Fatherly Advice on Stop and Frisk

The son of a retired cop compares his dad's take on the police tactic with his own perspective.

Brett Johnson; his father, Ronald Johnson
Brett Johnson; his father, Ronald Johnson

One can only imagine what kinds of words were exchanged before the situation was diffused and Walcott was able to avoid spending a night in jail. Knowing how to deal with police when stopped is a vital skill. My father’s advice has been typically cautious. “All you do is comply,” he told me. “Don’t give people cause or reason [to use force] … you might be shot. They might go upside your head … keep your hands where they can be seen. Respond with yes or no, officer.”

Not exactly the militant response I’d want him to suggest I use when confronted with an officer who has wrongfully targeting me as being suspicious. Yet more than most, my ex-cop father knows how certain police can respond when someone is being uncooperative. I have come to understand that his measured approach is aimed at preserving my safety and freedom.

As Father’s Day approaches, warnings passed from father to son — particularly among blacks and Latinos — may also have special significance. (The timing of a silent march against stop and frisk this coming Sunday capitalizes on that significance.) Until stop and frisk is dialed back, talking to cops during an investigation with a bit of diplomacy could mean the difference between surviving and not. However, the psychic burden of blackness (or Latino-ness) — constantly negotiating someone else’s preconceived notions about you — is a load too heavy for many to bear.

What my dad’s advice doesn’t take into account, though, is the police’s responsibility. It’s imperative that they treat all residents with equal amounts of dignity and civility. Bloomberg has said as much, when he contended that stop and frisk should only be “amended, not ended.” My dad and the mayor both know that a lot of effort and education has to go toward changing officers’ long-ingrained opinions about what a criminal looks like. Whether that shift in attitudes happens anytime soon is anybody’s guess.

Brett Johnson is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.