What to do when (not if) you're stopped or pulled over
Given all the attention to and conversation about Dr. Gates' run-in with the Cambridge constabulary, it might be worth a brief review of how to keep oneself safe when interacting with the police.
Obviously, all police don't profile--but enough do that this has, historically, been a hot-button issue in the black community. When my co-author, Karen Elyse Hudson, and I were writing the first edition of Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times, we purposefully included a section on how to behave when stopped by the police. Because for us, home training wasn't just where the fork goes, it was life skills. And learning how to deal with the police is a necessary life skill for every black male above the age of 12. Maybe younger.
So, in case it's been awhile since you read the book, a refresher:
If you're stopped while driving, wait for the officer to approach you. DON'T get out of the car. ("That makes us crazy," one cop told me; "I don't want you coming at me until I know who you are.") Keep both hands on the steering wheel where he can see them. When he asks for license and registration, tell him where they are BEFORE you reach for them, and ask if he wants you to do it, of he'd rather: "I keep my wallet in the glove box; do you want me to get it now?"
Asking why you were stopped calmly works much better than telling a cop why you THINK you were stopped. ("In Florida, there are about 1500 different violations on the state's books," one officer told me; "we can always pull you over for something if we want to.") "Can you tell me why you pulled me over, officer?" usually gets a better reaction than "it's cause I'm a brother, right?"
If you're being given a ticket, don't argue. Take the ticket--it has to have the officer's badge number and name on it. You can use that to complain to his department if you think you've been treated unfairly. If he's behaved rudely or with prejudice, write a formal complaint and send it to his watch commander. CC the chief of police and the head of the police commission. (Yes, it's time consuming, but sometimes very effective.)
Screaming confrontations with a guy who is allowed to carry a gun and a taser cannot end well for the person who isn't equally equipped. Far too many black males don't make it home to dinner because they've made a policeman angry or--worse--afraid. Knowing how to react ahead of time--especially for young black men--can make all the difference.
Karen Grigsby Bates is co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).