I take it for granted that black drivers are subjected to being pulled over by cops (black or white) far more than white drivers are. Not everyone takes this for granted. My Buddy gave me grief when I wrote a post saying that my new friend Tim, a young black fellow, told me last year that he had been pulled over half a dozen times in as many months. Had I confirmed this by speaking to the police, he wondered. I hadn’t. Even if true a half dozen stops could have been warranted or coincidental. Anecdotes fall notoriously short of statistics in the proof department.
Tim keeps showing up in my posts. I’ve noticed that some of my fellow School Board colleagues seem to be working harder to prove they don’t have a problem with black people. They so often seem to be a source of never ending consternation.
Last Wednesday I saw flashing lights in my rearview mirror for the first time in two years. The last time I was pulled over for speeding along Wisconsin’s Highway 2 while taking my family to the Ice Caves. It’s one of only about a dozen such stops in my 45 year driving career.
I had just picked up Tim three blocks before turning right at 24th Avenue West. My first thought when I saw the lights in the mirror was “I’ve got a black passenger.”
The polite young officer who came to my door lowered his head subtly to peer at my passenger and asked me why I thought he had pulled me over.
“I might have been speeding a little,” I suggested. This was possible. I know I sometimes step on the gas to charge up Duluth’s steep hills. I had been paying more attention to Tim more than my speedometer.
I handed over my driver’s license and proof of car insurance. I don’t know if the young officer recognized my face but I wouldn’t be surprised if the name on my license rang a bell. He was unfailing polite to a 64-year-old gentlemen in a relatively new hybrid car who was unfailingly polite in return.
The policeman told me he had seen me stop at the intersection of Third Street and 21st Avenue West. I deduced that he felt I had blocked the driving lane. I explained that I had stopped to pick a friend up to take him to work. The officer told me he hadn’t seen anybody get into my car.
However, the officer told me I had not engaged my right turn signal when turning onto 24th Avenue. He said nothing about my speeding. It was a short stop. No warning tickets were issued and I was allowed to go on my way.
Tim was silent through the stop but he was quick to poke holes in the officer’s statements. Tim told me I had used my turn signal moments before the stop. I do consider myself a bit of a turn signal fanatic even routinely signaling lane changes. I also often fail to turn off my signal after switching lanes much to Claudia’s annoyance. I can’t recall whether I signaled a turn.
What Tim said next was a lot harder to dismiss. He was wearing an intense sky blue jacket as I approached the intersection. My long stop was meant to let Tim walk in front of my car to reach the passenger side door. If the officer saw me stop for a long enough to block the quiet intersection he would have been remarkably unobservant to miss Tim getting in. Tim is not a small man no matter the color of his coat.
Tim also told me that I had not stopped in the driving lane but had pulled over to the curb. This seems possible but I couldn’t recall for sure. I might not have because I saw no other traffic and could also see that Tim was likely to cross the street almost as soon as I hit the intersection. Under those circumstances I may have concluded that there was little need to pull over.
For an old white fellow who has only been pulled over once every three or four years it was a pretty painless stop. But for someone who did no more than hop in a car to hear that he had entered unobserved was not creditable. It sounded more like a little white lie invented to avoid admitting that we were pulled over because of Tim’s complexion.
Yes, it took place in a heavily policed neighborhood with a high proportion of minority residents at a time when drugs, often trafficked by minority entrepreneurs, are proliferating. It may not be fair to a black person but these reasons do seem to explain a great many traffic stops. The officer could have been looking for drugs or a pimp having sized me up as a potential customer.
I chose to treat the stop with some levity which Tim’s parents might not have found so funny. I’ve never been pulled over for looking like a Presbyterian or a Kansan or a college graduate. But now I seem to have been pulled over for something almost as innocent – giving a black man a ride to work.