The Story of a Really Bad Police Interaction

Would police have treated a white guy like this?

I have spent a lot of time lately arguing that there is a moral panic over police shootings and race. And I believe that. But at the same time, it’s important to recognize that sometimes police behavior is indeed inexcusable — and when an insane story of a bad police interaction happens to a black victim, and the cop is white, people are inevitably going to ask questions.

The story you are about to read is true. It happened in Alabama. And it teaches us all an important lesson about police and race.

As you will see, there is no explicit racism evident in this story. The cop never uses the N-word or calls the motorist “boy” or anything like that. Still, I think most fair-minded people who read this story, understanding that the motorist was black and the state trooper was white, will conclude that racism provides at least part of the reason for the otherwise inexplicable behavior of the law enforcement officer.

But maybe I’m wrong. Read it, and tell me what you think.

THE INCIDENT

Here's my story about carrying a firearm, being stopped by the police, and confusing commands and actions that made me seriously fear for my life...

Back in 2015 or so, I was stopped by an Alabama State Trooper passing through downtown Birmingham in the middle of the day. It was for speeding. As I usually do, I promptly pulled over, had my hands at 10 & 2 on the steering wheel, and was extremely polite. The trooper approached my vehicle and asked for my driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. I had my wallet on my lap and after making sure he was watching I told him I was going to remove my driver's license. I removed it and my pistol permit (CCW in Alabama) and handed both to him while simultaneously telling him that I am also giving him my pistol permit and that I have a firearm in my vehicle in the center console. My hands were back at 10 & 2 after handing him the driver’s license and permit.

He immediately drew his firearm, pointed it at the side of my head from about 1.5 feet away, and screamed at me that if I moved he would "blow my fucking head off." My heart started beating so fast I thought I would piss my pants. I told the trooper I wasn't going to move, he has my permit and I will cooperate fully with whatever he asks. He was extremely aggressive and my perception at the time was he was either very angry or very scared. I don't know exactly when I noticed this, but the trooper was sweating profusely. The tone of his voice was one of extreme agitation.

He began to bark commands to me. He told me to open the center console so he could see the firearm. I did so slowly and loudly announcing each movement I was making.

He then told me to pick up the pistol "by the trigger guard with your thumb and forefinger." At that time, believe it or not, I literally didn't know what the word “forefinger” meant. So I hesitated and told him I didn't know which finger he meant. That set him off even more and he began to scream at me to "do it now" then he said "don't move" then he screamed again to "do it now" or he was "going to shoot me in the face." He was also using various profanities but I don't even remember what all he said.

I offered to allow him to handcuff me through the window and retrieve the firearm himself because I told him his instructions were confusing me. He did not calm down but at least he clarified that forefinger means index finger. I'd had simply never heard that before. I told him I was going to follow his commands but that I was terrified he was going to shoot me. He told me I was right to be scared because if I didn't do exactly as he said he was going to shoot me.

I attempted to follow the trooper's instructions while he yelled at me and I thought the whole time I was moving he was going to shoot me. All I could think of was my daughter and that she would grow up without me, which is my biggest fear because my father died when I was eight years old.

The trooper took the pistol and went back to his car. He came back five minutes later and told me my pistol permit was invalid because it expired in 1983. I was born in 1983. Each county in Alabama produces their own pistol permits and they all look a little different. The county I live in (Jefferson County) prints their permits on old-fashioned blanks using a typewriter so the text was often misaligned or offset. So, yes, it did look like the expiration date was my birthday — but obviously the permit didn't look like it was issued in 1983, and I certainly didn't look like someone who was 21 years older than my age at the time. (I was 32 so it would be hard to mistake me for being in my 50s.) The trooper wrote me a ticket for speeding. He gave me back my pistol with the slide locked open and an empty magazine. He took the ammunition and literally dropped it in my window down the side of my door onto the floor. I couldn't believe it.

. . . .

I know what it is like to have commands shouted at you in a confusing manner and how much it shakes you up mentally and physically. Especially when someone is threatening to blow your head off or shoot you in the face if you make a wrong movement. I have no criminal record. I'm a law-abiding citizen and have a pretty decent gun collection. I've never had a similar experience either before or since, but it is always in the back of my mind now whenever I see flashing lights behind me (even though they're not for me). All I can say is that I genuinely thought the trooper was going to shoot me.

I've only had a few experiences where my life flashed before my eyes and that was definitely the most intense one. I was once placing at the counter of a fast food restaurant in Birmingham when two armed men came in and robbed the restaurant. I won't go into the details, but I was with my girlfriend and they ordered everyone on the floor. When they jumped the counter I grabbed my girlfriend and ran out. Even in that situation I was not even a fraction as scared as I was with my encounter with that psycho trooper.

