It has been two years since the death of Eric Garner and nearly two years since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson set off explosive pushback that has reverberated around the country.
We have long known that the experiences of African Americans with police have been markedly different from that of white America. Within white communities, there is a pervasive belief that, if police orders are followed, citizens have little to worry about. That is not the case for many blacks in this community and the nation as a whole.
For them, the shooting in Minnesota where the individual had no criminal record and lawfully carried a gun, is a warning that no one is safe. While details are still emerging there, early accounts had Philando Castile properly alerting the officer to the presence of his gun and following orders to get his identification when he was shot in his own vehicle.
That incident was fresh in the mind of local resident and respected activist Sandy Holman, founder of the non-profit, Culture C.O.-O.P., who was the passenger a few nights ago when her husband was pulled over on a very minor traffic incident.
Ms. Holman and her husband went to a late workout at the gym. She explained that she hates to be alone when stopped by a police officer, stating, “That’s just kind of the negative conditioning that people of color have to deal with on varying levels, depending on their experience with departments around the country.”
They had stopped at Carl’s Jr., and were driving home when they saw the flashing lights behind them. Quickly they wondered what was wrong, as her husband Mark, was driving the speed limit. “We knew that there was nothing that we were blatantly doing that should cause someone to have to stop us,” she said.
They pulled into a private parking lot along Covell. Her husband Mark made sure his hands were on the steering wheel.
She said, “Because of the current climate, everyone’s edgy and I, more than usual.” She said this wasn’t the first time she had been stopped for a reason that wasn’t worth being stopped for. She explained, “I felt a sheer terror.” Sandy Holman explained that later she was saddened by that initial reaction.
“I could have been perfectly dealing with a nice cop, who knows. But the fact that they had stopped us for no apparent reason was not comforting to me,” she explained.
The female officer, after running their information, would finally explain the reason for the stop. Ms. Holman told the Vanguard that, given everything that is going on, she was surprised to be stopped on such a minor matter. “We were surprised when she said that the middle light between the two rear brake lights… there’s a light in between was out.”
She was unaware that the light was out but the officer explained that having the light out is an offense that could give them a ticket.
It is important to know, in this case, the officer involved did nothing that was improper. I had a few long conversations with some of the leadership over at the Davis Police Department about stops like these. Based on those conversations, it is clear that the police departments, especially here locally, understand that policing is in need of changes and reforms.
At the same time, they are stuck in a bit of a dilemma here. They can pull someone over for a very minor offense that they consider a safety issue, or they can let some of these go.
One problem with these sorts of stops is that they may be less about safety and more about using a minor offense as a pretext to stop someone and investigate whether they have a warrant or they are committing a larger violation.
But it is important, as well, for the police to understand what these types of stops are doing to the people who are on the receiving end of them. Especially now, in the wake of a number of high profile shootings, people are on edge.
For Sandy Holman and her husband, they wanted to say – when learning of the reason for the stop, “are you kidding? Because we were shocked.” Both of them were really upset at the encounter, but managed to hold it together.
“I’ve been stopped by the police before, some for justified reasons, maybe I was going slightly over the speed limit and some for kind of this reason where it just seems random,” she said. “This just made me uncomfortable because of the current environment.”
The officer let them go with only a warning.
But, as she left, Sandy Holman kept thinking about the young man who was pulled over with a busted taillight, who did not live through his encounter. Ms. Holman has a brother who has been pulled over at least 23 times, and one time he had guns pulled on him as he was mistaken for a robbery suspect.
A few years ago in Davis, a 60-something man, Eli Davis, was mowing his lawn when a police officer approached him. At the time, the police had received a call about a potential burglary suspect in the area and were given only a very vague description of a black male.
Mr. Davis would later write to the Davis Enterprise his outrage and humiliation at being asked on his own property to provide identification. It later turned out the 911 call had mistaken a traveling sales person for a potential burglar.
For Sandy Holman, unfortunately, she has come to believe that police encounters of this type have become part of the lives of people of color, particularly black people, in this country.
Ms. Holman said these things have happened in the past but she didn’t talk about it. “This time I was struck by the tenacity of it in the environment that we’re in. Not a good idea on her part and really seemed random on our part.”
At the same time, while she wanted to express how this made her feel, she said, “I do not want to pick apart our police department. I don’t think they’re any different from others who are trying to deal with these issues.”
“But it’s more important to the greater lesson for people to understand that this does happen and we can be proactive and do things to make a difference if we’re strategic about it.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting