“When was the last time you smoked marijuana in this car?”
“I’ve never smoked marijuana in this car.” What am I saying? I’ve never smoked marijuana ever! He’s already assumed that no only do I smoke marijuana, but I’ve smoked in this car.
“Since I smell marijuana, I have probable cause to search this car. Get out of the car, sir!”
“Can you tell me why I was stopped?”
Placing his hand on his weapon, “Sir, get out of the car; I’m not going to repeat myself.” Yes, I am 6’2” but it doesn’t really matter when a few bullets spray in the direction of my torso. I’m shaking, but I slowly get out. “Place your hands on your vehicle.” He pats me down. “You carrying anything? Is there anything that I need to know about? It’s better if you tell me now.”
“No, I don’t have anything.” What the hell is this guy talking about? Why is he treating me like this?
“Step to the back of the vehicle, sir. I’m not going to ask you again. Am I going to find anything in this car? Sit on that curb for me, please.”
“No, no,” I respond. I can feel beads of sweat running down my back. Five minutes turn into ten, ten into twenty, twenty into what feels like forever. He finally gets out of my car. “Can you please tell me what is going on, sir?”
“You got lucky this time. You can go now.” Those were the officer’s final words as he handed me a warning for my faulty brake lights and left in his patrol car.
This was my friend’s encounter with a local policeman not too long ago in Gwinnett county. He is Arab-American with no previous criminal record or interaction with law enforcement. His hair is in dreads, and he often wears long flowy garments, close to traditional African robes. This was his first experience being pulled over. I hate that. Imagine the humiliation and embarrassment that a completely innocent, legal citizen was subjected to and not a single shred of contraband was found.
So what do normal people do when they make a mistake in judgment? What do we expect people to do when they falsely accuse us? We expect them to apologize.
The account given above is disheartening. With the backdrop of recent disastrous encounters of minorities and their local police, one would like to believe that law officers are consciously reconsidering their interaction with the people they are sworn to protect. I want to consider this confrontation to be an aberration, but regrettably, this is closer to the norm for many in minority communities. I always wonder why police seem so concerned about my faulty brake light, but they pass right on by when my car breaks down on the side of the road.
I understand the enormous pressure accompanied with attempting to maintain expected law and order. Law enforcement is an extremely difficult, complex and at times, dangerous vocation. Safeguards must be present and police must be allotted significant discretion. And, to be fair, my profession as a defense attorney provides me the opportunity to have numerous positive experiences with law enforcement officers. There are many courageous, hard-working law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line everyday.
The photo attached shows Officer Lawrence DePrimo of the NYPD buying a pair of boots for a homeless man and then offering to put them on for him. I can attest to several similar heartwarming stories. Conversely, I am also intimately privy to the adverse and frequent cases of subtle profiling and discrimination that permeate law enforcement in far too many instances. Granted, we are all guilty of stereotyping and pre-judging others, but I am not wearing a gun. I have not sworn to protect the citizenry, but I still apologize when I make a mistake.
In the interest of diplomacy, rapport and mutual respect, not only is it reasonable to expect an expression of error and apology when an obvious and/or proven mistake in judgment occurs, but it is mandatory when that mistake is made from a person in such a position.
What becomes lost in the rigid application of processes, profiling, presumptions and prejudices is compassion. Suppose the officer in the preceding account understood his error in pre-judgment and actually apologized to my friend, an innocent, compliant citizen. How far could that gesture go in fostering a better relationship between his precinct and the local community?
This is not a novel suggestion. Some police forces have realized errors and have issued reported apologies to the offended in recent accounts[i][ii][iii][iv]. A compassionate response to a blatant error has no detrimental effect on law enforcement, nor does it compromise future cases. Instead, it fosters an advantageous relationship with the community. The community would reciprocate the consideration and build a deeper trust with its police officers.
“I am sorry to have assumed criminal activity here. I apologize for inconveniencing you. I am only trying to do an effective job and protect this community. You are free to go, sir. Again, I am sorry."
How difficult was that?