The new year uncorked a culture of emergency in our country that I always thought was the symptom of failed states in distant lands. Never did I imagine rioting mobs would strike at the heart of SumAmerican democracy and its enduring symbol: the Capitol Building, home of Congress. FBI investigations may reveal the smoking gun of individual Capitol cops and some House Representatives who might have aided and guided the storming of our democratic landmark. Such acts by rogue police officers, whether they turn out to be true or not, reminded me of an incident that I experienced this past summer.
Since early childhood my perception of the police has been shaped by Hollywood movies and images of heroism. My confidence in cops has been shaken by police brutality and recent protests. But it was shattered by an incident that involved my eighteen year old brother, my fourteen year old cousin, my aunt, two police officers, and me.
This past summer we were returning to Boston from Cape Cod after a few days of relief from the pandemic – swimming, playing tennis, and having fun with our grandparents. My aunt, Suzi, was driving. My brother, Alex, was sitting next to her in the passenger’s seat. My cousin, Leo, was thumbing through his phone in the backseat to my right, and I was dozing off listening to R&B music on my headphones. Then out of nowhere Suzi said that there was a police car following us. We all turned our heads to the rear window to see a police car with its blue and red lights flashing. She said everything would be fine. We all reached for our masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19. A headlong momentum of nervous silence settled upon us as we waited for someone to emerge at Suzi’s window.
Suddenly two officers appeared at Leo’s door in the back, one attempting to open it without warning, while his partner stood right behind him. They aggressively attempted to open the door only to realize that it was locked.
“Open this door,” he yelled repeatedly. Fright and confusion reigned inside. Leo tried to open the door as instructed. The officer kept pulling on the handle, “Stop fidgeting and open it.” My cousin tried again to no avail. Through the closed window, Leo told the officer that it wouldn’t open, but the policeman kept on barking. Finally, Suzi realized that the child safety locks were on, and she pushed the button in catharsis. The policeman flung the door open, and a cloud of tyrannical hysteria took the car by storm.
Both cops yelled at us to put up our hands on the seats in front. We were shocked but compliant. Upon asking why, they harshly replied that we were suspiciously moving in the backseat. I reached for my phone, but they yelled at me to put my hands in the air. I said I wanted to record what was happening, but they wouldn’t allow me to do so. Suzi told them that I had been asleep, and that Leo was just playing on his phone. The officer then grabbed Leo’s arm with extreme force to pull him out of the car but couldn’t because Leo’s seatbelt was still buckled. They ordered him to get out. Leo calmly said okay as he took his seatbelt off. He stepped out of the car with the officer’s hand still gripping his arm. Suzi asked over and over why they were pulling Leo out of the car. The policemen said they needed to search him for suspicious movement, patting him down and searching his pockets. They found nothing. They pointed to two bags near me. At this point, one of the officers was fully inside the car, his face maskless. He rifled through my personal belongings and searched near my feet: headphones, shoes, phone. Eventually the officers hastily told Suzi she had been speeding. Three minutes later they handed her a warning and let us breathe a sigh of relief. But the rest of our car ride home was suffused with anger and shock.
It baffles me why armed policemen needed to terrorize two teenagers on the unfounded assumption of carrying drugs or guns! Reading about the treatment of Black Americans is nothing like actually experiencing it first-hand. I know that my incident pales in comparison, but things could have gone south with any wrong movement in the car.
Civilians shouldn’t have to face brutality and emotional terror at the hands of some clueless police officers. Although I support law and order, police officers must be reacquainted with this basic contract: valuable trust bestowed by the public upon the police to act responsibly; trust inspired by the police to serve and protect the public. They depend on taxpayer money and cooperation. Their soft skills must replace bullyism and the appearance of racist behavior exhibited by the few bad cops that cast blue hats in a bad light. Restoring the shaken image of confidence and heroism is a must.