It’s hard to read a story like that without thinking about racism, isn’t it? Again, the trooper did not utter racial slurs . . . out loud, anyway. But if we have learned anything about police shootings over the past few years, it’s that police tend to view black men as more threatening. And they tend to overreact as a result. So you don’t really need to hear the racial slurs spoken aloud. Everything about this story screams racism. Based on his bizarre behavior, the trooper was certainly thinking of the motorist as less than human, whether he uttered the slurs or not.

This just goes to show you that arguments about compliance go only so far. This motorist was perfectly compliant, from A to Z, and he still ran a serious risk of dying.

Why? I think we all know why.

You’d have to be naive to think an incident like this could happen to a white man.

Except . . .

Except, it did. In reality, the motorist in this story was white. And the state trooper was black.

At the beginning of this email, I said “I think most fair-minded people who read this story, understanding that the motorist was black and the state trooper was white,” would conclude that racism was involved here. And if I did my job right, you read this story armed with that “understanding” — but that understanding was wrong.

And, by the way, the motorist doesn’t think this happened because of race:

To this day I have no idea what his issue was -- if he was having personal issues or had some bad previous experience or what. Not that it matters one bit, but I'm white and the trooper was black. I'm absolutely positive race didn't play a role and I don't buy the narrative that all these police shootings are happening because of race. Are there racist cops? Absolutely. Could it be a factor in the occasional shooting? Maybe, I definitely wouldn't rule it out, but it isn't as the media or activists portray.

Sam Harris has talked about having run into incredibly rude and abusive police officers. It’s not all or even most of his interactions with police, but it’s some of them. And he has pointed out that — given how unaccountably hostile officers have been to him at times — if he were black, he would absolutely assume that he had been the victim of racism in those encounters. But since he’s white, he knows that sometimes cops are just unreasonable and disrespectful. Not all the time or even most of the time . . . but sometimes, just like people are sometimes cruel or derogatory in literally every profession — because people are people.

The point is: just because a cop is a jerk to you doesn’t mean he is being racist to you. Even if you’re black!

BUT PHILANDO CASTILE!

My hope would be that anyone who read this story and immediately assumed that this was an example of white-on-black racism . . . would stop, and reflect on their assumptions. But I’m not naive. Few will do so. Instead, I can hear what these people will say instead:

Yeah, obviously the guy here was white, Patterico — because he lived! If he had been black he would be dead! Haven’t you heard of Philando Castile?

This is a very common reaction among those gripped by the moral panic surrounding race and police shootings. They will dance right past any evidence or argument questioning the basis of their moral panic, to assert unfalsifiable factual scenarios about what would occur if the race were different.

So let’s talk about Philando Castile for a moment. I watched the video again the other day. Here it is:

The contact between the officer and Castile begins at 1:04, and the part where Castile informs the officer that he has a gun starts at 1:34.

If you want a blow-by-blow written description of the events of the video, my co-blogger Dana wrote a post about the case in 2017. We can’t see into the car, and I did not witness the testimony at trial — at which the officer was acquitted. But it’s certainly a tragic event all the way around. However, to equate the story you read above with Philando Castile is, in my view, completely misleading. Equating the two misses the point that, whatever happened in Castile’s car, he didn’t have his hands at 10 & 2 at all times, except when he had just been immediately and expressly ordered to take his hands off the steering wheel. Yes: those who believe the jury’s verdict was a miscarriage of justice point to the fact that the officer had, earlier in the interaction, asked for Castile’s driver’s license and insurance — meaning, they argue, that Castile was operating under conflicting instructions to a) retrieve his license and b) not reach for his gun. But I think that misses an important distinction: the driver in the story above was far more careful and cautious than Castile had been.

My point here is not to relitigate the Castile case, or to argue that the Castile shooting was a good shooting by an officer left with no other choice. There is evidence that the officer’s reasoning was bizarre, to say the least, and that he told contradictory stories about what he saw — and that the jury didn’t hear about the contradictions. Even accepting all of that, it’s clear to me that that the officer’s “don’t reach for it, then” and “don’t pull it out!” commands, to anyone attuned to the fear officers have of people with guns, overruled the “give me your license and insurance” command at that moment. Castile was clearly not attuned to that fear, and continued reaching for something. (The officer claimed at trial it was a gun, but apparently said initially that he wasn’t sure what it was. Perhaps it was his driver’s license. For purposes of this discussion, I’m willing to assume it was indeed his driver’s license.)

Here’s my point: whether you think the officer in the Castile case acted reasonably or unreasonably; whether you think he should have been convicted or acquitted; whether you think Castile acted reasonably or recklessly under the circumstances; we can probably all agree that anyone who has watched that video and has a gun in their car is now going to be far more cautious than Castile was. They are, in short, going to behave like the person in the story above. They are going to keep their hands where the officer can see them, and move their hands very carefully, only in response to direct commands.

