SECOND OPINIONS : Learning to Distinguish Duty From Harassment : The community must realize that police officers must enforce the law, and that stopping minority youths for traffic violations is not racist; it’s their job.
When I was young and full of myself, my dad would drill into my head the concept of respect and reverence for the law--and those who enforce it. He didn’t use fancy terms or lofty ideas. His message was blunt, pure and simple. If I got stopped by the police (he never used the term “cops”), it meant they probably had a reason and a duty to stop me. I was told to tell the truth, answer all questions, don’t talk back and “go along with the program.” If I was clean, I had nothing to fear. If I was “dirty,” then I got whatever was coming to me, be it a tongue-lashing, ticket or even arrest. In which case I would have plenty more to worry about than just the police, or even a judge. I would have to face my dad.
My dad also told me about another frame of mind, a confrontational credo that held the position, “question authority.” He advised me that smarting off, talking back and playing curbside lawyer would not endear me to any police officer or authority figure, and that this type of attitude would bring on troubles of my own making, something both wrong and stupid.
In the late ‘60s, my first car was a “Castilian blue” 1956 Chevrolet. It wasn’t much of a hot rod, but I thought it was the coolest thing around (even if it was a four-door). I think that, because of that car, I was “hassled by the cops” about three times. Once I was pulled over for possibly speeding, another time I was questioned as a potential burglary suspect. The ultimate indignity was being extracted from my own car, at gunpoint, as a suspected car thief. But every time, the officers questioned and released me quickly and without any problems. The potential for a negative experience was avoided, I still believe, because of my positive attitude and demeanor. Could it be that I was speeding (hot-looking car), did fit the profile of a burglar (late at night, parked near an alley) or car thief (I was working on the radio wires under the dashboard)? In all of these encounters, I knew I was not guilty, so I cooperated. I had every reason to yell “police harassment,” “false arrest” or some other such nonsense, but I didn’t.
Later, after becoming a police officer myself, I made the same types of traffic stops and investigations, and came to realize the difference between harassment and duty.
Mary Helen Ponce, in a Valley Perspective column, recently expressed her anger and fear over police harassment, after her son was stopped at night near Sunland Park. His car had a defective headlight, and he subsequently was arrested for possession of a weapon, which she described as his “favorite hiking stick.” She inferred that the encounter was biased because he is Latino.
She went on to relate a story about her friend’s daughter and a group of friends who decided to “party” after a football game. They did so by driving around in a car at night, with open alcoholic beverage containers in the vehicle. They committed a traffic violation (running a red light) and were stopped (read harassed) by the police. She even adds that these young women were “feeling groovy.” (Is that like “being under the influence”?) After intervention by a mutual acquaintance of the daughter and the officers, the youths were released with only a tongue-lashing.
Remember, a defective, inoperative or broken headlight is still a traffic violation and safety hazard, especially at night. Unfortunately, Sunland Park has become, like so many of our neighborhoods, the scene of gang activity and violence. If a “hiking stick” is not commercially manufactured, or has been modified and doesn’t look like a hiking stick, it usually has a dual purpose and can fit the penal code definition of a weapon. Maybe it was being carried down between the seat and door of the car, where suspects have been known to secret weapons for quick retrieval.
Ponce never made it clear, but I can assume the police agency in question was the Evil LAPD . I can’t argue with her personal perception of bias, but she would like us all to take a leap of logic and automatically equate violations of the law to racism, and to confuse an officer’s duty with pure harassment.
The police had valid reasons for stopping Ponce’s son and her friend’s daughter. Ponce’s surprise at her son not talking back (questioning authority) is telling. Her son did the right thing, and he was ultimately released. Fortunately for him, the case was not prosecuted, most likely because of the city attorney’s filing policies. Conversely, the young women got what I felt was an undeserved break. It’s certainly not a perfect world, and not police harassment. It was the officers’ duty.