This is one of my 💚 favorite essays
Originally published 2020-06-13, updated 2022-05-26
When I was probably 7 or 8 years old, a dog attacked me and bit me in the ass. A sheriff’s deputy took pictures of my ass. The dog was current on its rabies shots. I was at least the second person this dog had bitten, and by law it had to be killed.
A few times in my preteen and teen years, while riding my bike aimlessly around Lincoln, Nebraska, cops followed me. At bike speed. For no discernable reason.
When I was 13 years old I was arrested for vandalism. The actual crime was embarassing, but not in a way that makes a good story. I was arraigned (is that the right verb?) in juvenile court and sentenced to 40 hours of volunteer labor. I had one full work week (it was summer) with Lincoln Parks and Rec, mostly doing gardening labor and cleaning bathrooms. It was actually really fun work, and didn’t feel like punishment at all. The shop boss offered me a job when I turned 16, to this day I regret not taking him up on that; instead I worked at awful restaurant jobs in High School.
From college through my early 30s, I called the police several times for property crimes (thefts of various kinds). I did this because I knew insurance companies would need a police report. In every single case, the cops said “we probably won’t investigate this, and you probably won’t get any of this stuff back.” In a few cases, they gave me a list of pawn shops to call — basically detective homework they were too busy/lazy to do themselves. For every time I called the police for a property crime, there was at least one time I didn’t, because I knew they wouldn’t do anything, and the insurance deductible was probably higher than the loss.
I was ticketed one time in college for public urination.
On multiple occasions, cops rapped on the windows of a car in which I was necking with a date. Once I was made to wait in the back of a cruiser while the cop asked my girlfriend if she was there of her own free will. One another occasion, when my wife was pulled over for speeding, I was again pulled into the back of the cruiser. This was because she had the same name as a woman who had a restraining order out against someone; the cop was ensuring that my wife was not that woman, and that I was not that man.
I was pulled over several times in college for car maintenance violations; burned out tail lights, bad muffler, etc. (My car cost literally $1000.) All these stops resulted in warnings, not tickets.
On Spring Break in New Orleans, a cop saw me drinking out of a glass bottle while sitting on the curb. He gave me a paper bag for my bottle. (“So ya don’t get glass all over when you drop it.”) A few days later, while I was eating lunch in a hotel bar, I was chatting with the bartender and an on-duty cop — a friend of the bartender — was drinking with me. The bartender tried to sell me weed and I was gobsmacked. “I can’t believe you’re trying to sell to me in front of a cop.” The cop said, ”hey, he sells me my weed.”
I was pulled over for “speeding” in Montana, twice. This was in the 90s when “speeding” was a nonmoving violation (during the day) in Montana, and you could get “released on bail” by giving the cop $5.
A couple times I have been in situations that, when I feel like telling a highly-embellished story, I describe as “muggings.” They were more accurately times when someone I vaguely knew threatened me with violence when I couldn’t give them any money (because I was broke.) These things always happened when everyone was very very drunk. Usually I escaped these situations with a mix of humor and subterfuge, and a modicum of drunken wrestling. It never even occurred to me to call the cops.
I was pulled over twice for missing a stop sign. The first time, I was a teenager and talked the cop into letting me go (without even a warning!) The other time, the cop gave me a proper ticket which I planned to contest — the stop sign was new and I wasn’t expecting it. My court date was scheduled for MLK Jr. Day. When I called the court to confirm the date, they told me the court was closed that day, and the ticket would be dismissed. I half-believe the cop knew this would happen, so he was writing all the tickets with that court date.
I called non-emergency to get a welfare check on a neighbor who I suspected had died inside his home. The cop who responded was the local beat cop whom I knew from neighborhood interactions (neighborhood association meetings, fire station picknic, that kind of thing). Together with another neighbor we got into my neighbor’s house, where they found his body (I didn’t see it.) This was the one and only time I had an encounter with a cop, such that I thought “wow I’m glad there was a cop here.”
While traveling: numerous tiny interactions with cops, usually being told I couldn’t go into a certain building or park, or that a certain building or park was closing, or getting directions. A couple times while backpacking around in my early 20s: being awakened while sleeping during the day in a park, library or coffee shop. This was when I did not have a reliable place to hang out during the day (example: while living at a youth hostel), so I might have presented as a “homeless trustafarian” (a favorite villain in college towns.)
I (knowingly) drove around a traffic barrier downtown during a marathon. (I was trying to take a “shortcut.”) Immediately a traffic cop pulled me over. My mother-in-law and kids (they were toddlers at the time) were in the car with me. The cop was furious. But when I explained what I was trying to do, he directed me to a route that wouldn’t cross any more barriers.
I called 911 when someone (super drunk and/or high) was wandering around our property, but I immediately felt bad and called 911 back and said “nevermind.” Then I went outside and asked them to walk down to the park.
I’ve called 911 a few times to report dangerous drivers. I have no idea if anything ever came from this.
My father-in-law died at home in his apartment behind our house. Along with paramedics and and EMT, 911 dispatched two cops to the scene. They were both kids, perhaps mid-20s, polite and tried to stay out of the way. The cops couldn’t leave until the coroner had released the body to a mortuary, we didn’t have a mortuary (yet) to take him, and the coroner couldn’t investigate the body (it was too busy). It took about half an hour. There were a LOT of people in his apartment. Eventually a pair of social workers arrived. One of them started berating the cops: why are you here? can’t you see these people are grieving? why did you have to bring guns into this house? etc. Everyone else was like: whoa, lady, don’t piss off the cops. Pissing off cops is like taunting a big dog.
Pointedly: the firefighters wouldn’t leave until after the cops. I don’t know if this was policy but it was obvious why, and we appreciated it.
Commentary written in 2020
For most of my life, I treated cops like dangerous dogs: AVOID. There are very few situations that can be made better by calling in the vicious dogs. I have never been in such a situation.
I didn’t realize at the time how much my whiteness protected me in these situations. I got a mild slap in juvie, and the record was expunged. When I reported my various burglaries, I and my roommates were never treated like suspects. I never had any fear of asking for directions from a cop. I knew my local beat cop, he was a middle-class white guy like me. I talked my way out of all the traffic stops. No one dragged me violently from a car, or pointed a gun at me. I doubt a Black man would have had this many interactions with cops and still have a completely blank police and traffic record, like I do.
All these interactions were perfunctory, polite, and bureaucratic. It never occurred to me until about two weeks ago that these could have all been handled by some kind of city clerk, an unarmed “traffic enforcement agent” or a social worker.
Over the last two weeks, I have begun to think: we barely need “cops” at all. Even setting aside larger social solutions — why are so many people living so precariously that they need to sleep in libraries? maybe we should tackle that problem before mindlessly prescribing MORE COPS) — we don’t need to arm local bureaucrats to do routine stuff like photograph dog bites, hand out speeding tickets, chase backpackers out of college libraries, or check on someone who might have died in their home.
Two weeks ago I didn’t think like this.
Commentary written in 2022
Events of the past two years have made my opinions re: cops slightly more subtle. If they won’t evict a squatter without the help of a SWAT team; if they won’t protect a classroom full of nine-year-olds; hell if they won’t protect Congress — who exactly do they protect?
A stable society needs something like cops, as a matter of public safety. I am the kind of conservative who believes the state should have a monopoly on interpersonal violence; I am the kind of liberal who believes those who dispense that violence should be held to much higher standards than the rest of the public.