The point is, the two stories are different. And not just because Castile was black and the person in the story above is white.

And yet, those who are hellbent on making every interaction about race will simply toss off the glib “a black guy in that story would be dead” line. They won’t stop for even a moment to think about the fact that they just got through assuming the story they had read couldn’t have happened to a white guy to begin with. Nope, they’ll be off to the races tossing out other unfalsifiable “this wouldn’t have happened to a white guy” scenarios.

An interaction I recently had on Twitter illustrates this mindset well. I was criticizing Joe Biden for assuming that the George Floyd murder was about race, when I have seen no evidence of that. (Such evidence could emerge, of course. I understand that DoJ is looking at Derek Chauvin for a past incident involving a black teenager. For all I know, a comprehensive look at Chauvin’s history could show a pattern suggestive of racial discrimination. But based on what I know now, while I consider Chauvin to be a murderer, I don’t know that he murdered George Floyd due to Floyd’s race, and I don’t think Joe Biden knows that either.) A Twitter user responded to my criticism of Biden with this simplistic logic, which appears to underlie most of the arguments I have heard that the George Floyd incident reflects racism:

So I asked:

If you have been reading this newsletter, you know who Tony Timpa is. A white guy who died the same way George Floyd died: with police officers crushing the life out of him while he begged for them to stop, saying “You’re gonna kill me! You’re gonna kill me! You’re gonna kill me!”

Naturally, once I brought this example to the attention of the “Floyd lives if he’s white” Twitter user, that user admitted error, said I had made a good point, and conceded that maybe Floyd’s death wasn’t about race after all. I had really given him something to think about, he told me.

LOL just kidding! What he actually said was this:

To which I replied:

But I probably should have responded with something like this instead:

I hear you saying: but what does this prove? It’s easy to nutpick a random Twitter user! Here’s my point. If you read the story above, and concluded “there’s no way that could happen to a white guy” . . . and then, when you learned that it indeed can happen to a white guy, you failed to reflect on that, but instead moved to change the subject (blah blah Philando Castile, a black guy would have been shot, etc.), you’re really behaving no differently from the Twitter user I just nutpicked.

It’s very tempting to say “a white guy would have been treated better by the cops” or “a black guy would have been treated worse” . . . and given that racism exists in this world, such a sentiment is not always wrong. But I hope I have given people something to think about. Not everything that you assume is about race, is actually about race.

POSTSCRIPT

This missive is already long, but some of you might be wondering: so whatever became of the guy who was ticketed in the story above? Did he contest the ticket? Did he sue? Is the trooper still employed as a state trooper? If you want to know more, read on.

My correspondent emphasized that this was a one-off, in his opinion — and it sounds like the department knew this trooper was a problem.

I've been pulled over probably 6-7 times previous to this from age 16+. Most of the time this was as a juvenile as I had a red Mustang and had a heavy foot. As an adult, however, I had only been stopped maybe twice before that. I encountered some jerk cops when I was a teenager but they never pulled a gun on me or acted this way. As an adult, the couple of times I was stopped the police were actually complimentary that I had my hands where they could see them, and if at night that I turned on the interior lights at night, announced my movements in advance, etc. I had been stopped once before with a firearm and ironically it was a state trooper. Told him I had a firearm, gave him my permit, and he said, just don't take it out and was nonchalant about it. He later thanked me for letting him know I had a firearm in the vehicle.

I've always been a supporter of law enforcement, and actually studied criminal justice in college as I wanted to go into law enforcement or become an attorney one day. My brother-in-law, who I am very close to, was a Birmingham PD beat cop at the time.

. . . .

After continuing on my journey and calming down for a few minutes I called my brother-in-law and told him what happened. He said I should immediately report the trooper because his behavior seemed "really off" to my BIL. I called the local barracks and explained I wanted to file a complaint. They asked me for the trooper's name. I gave it to the lady who answered and she immediately said "hold one second." She directly transferred me to the Commander of the barracks. It sounded like he took detailed notes and he sighed when I first told him the name of the trooper. I told him the full story and at the end he stated that they would investigate but he said he wasn't surprised by what I had told him. He told me disciplinary actions are non-public so he wouldn't be able to tell me the results of the investigation. It was clear from what the Commander said without being explicit that this trooper had issues in the past. I received a letter a few weeks later canceling my speeding ticket. Never found out what happened to him, but Alabama lists State Trooper salaries by name online along with pay dates and a few months later that trooper was no longer listed.

So it’s a happy ending of sorts, I guess, although I would have liked to have seen a lawsuit emerge from this. And one wonders how many other people this guy victimized. Even people like me who are generally supportive of law enforcement have to recognize that there are bad apples — again, as in every profession — and they need to be dealt with. Derek Chauvin was a bad apple, for instance — and he is going to prison, and rightfully so.