Traffic stop

Late one summer afternoon in 2018, my mentee and I were heading back to my mentee’s house from an event the two of us had just attended. We cruised along a 50 mph-zone of a Connecticut state highway, listening to a local hip-hop station. Traffic was light and moving fast. We crested a huge hill, and I let the car coast down the long, straight ribbon of road. The speedometer clocked over 75 mph by the time we reached bottom.

We were halfway up the next hill when a police car came up behind us, lights flashing.

“Uh-oh,” I said.

I pulled over.

My mentee immediately turned off the radio.

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Sandra Bland was 28 years old the afternoon of July 10, 2015, when a Texas State Trooper tailed her down the road and accelerated into her rear. She assumed he wanted to pass her, so she switched lanes. He then flashed his lights and pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change — a lane change he had provoked.

When asked by the Trooper whether she was irritated at being pulled over, she admitted that she was. He then demanded that she put out a cigarette she was smoking, which she refused, and then ordered her out of the car. When she didn’t comply, he threatened to tase her. She exited the vehicle, struggled from his grasp, and he slammed her head to the ground, pushing his knees into her back. When she informed him that she was epileptic, he responded “Good.”

He arrested her for “assaulting a public servant.”

She was jailed, could not make bail, and was found dead in her cell three days later.

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We rolled down our windows. I fumbled through the documents we kept in our glove compartment, found the registration, but realized, in a panic, that I couldn’t locate a valid insurance card.

The police officer, a tall, middle-aged white man approached and leaned in by the passenger side.

“Do you know how fast you were going?”

“Too fast,” I admitted.

My heartbeat thumped in my temples, and my face burned. I handed him my driver’s license, the car registration, and an expired insurance card.

“I know my husband put the new one in here somewhere,” I said, showing him the envelope of papers.

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Reka Boyd was 22 year old on March 21, 2012 when an off-duty Chicago police office drove to a park after he registered a noise complaint. (You read that correctly.) He approached four people, and a verbal altercation followed. The off-duty officer then fired into the group, injuring one and hitting Rekia in the head, killing her. No one but the officer was armed. The injured surviving victim reported that the officer had tried to buy drugs from the group and had been rebuffed.

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The officer asked me where I had come from and where I was going. I told him.

He glanced at my driver’s license and frowned. “You live over 50 miles in the other direction.” He sounded skeptical.

I explained that I was a youth mentor through a program funded by the state. “I’m taking my mentee home. I go home after that.” I sighed. “It’s been a long day.”

“Got some ways to go yet,” he said.

I was still searching through the envelope, checking one document after another, trying to find our non-expired insurance card.

“Keep looking,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

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Darnisha Harris was 16 years old on December 2, 2012 when Breaux Bridge, Louisiana police officers arrived to put an end to a fight. Darnisha panicked, drove away, hit two vehicles (one a police car), and injured a bystander. Officers shot her in the head, killing her. Eyewitnesses reported that she had her hands in the air.

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Through the rearview mirror I saw him enter the patrol car.

I looked down. There! The insurance card had been at the front of the envelope, the whole time. I yanked it out with a combination of annoyance at my ineptitude, and relief that I had found it.

“Got it!” I told my mentee.

They nodded, not saying a word. That’s when I noticed how still they sat, breathing steadily, eyes straight ahead. They knew better than to make themself noticeable.

Five minutes passed, maybe ten. We waited in silence. The breeze blew in gently, the air less heavy than earlier in the day, soothing some of the hot pinpricks in my cheeks.

The officer returned with my papers. I tried to hand him the valid insurance card, but he waved it away.

“I had to issue you a ticket,” he said. “But I’ve given you ‘Driving at an unsafe speed.’ That’ll save you some money.”

I thanked him. Genuinely. Grateful that this was almost over.

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Atatiana Jefferson was 28 years old on October 12, 2019. Early that morning, a neighbor made a non-emergency phone call to the Fort Worth Texas police because Atatiana’s door was open and her neighbor was concerned for her welfare. Officers arrived and quietly walked around the house with flashlights, never identifying themselves. When an officer saw Atatiana’s face (and only her face) in a window, he yelled “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” Before she could respond, he shot her through the window, killing her.

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“Drive more carefully,” the officer told me. “You still have to make it home.”

I started the engine, checked my mirrors, and accelerated into the roadway, the officer’s car behind me. After a couple of miles he veered off.

I don’t recall turning the radio back on. I was too focused on my driving, I suppose, still shaken by the stop. I faithfully followed the speed limit that evening.

I had gotten off easy, I realized. The officer had been courteous, and, yes, kind.

Not once did I think my life was in danger.

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Yvette Smith was 47 years old on February 16, 2014. That night, she phoned the Bastrop County, Texas police about two men fighting. The deputy who responded to her call ordered her to step outside the house, which she did. Within 3 seconds, he shot her twice, killing her. She was unarmed.

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I’m white. So was my mentee.

Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Darnisha Harris, Atatiana Jefferson, and Yvette Smith were Black.

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