Anecdotes of a Quasi-Immigrant: Of Law Enforcement.
This summer, I was having dinner with my uncle on his balcony in Trieste, Italy, which has a breathtaking view on the ocean. He is a career police officer. He is a no-nonsense guy. He is levelheaded and thoughtful. We asked him, "What do you guys think when you see the acts of violence in the United States?" And he answered, "Every country begets the law enforcement agency it deserves." He then explained that ultimately, every country gets the law enforcement agency it wants and tolerates. He conceded that Italian police is not the most organized or the most rigid, but that's because the Italian people are not the most organized or the most rigid. The conclusion, generally, is that United States' police is violent and racist because Americans are violent and racist. Your law enforcement agency reflects the society it polices. This broke my heart. It breaks my heart today. I think about that conversation often. It leaves me distraught. Here is why.
When I was 11 years old in Geneva, Switzerland, I jumped on a bus without my bus pass. It was uncalled for because bus passes were cheap. I was 11--I was one year younger than Tamir Rice who was playing with a toy gun. Usually, nobody checked but on that day an officer was on the bus, checking. I got scared and I tried to jump off at a stop. He caught me (physically grabbed my bag) and pulled me back on the bus. I was mortified and scared. He was stern but he didn't scare me. In fact, he calmed me down. He didn't condone my behavior but he put it in perspective. He gave me a ticket, told me not to do it again, and while I still felt bad I didn't feel scared. That was my experience of law enforcement.
As a child, for the better part of fifteen years, I also crossed the border every morning and every evening, encountering "border guards" my entire life. It was uneventful. We nodded, they nodded, they waved us by. That was my experience of law enforcement, every day, twice a day. Sometimes they would stop us. They asked some questions, we answered them, and we moved on.
At 16 (or so) we were traveling to Italy on a school trip. Italian border canine units came on board with their handlers. One my schoolmates' bags fell on the ground. The dog alerted. They took the bag. I was the only Italian speaker so I went with the teacher and the detained student. We went to their offices. The officers were polite and controlled. They explained what they were doing, they answered my many questions, they completed their paperwork, they sent us on our way. Not once did I feel intimidated or scared. Not once did I fail to understand the gravity of the situation.
But my experience of law enforcement in the United States, and of crime, was completely different.
On my 21st birthday, I was in the United States. My husband and I were living in the Gulfton area of Houston, TX. Our two-bedroom apartment was a 2 minute drive from the fancy Bellaire neighborhood. We went to Fogo de Chao for dinner, I drank a glass of red wine to celebrate the fact I could once again drink alcohol, and we went to see "50 First Dates." After the movie, we drove home. We were in good spirits. That morning I had sat for the LSAT, it was my birthday, and we had splurged on a luxurious meal (for us, at the time). As we drove into the gate, waving our key card at the sensor, we didn't notice the car behind us. As we parked, got out, and locked the red 1991 Third Generation Supra, we didn't notice the car turning around behind us, lights still on. And by the time we noticed the three teenage boys running up on us, it was too late. I remember strange details from the few minutes that followed. I remember a terrified teenage black boy holding a revolver 5 inches from my face. I remember with anger and rage the other teenager pushing the barrel of his gun against my husband's temple. I remember staying calm and thinking: "If this kid gets scared, his finger will slip on that trigger and I'm dead." They snatched my bag. They emptied my husband's pockets. The third guy (maybe unarmed?) grabbed the stuff. They ran back to the car, jumped in, and drove off. It was over. We were okay, physically.
I don't remember how I got into our apartment, but I remember pacing around the living room, each of us on the phone, blocking credit cards. I think we called the police that same night but I don't remember giving statements. I just don't remember.
I did get a call from someone who found my handbag in a dumpster around the corner. My business card was in it. I got my bag back. I washed it, doused it with bleach, washed it again, and couldn't get the violation out of it so I threw it away.
I do remember a law enforcement officer coming to my office a few days later. I don't know if she explained this before or if this had been relayed to me before that day but the gist was that the boys had been identified. One of them, a very young kid (fourteen or sixteen years old) had called his girlfriend with my phone minutes after stealing it. The number was on my bill. I remember reverse looking it up, calling it, and then turning over the information to the detective. They had not done as much when I relayed the number. While at my office, the police officer sat me down and told me that only a positive ID would result in an arrest and a conviction. She explained to me that because they were minors we could not do a live lineup. She then showed me a photo lineup of six or eight black boys. I told her I could not recognize any of them. She told me to look again. I reiterated that I was staring at the gun and could not identify anyone. She pushed me again to pick someone and then she said, "Just pick one." Just. Pick. One. This is terrifying. I didn't feel safe. I didn't feel calm. I was standing on a precipice and my next move, a move requested by this person in uniform, could destroy a person's life. Destroy it. I said, "I can't. I'm sorry." She left. Nobody was ever arrested. I was actually relieved because by then I knew these were kids, they had already been in juvie, they already had records, they would probably get caught or die. I wanted no revenge. In fact, I just felt sorry for them. I also became scared of law enforcement. That fear and distrust did not go away.
