Race, Police, Courtesy and Respect
by Jimmie L. Hollis (bio)
Racial profiling made headlines again recently when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested by police in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A neighbor reported seeing two men forcing their way into the Gates home. Gates, arriving back from a trip abroad, had his driver help try to force open a broken door. Gates' arrest came not from this, but for angrily yelling at the responding officers and suggesting racial bias.
All this reminded me of my own past brushes with the law.
Early one July evening in 1964, in Little Rock, Arkansas, I was on my way to visit a friend in North Little Rock when I was pulled over by the sheriff. He was white, middle-aged, beer-bellied and very southern.
I had an Illinois drivers' license. The car, which belonged to a friend, was registered in Michigan. I also had my U.S. Air Force identification.
If ever there was a time to worry, it was then.
I was respectful and courteous, as I was raised to be. The sheriff said he stopped me for going the wrong way on a one-way street. I explained I was a visitor and apologized for my mistake. With that, he gave me a big grin and asked where I was going. I told him, and he pointed me in the right direction. He told me to take it easy and watch the street signs.
I didn't get a ticket.
Years later, on a rainy October night in 1976, I was driving out of New York after returning from Germany when I was pulled over by a state trooper. The trooper inquired about my green USAF license plates, and I explained they were issued to military personnel serving in Germany.
Again, I was respectful and courteous. I provided the necessary documents.
The trooper asked me to step out of the car and waved me back to his cruiser. Once inside, he asked what unit I was in and how long I was abroad. It turned out he was previously stationed in Germany with the Army not far from where I served.
The trooper said he stopped me for speeding, and pointed out the national speed limit became 55 miles per hour while I was away. He welcomed me back, we shook hands and he told me to slow down.
Again, I received no ticket.
Then there was November of 1988 in New Jersey. I was going to the Cape May Coast Guard Station for the first time when a local officer stopped me. Noting my Air Force hat and coat, the officer asked if I was in the military, and I explained I just retired. The officer smiled. He told me I was going the wrong way down a one-way street.
I was respectful and courteous. I apologized. The officer told me to follow him. He led me right to the gate of the Coast Guard Station, and waved as he drove off.
Once again, no ticket.
Why did I never get a ticket? Was it my military status or my demeanor? After all, I was in the wrong each time.
As an American of African ancestry, I would like to think it was the latter. Despite being in the military, I could have behaved badly, gotten belligerent and cried racism. Military credentials or not, I would have been in trouble - especially in Little Rock in 1964.
Periodically, as with Professor Gates, charges are made about police targeting minorities simply because they are minorities. That's never happened to me.
Saying that, I'm not so naïve to think abuses don't happen. There are crooked, racist and bigoted cops out there, but I like to think they are the exception rather than the rule.
We rightfully expect police officers to treat us with respect and courtesy. But it's a two-way street. Being kind, courteous and respectful costs nothing, and respect usually begets respect.
# # #
Jimmie L. Hollis is a member of the National Advisory Council of the Project 21 black leadership network. Comments may be sent to Project21@nationalcenter.org.
Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints
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