At an earlier time of my life, in a different town, I would have paid little attention to the officer’s interrogation of me in Spanish and quickly forgotten it.
But the traffic stop occurred in Van Nuys, in a region where, I have learned in the three years I have lived here, race sometimes isn’t simply a trivial detail.
“Did you see this guy?” the two officers joked with each other as they approached my window. “Ran right through that red light. He was driving in both lanes.”
No I hadn’t.
“Adonde vas, amigo?” one officer began in Spanish, switching to English when he realized I spoke his language.
The interrogation resulted in a drunk driving ticket, later reduced to an “exhibition of speed” charge, though nothing about speeding was ever mentioned by the officers who stopped me.
OK, I confess, my blood-alcohol reading was over the limit. But in the large crowd of white friends who had come out of an Irish bar with me, I was the only one stopped, pulled over in less than a block.
And it wasn’t the first time. Or even the second.
It was just the latest chapter in the story of how and why my views about race have changed since I came to Los Angeles.
I drove home later that night, enraged with the officers’ tactics, deeply insulted they had addressed me in Spanish. I suspected they had confused me with an unsophisticated immigrant unacquainted with this country’s civil liberties.
I came here from the safety of a Northern California college town, where I vaguely remember minority students from L.A. complaining of unjustly being questioned by police. I ignored their tales. It had nothing to do with me.
But I have changed. Now I am one of them, transformed by a new awareness of race, my own. It’s an awareness built not on one incident, but on several: the repeated police stops--not like the one in Van Nuys, but for petty or nonexistent traffic violations--that somehow turned into drug searches.
The humiliating moments on the side of the road, hands behind my head, a lump in my throat choking me with anger.
The first of three such drug searches occurred in the summer of 1996 when I was northbound on the Golden State Freeway north of Santa Clarita.
I saw the CHP officer on the freeway shoulder. He studied me, making eye contact as I passed, looked over my 1989 Mazda truck, jumped into his patrol car and gave chase.
“I pulled you over because you’re not wearing your seat belt,” he said. “License and registration, please. Do you have any weapons or narcotics? Do you mind if I search your truck? Please step outside. Put your hands behind your head. I’m doing this for safety reasons.”
Before he let me go, he gave me a citation for not wearing a seat belt--the only citation of any sort in the three drug searches.
Another time, a pack of six officers in three patrol cars lingered on the side of the road in the same area. All their eyes followed my 1989 Corsica as I passed them. They rushed into their cars and gave chase.
I left the freeway. They followed. Distracted from the road as I watched them in my rearview mirror, I halted somewhat roughly at the stop sign. The police cars’ red lights came on just as I pulled away from the sign. The three patrol cars surrounded me in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant.
“License and registration, please,” one said. “Do you have any weapons or narcotics? Do you mind if we search your car?”
“Can I ask what this is about, officer?” I asked.
“You came up to the stop sign too fast, for one,” he said. “Where are you going on a Thursday morning? Do you work?”
“I got a day off.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a newspaper reporter.”
“Please, step outside. Put your hands behind your head and spread your legs. I’m going to check you quickly. This is for your and my protection.”
“Where did you get this guitar?” he asked at one point, going through my trunk. He emptied my traveling bag.
“He’s clean,” he later yelled to another officer.
As in the other drug searches, suddenly they were gone. Each time, people stared at me as I slowly put my things back in my vehicle.
“It is a huge problem and extremely common,” said ACLU lawyer John Crew, who studies police practices. Some police officers pull over cars driven by young men of minority race, he said, often using minor infractions to look for bigger crimes.
Or no infraction at all. “A major problem with the pretext stop is that the minor violation doesn’t even exist,” he said.
It is next to impossible to prove that an alleged minor infraction did not occur and that an unconstitutional stop and search was made because the only evidence a citizen has is his word against the officer’s, Crew said.
Some officers use “profiling,” to identify individuals they want to question on sight, he said. I believe my experience shows there are profiles, and that young Mexican American males like me fit them.
Both the LAPD and CHP deny such profiles exist. “Our stops have to be legal stops on probable cause,” said Lt. Tony Alba, an LAPD spokesman. “We teach that in the academy.”
“We are not influenced by profiles or anything else,” said CHP Sgt. Ernie Garcia. Said Officer James Curry, a trainer in the CHP’s narcotic investigation unit: “We don’t just stop you because you look a certain way, we look for crime indicators.”
But there are police voices to the contrary. “It happens every day,” said Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Officer’s Assn. “This notion that, if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear, is wrong. A lot of times the police are not honest.”
The problem is such an epidemic in some parts of the country that Congress is considering legislation submitted by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) that would require all law enforcement agencies to provide detailed information about each traffic stop.
For me, it’s only in the last couple of years, here in L.A., that I’ve become self-conscious of being Mexican American, conscious of it minute by minute in everyday life.
I was raised in a farm town in the San Joaquin Valley where police presence was minimal. The mostly Latino and white population commonly worked and played together, dated each other, were friends.
When I went to college in Humboldt County, I was warned the population there was 95% white. I was concerned briefly. But in five years, I grew to consider the white people my neighbors and the area my home.
But in Southern California--where so much liberal lip service is given to “diversity"--the local police appear to presume on sight that I am a menace to society.
After some of the incidents, I talked with a CHP officer friend of mine who used to do drug enforcement. He too swears to me that the CHP follows no profile of drug-runners that singles out Latinos.
But he has never reconciled that claim with what he once said is a well-known fact among law enforcement officers: that Latinos--many of them from Mexico--are the main drug couriers between Los Angeles and the Central Valley.
“You were probably doing something wrong,” my friend said.
After the Van Nuys stop, I consulted a lawyer. He made me face the fact that I was only 99.9% positive I had not run the stoplight. And technically, the lawyer informed me, the officer was right that I was driving in two lanes--even if it was just for the second it takes to complete a normal lane change.
I realized then there would be no point in challenging the LAPD about why I was pulled over.
Years from now, in middle age, long after my bitter suspicions have died, maybe a similar traffic stop will be easier to ignore. But it’s too difficult now. Too many incidents, too many questions and too few answers.
Too many Americans know that everyday obedience to the laws of society is not enough to avoid being harassed by police.
Too many have concluded, as I have, that their mere presence in public, as far as some officers are concerned, amounts to a sort of crime. Right here, in America.