About a year later, I was in Bellaire with a friend. We were in the car and I was driving. We let two police officers on motorcycles go by and drove into a parking lot. I stopped the car, turned it off, we took off our seat belts, and police lights turned on behind me. I got a ticket for failure to wear a seat belt. I plead no contest because it was my word against theirs. My distrust for law enforcement grew. I didn't feel safe. I knew I had been accused of a crime I did not commit and I also knew there was nothing I could do to beat the charges. Thankfully, it was just a small infraction. However, if this happened to me, a white girl in a wealthy neighborhood, what was going on across the street? What was going on in predominantly Black Third Ward and predominantly Hispanic Fifth Ward? Lives destroyed, with complete impunity.
In law school, my husband and I came home from dinner one night to six police cars at my house. Six. Six cars. Why? A neighbor called in someone breaking into my house. Turns out a man (never caught) had convinced a woman to jump our fence and try to enter the house through the doggy door. The woman was older, skeleton-thin, poor, black, disheveled, evidently not in her right mind, very confused, and naked under a dirty sweat pant set. She exhibited no understanding of what was happening to her. The police ran into my house, guns up, "clearing it." They yelled at me about my dog barking. I was afraid they were about to shoot my dog. They aimed their weapons at him. I didn't feel safe. And, more than anything, I felt sorry for this woman. They handcuffed her and led her away. Arresting her was not the answer. Six police cars were not the answer.
Later in law school my husband and I went to Outback. When we came out, we found that someone had smashed my back car window and stolen my bag. It contained my laptop and several textbooks. We called the police. They showed up, completed a report, and told us this crime would not be solved. We asked them to request the video from the restaurant. I don't even remember if that happened. I felt safe from them but I didn't feel like calling them had served much purpose. Mostly, I felt uncomfortable with their presence and wanted it to be over.
As a lawyer, a month or two after the birth of my third son, I was leaving Awty International School. There is a part of the road that dips, steeply, and swings right back up. I was at the speed limit as I started going down and exceeded the speed limit by about 5 mph by the time I hit the bottom of the hill. Had I maintained my acceleration, I would've been back under the speed limit once I made it back up. You know who was at the top of the hill, clocking people as they hit the bottom of that hill? A police officer. Does that make me respect police officers? No. It's a stupid game aimed at writing tickets and not actually ensuring adequate respect for speed limits. These little games are corrosive to community relations. They are also very American. (Traffic tickets in Switzerland, France, and Italy are issued via traffic cameras on the side of the road).
Over the next few years, we were victims of other crimes several times. We never called the police again (other than for traffic accidents). We just made do with it. Why? Because law enforcement involvement did not guarantee safety or accountability but had, in my experience, only created more inequity. I truly believe this is not the outcome good police wants. I still believe, in my heart, that truly dedicated police officers want better. They are just working in a system that was built, and fed, to subjugate and police "undesirable populations" rather than serve our communities. I don't think the system is broken objectively; it is working as it was designed, which means it is broken and dangerous for those who don't sit at the top of the privilege pyramid.
Sure, it didn't help that I researched and wrote the history of the Texas ACLU in college, which included firsthand accounts of unspeakable acts of cruelty and harassment by some members of law enforcement (including the FBI) against Black Texans, civil rights activists, and the ACLU in the 1960s and 1970s. But I didn't come out of it hating law enforcement either. I came out of these experiences confused about the role of law enforcement and ambivalent about their utility in my life. And this confusion leads to a certain amount of distrust. But expressing that distrust (even in this blog post) opens me up to serious recrimination. Just stating that I have had poor encounters, or encounters that left me wondering, opens me up to recriminations that I am "ungrateful," and "anti police" and somehow immoral.
What?! This reaction, the crucifixion and vilification of those who express ambivalence, distrust, or outright dislike for law enforcement, is a very United States experience. The American way is that I must support law enforcement, no matter what and that I must be grateful, no matter what. If that is the case, how do we get accountability? If I can't critique a social institution, how does it get better?
We don't and it doesn't. It becomes perfectly insular.
Unless we fight for it.
I believe law enforcement can make us feel safe. I believe law enforcement can maintain the peace while making us feel good about their presence. I believe law enforcement can rise to its purported calling. I believe those things because I lived elsewhere. I also probably believe that because I am white and that means I have not been subjected to the violent abuses prevalent in this country. This is no small privilege and I recognize that.
However, in order to improve law enforcement, we must shift from a culture of mandatory deference to one of earned respect based on an enforceable and enforced social contract. That social contract has been shredded when it comes to Black communities, shredded. There is so much work to do on that front, that it is impossible to overstate it. We must also narrow law enforcement's role to law enforcement and allow other better suited professionals to address the broad spectrum of situations that now all fall into 911's lap. And we must address both toxic masculinity and white supremacy among police, which will inevitably lead to the very necessary conversation of de-militarization of that same civilian institution.
I still believe we can do this. Guess I'm a hopeless romantic.