-lit area like a parking lot. At least that’s what I was told.” I thought I sounded calm. Probably a little nervous but not upset. At least I was trying my hardest not to sound upset. I wanted so badly for this to be a routine traffic stop.

The officer looked at me, and this time I could tell he was annoyed, even a little angry. He said with his voice raised, “safer?! You’re not far from where I turned on my lights! What’s so much safer about this spot than the shoulder? You said you’re not even from here, do you KNOW somebody in this parking lot that makes this spot safer?” Now, the Imani inside wanted to say, “Why would pulling over on the shoulder be safer than a well-lit parking lot? It’s not even that far from where you cut on your lights! And WHO THE HELL WOULD I KNOW IN A DAMN PARING LOT?! Do you SEE anyone else here?!” But I glanced at the clock and it was after midnight and although this parking lot was relatively bright, we appeared to be alone. All I could think about was making it to my destination; getting home safely. So instead of saying any of the things I wanted to say, I just looked up and said, “ummm… ok. Sorry?”

The officer stared at me for what seemed like 5 whole minutes. His eyes got narrow and he said sternly as if he was offended, “You can’t do that. When an officer turns on his lights, you pull over. When you don’t it makes you look suspicious.” Then there was a pause, “Have you been drinking?” The word “suspicious” hit me like a punch in the chest. My chest got so tight. My hands, which had been resting on my steering wheel but still clutching my wallet, began to sweat and I felt tears welling up in my eyes. The word “suspicious” is the word that we keep hearing as the excuse for harassment and even violence. I had never been called suspicious in all of my barely 120 pound, black life and hearing it made me afraid that this was not going to end well. I wanted to reach for my phone but I’d heard stories about reaching and I just wanted to get home safely.

This officer didn’t strike me as the kind of man who would have sympathy for me if he saw my tears so I blinked them back and said, “no, I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since about 3:00pm.” “Are you sure?” he asked taking a step closer to my car. I was completely sober and kind of hungry but the last thing I wanted was for him to ask me to get out of the car. This was not going well. He still never asked for my registration. He never walked back to his car. He never even exhibited body language that indicated he would give me a ticket. This did not feel like a routine traffic stop. My chest was tighter. It hurt to breathe and my ears started ringing. I almost didn’t hear the next thing he asked me. I said “huh?” and he repeated, “I said, when is the last time you’ve gotten a ticket?”

“I’m not sure but it has been quite a while.” I said quietly. He reached forward and I felt myself flinch a little. His hand rested on my window, my license between is first two fingers. He said, “Pay more attention. Now get out of here.” I took my license and rolled my window up. Holding my breath, I drove to my friend’s house, which was literally 3 minutes from where I was stopped. I glanced in my rearview mirror to make sure I was alone. I thanked God aloud for my safety. Specifically I said, “God, I know how much worse that could have been.” Then, tears. At this point I was trembling. I’ve had a few run ins with rude cops and I usually just rolled my eyes at whatever chip they had on their shoulder, cooperated, and went on my merry way. This time was different. The fear I felt in that moment was some of the most intense fear I had ever felt. Ever. And I hated it. Never had I imagined being that afraid of another human being, but I was and I was mad at myself. I was too afraid to even catch his name or badge number.

I thought about just being glad he let me go without a ticket. Hell, for letting me go alive. But if an officer’s job description is to protect and serve, he/she shouldn’t be upset when I stop in a bright parking lot instead of off a shoulder in a city where I am not a resident. If you are here to protect and serve, why are you seeking to intimidate an out of state driver to tears? So, I don’t feel glad. I don’t feel safe. I had done what I thought I was supposed to do to ensure my safety and was yelled at for doing so. I was told I looked suspicious. It was humiliating and dehumanizing and this was my first time feeling that way. I was so angry. But I wasn’t just angry because some police officer was mean to me. I was furious at what informed my fear in that moment. The fact that I consciously thought to myself that I was in Ohio and remembered the names of Tamir Rice, Sam DuBose, and John Crawford. I saw their faces. And it was casual. I was casually using the names and faces of victims to remind myself of why I needed to be careful in that moment. I feared for my safety because I know too many stories of those who had none.

Sometimes it’s not a full on altercation with a cop. Sometimes it’s small signs of aggression. Sometimes it’s abuse of authority that turns into harassment. The bottom line is that no one should meet a cop and have to wonder if they’re going to get home safely. That is YOUR job, officer. Stop being so worried about whether or not I am respecting your badge the way you had in mind. Knock the chip off your shoulder and be concerned with whether I get home in one piece, unharmed and unharrassed. Your job is to make sure I get home safely.

 

 

 

 

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Imani Williams is a staff columnist for The Mixx Magazine from Louisville, KY. She holds a B.A. in Communication from the Clark Atlanta University and an M.A. in Communication from the University of Louisville. Her goal is to provide meaningful commentary and positive images on Black Love, Literature, Hair & Culture. Imani currently moonlights as Beyoncé.