A homeless man was eating some fried chicken on my front steps one morning. He looked up and said hello.
I said hi.
I started walking toward my car. It wasn’t that unusual. I lived downtown. Someone was always stopping to sit on the steps to my apartment for a snack, or just to cool off for a minute.
The unusual part happened when a neighbor across the street barged out of his house to make me feel safe. “Don’t worry,” he said, waving. “I’ve already called the police.” Like dark magic, two cruisers rolled up. The officers started moving toward the homeless man.
That’s when I started to feel scared — for him.
It didn’t matter what I said. The officers ignored me completely at first, until one of them finally leveled a threatening gaze at me. “Do you have some place to be?” he said, followed by, “Do you live here?” Being a coward at heart, I sank into my car and started the engine.
That was a long time ago.
If I’d known then what I know now, maybe I would’ve stayed to film them. Maybe I would’ve shown them my ID and demanded they leave, since nobody at my address had actually requested their presence.
Maybe I would’ve risked getting handcuffed or pepper-sprayed, or kidnapped and murdered like Sarah Everard.
The police have always scared me.
I’m a nonviolent person. The worst crime I’ve ever committed is driving 10 mph over the speed limit. And yet, every single time I see a police officer my heart freezes. My skin turns pale.
It’s because the police I’ve always known aren’t the kind you see on television. They don’t track down murderers. They don’t show up in dark alleys to save you from muggings and rape. I wish they did.
The police I know have anger issues.
They pull you over in speed traps and write gigantic tickets. If you’re incredibly lucky, you get one who’s mainly interested in small talk, and they let you off with a warning.
The police protect people like themselves.
He was on the high school track team. We wound up going to the same college. One time, he said he would date me, except, “I’m pretty sure you’ve tried weed, and that’s not cool in my book.”
He was so scared of rock music, he wouldn’t go into a record store. One time, he confessed to literally burning a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. As he put it, “They deceived me into liking their music. Then I found out what they really stood for. They’re all devil worshipers.”
Another time, he freaked out when I wore a tie-died shirt.
“Is this who you really are?” he said.
We lost touch for a few years. Then one afternoon we ran into each other at a gym. We caught up for a few minutes.
That’s when he mentioned he’d gone into law enforcement.
It sounded like the perfect fit.
Of course, not every police officer is like this. But where I’m from, a lot of them are. They grow up in hyper-conservative cultures. They treat difference like a disease. When they sign up to “protect and serve,” what they mean is protect people like them from everyone else.
My mom was scared of the police
My mom used to tell me a terrifying bedtime story. Once, when she was 16 or 17, she got pulled over by a police officer.
She was alone, on a country road.
The officer tried to flirt with her at first. When that didn’t work, he told her to step out of her vehicle.
She kept asking him why he stopped her, and he said he wouldn’t tell her until she stepped out of her vehicle. Finally he threatened to arrest her. She said she wouldn’t step out of the car until he radioed his station, and her parents drove out to witness the ticket.
So he did that. Her parents drove out. He wrote her a warning for speeding. And then he told them goodnight.
It’s hard to imagine the fear my mom must’ve felt. It was a time before cell phones. Anything could’ve happened to her. That was the lesson of her bedtime story. Never trust a man when you’re alone in the middle of nowhere, especially if he has a badge.
I wish this wasn’t a true story, but it is.
I wish I were embellishing.
But I’m not.
The police terrorize people.
In college, I did a few police ride-alongs for the school newspaper. It’s the kind of thing journalism students do when there’s nothing else to write about. I did at least three all-nighters.
It taught me a lot.
Every month or so, they would do a sweep of a high-crime area, which was another way of saying high-poverty. They said they were doing communities a favor, but I always had to wonder if they were just filling up the county’s coffers and making sure the courts had enough petty criminals to process. Those nights, a dozen patrol cars would cruise through minority neighborhoods, stopping people on sidewalks who “looked suspicious.” They mainly just got in people’s way.
One night they surrounded some high school janitors and questioned them for half an hour. They grabbed a woman who stepped off the sidewalk to say hi to someone, and accused her of being a prostitute.
The biggest bust they ever made was a guy who stepped outside a bar to answer his phone, and took his beer with him.
They got him for public drunkenness.
Another big bust was the time five or six cruisers surrounded a young couple smoking some weed in the parking lot behind their apartment complex. They woke up the entire building. I remember trying to interview some of the residents there. They wouldn’t talk to me.
One of them pointed at the officers and raised his voice. “If you’re with them, then you can go fuck yourself.”
The police interrogate victims.
It was New Year’s Eve.
My date and I almost got ran over by a car full of drunk people. We were on foot, when a sorority reject rammed us.
It made physical contact.
We were lucky they were just backing out.
Instead of apologizing, they jumped out of their cars and threatened to beat up my date and then run over me again. We got their license plate while they were speeding off and then called the police. To their credit, they showed up pretty fast. They didn’t look happy.
They warned us that if we filed a report and then withdrew it or declined to prosecute, we could be arrested. The owners of the vehicle could sue us. It was pretty clear they didn’t want to do anything.
One of the officers asked, “Have you guys been drinking?”
My date and I exchanged a quick glance. That’s when we silently agreed to start kissing their asses. We thanked them for showing up so quickly, and we just wanted report some careless drivers.
They told us to be careful.
Then they were gone.
An off-duty police officer almost ran me off the road.
It was an early morning, and I was heading in to cover a class for a teacher who’d just quit his job without notice.
Anyway, I was cranky. On the highway, a sports car sped up to pass but then tried to merge into my lane. I tapped my breaks and blared my horn. The car came over anyway, clipping my front bumper.
We pulled to the curb. The driver emerged with a gun on his hip. My demeanor changed pretty fast. He stomped up to my car and barked at me to stay stay in my seat. We reported the accident. A patrol car showed up. The trooper took statements. I was found to be at fault.
I got a ticket for careless driving. The trooper handed me my ticket and gave me a sympathetic look. “My advice,” he said. “Don’t fight it. This is a minor offense. Just pay the ticket. Hope you never see that guy again.” As it turned out, I’d gotten into a lane dispute with a lieutenant.
“Seriously?” I said.
So I paid the ticket. I went to defensive driving school to get the points taken off. Huge hassle, little lesson learned: Drive like every single person on the road is an off-duty police officer.
The police have never made me feel safe.
If you’re angry, take a deep breath.
I’m not saying we should defund the police. I’m not saying all police are violent or corrupt. I’m not saying they’re bad at their jobs. Over the years, I’ve met a number of very nice police officers.
Here’s what I’m saying:
A police officer has never made me feel safe. A police officer has never made me feel protected. At best, they’ve felt like a nonthreatening presence, usually because they were focused on someone besides me.
If the police are supposed to make women feel protected, then I have to be honest. It’s not working. I never feel better when I see a police officer. I feel anxious. My very first thought is to make sure I don’t do anything to make them angry, or even draw their attention.
And if that’s the point of police, to scare me into submission, then I have to be even more honest. It works perfectly. I’m very, very scared. I don’t want to be. I wish I weren’t. But I am.
That’s the truth.