During the course of my life, I've called Hattiesburg and Los Angeles home. In both cities, I've had little interaction with law enforcement officers. Except for an occasional traffic ticket, my engagement with the police would rank as minimal.
In light of today's news involving the deaths of African Americans — males in particular — at the hands of police officers, I'm thinking of my own dealings with law enforcement. A couple of incidents stand out for me.
In 1982, I moved to Los Angeles to begin a new chapter in my life. I drove out in my red, two-door 1978 Chrysler LeBaron and more than a year later, I had current Mississippi license plates. I had my new plates mailed to me from Hattiesburg. I know. I was breaking the law. But there was something about having those Mississippi plates on my car that made me still feel connected to my home state even though I was living 2,000 miles away.
Driving down LA's Sunset Boulevard one afternoon, I committed a traffic infraction. Honestly, I can't remember what it was but I knew I'd done something wrong when those nerve-racking flashing blue lights appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over, holding my breath as a tall, middle-aged Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy got out of his squad car, walked to my window and asked to see my driver's license. I'd been in Los Angeles for nearly two years and had my California license.
After looking it over, the deputy naturally took note of the fact that, current or not, I was driving an automobile with Mississippi plates. Uh, oh! He questioned why I had another state's plates as I nervously assured him it was my car. He had little interest in that staying-close-to-my-home state story.
As we spoke, I did something stupid. Remembering the car's registration happened to be underneath the front seat of my car, I reached to retrieve it. The sheriff was immediately alarmed at my action, as he should have been. And, no, he didn't reach for his weapon. Instead, he politely warned me I shouldn't do that. By the time though, I had innocently, and foolishly, retrieved the vehicle's registration.
My action was dumb and, in hindsight, I realize just how stupid it was. I have to wonder though, in today's environment, how a policeman would react to my admittedly thoughtless act.
Guess I must have come off as a "non threatening" kind of Black guy. The deputy gave me two tickets, one for my traffic violation, a second for what we called in California a “fix-it-ticket" for my improper plate and registration. Before allowing me to drive off, the deputy reminded me, again politely, that if I were going to drive and live there, my car should be registered in California. "Yes, and thank you, officer."
George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Daunte Wright, and the list, sadly, continues to grow. But whenever I hear about the latest killing of a Black man by a police officer, I think of my own experiences. I resist the temptation to say the police are more likely to use deadly force against a Black person, but I understand why a lot of people feel that way.
Good people and bad people are a fact of life. So, it stands to reason, whenever you have a large number of people in any profession, from doctors to teachers, there will be some bad apples in the bunch. It's a simple truth. Unfortunately, those small numbers of bad officers may give entire police departments an unearned reputation. That's unfortunate, considering the risky and often dangerous situations good police officers may find themselves.
By the numbers, there are more than 700,000 sworn law enforcement officers working in roughly 18,000 agencies across the United States. Consider this, though: There are nearly 330 million people in the United States. Of that number, 3% of us will be convicted of a felony in our lifetimes. That's a lot of people.
In 2019, USA Today completed a comprehensive study of police misconduct. Among its findings, 85,000 police officers had been investigated for possible abuses, including use of excessive force. A small percentage was found guilty and, as a result, lost their police certification or were prosecuted. Sticking with the numbers, fewer than 4% of police officers turned out to be "bad cops." Admittedly, one bad cop is one too many, as his or her actions can cast entire police departments in an unfairly negative light.
Sure, the bad cops are out there, but the good ones are, too. Here's the story of another interaction I've had with the law.
One summer, my favorite cousin, Douglas, and I took a vacation to New York City. We did all of the touristy stuff, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Empire State Building, and we even took a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. One afternoon, on our way to Macy's, we noticed a pair of New York City Police motorcycles parked on Sixth Avenue. I'm not a biker kind of guy, but I have to admit even I was impressed. These were a couple of fine looking machines. Douglas and I stopped to admire them, even snapped photos of each other as we stood beside the bikes.
A couple of New York City's finest watched as my cousin and I admired their motorcycles, snapping photos. One of the officers standing by the bikes said to us, "Why don't you two get on and take a picture?" What?! To say Douglas and I were surprised doesn't fairly describe our reaction. You hear so much about "bad cops," but what about the good ones, the nice guys? They're out there, you know.
After taking photos of each other striking a pose on their bikes, we thanked the officers for being so nice to a couple of Black guys visiting Manhattan from Mississippi. That little memory stands out in my head to this day. So does the memory of the kindhearted sheriff's deputy, doing his job.
They may seem insignificant, but sometimes the smallest acts of kindness can mean more to someone you interact with than you'll ever know. One person at a time, one act at a time, is how we improve this country's race relations. In fact, it's how we improve all human relations.
That goes for how we interact with the police, too. And it's every bit as important that police officers remember the same. Especially when it comes to dealing with people who may not be the same skin color as themselves.
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him: email@example.com.