I don’t believe in knights in shining armor or princes riding in on white horses to save the day. But I do believe in cops. I believe they’re real people who operate, for the most part, with noble intentions. At least I did, until this past weekend.
On Friday, I was driving through a leafy Chicago neighborhood with my hubby and kid. We’d just picked her up from a play date at a home that has everything she wants in life: a little sister, two husky dogs, a needy cat and a Barbie play house.
We pull away from this little haven and head west, with me in the driver's seat. Soon after we arrive at an intersection, and I make a left. After driving north a few blocks, I notice a police van’s lights suddenly ablaze behind me. I pull over, thinking that the vehicle would pass us by, but it doesn’t. It stops right behind our car. Uh oh, I think. What have I done wrong?
A few seconds later, a policeman is standing at my window. He looks stern. I’m confused. I roll down my window and ask him what I did wrong. He doesn’t respond to my inquiry and instead asks me for my driver's license and insurance card. I ask him again. His silence is deafening. My face flushes with embarrassment. Why can’t he just tell me what I did wrong? I've got my kid in the backseat, watching intently. Can't he show an ounce of humanity?
Finally, he tells me that I made a left about half a mile back when I shouldn’t have. Immediately, I feel relieved. Finally. I try to tell him I had no idea and that I hardly ever drive. But this guy doesn’t care. In fact, you can tell he’s totally relishing the power he has over me. It's just plain awful. After an entire adult life in cities I've observed curt cops, angry cops, kind cops, bored cops, harried cops, you name it. But I have never seen a police officer so enjoy making another person squirm and feel small.
He takes my license and insurance card and, without a word, heads back to his vehicle.
Minutes go by and we just sit there. The lights on his van are still flashing. I feel like a criminal. My daughter starts whimpering in the back seat. I know it probably sounds stupid, but at that moment the waves of shame, intimidation and powerlessness that come over me are overwhelming.
The cop finally comes back and hands me some papers. I ask him how much the ticket is going to cost and he refuses to tell me. Look at the ticket is all he'll say. So now I'm pissed. I’m pissed that I drive, on average, about ten miles a week and during one of my only car outings of the month I make a stupid mistake that’s going to cost me over a hundred bucks. And I’m pissed that this guy is getting off on making me feel like a worthless piece of shit.
I ask him for my license back. He says no. He’s keeping it as bond. Bond. Are you kidding me? Did you know that these days the police take your license, at least here in Chicago, when you do something as minor as make a turn at an intersection where there is a little left-hand arrow sign with a line through it that says you shouldn't?
At this point, I’m fighting back tears. There is something so awful about having a cop on a power trip take your license away. It’s dehumanizing. It felt like he was taking away my identity. What if I need to get on a plane? What if I have a very strong need to buy a case of wine after this horrible experience and I get carded? Am I really such a concern to the city of Chicago now that they have to take away my license and make me carry around a yellow sheet of paper for two years?
Finally, after the cop does a really poor job of explaining to me what I need to do to get my license back, I prepare to drive away. But before I do I say to him, “Officer, can I ask you a question?” Yes, he says, noticeably irritated.
“You looked up my name and saw that I’ve never been in any sort of trouble. I made an honest mistake because I don’t drive much. Couldn’t you just let it go?”
He stares at me, shocked that I have the nerve to question him. He walks away, muttering, “Have a good night” sarcastically. Yeah, Officer, will do.
By the time we pull away, tears are pouring down my face, tears I don’t want my daughter to see while she’s in the backseat, still whimpering. I manage to sort of hold my shit together until we get to the restaurant where we're having dinner. I quickly go to the ladies room and let out the sobs I've been holding in. It's a big cry, the ugly one with the boogers streaming out of my nose and the loud, farm-animal like noises emanating from my mouth.
I feel so stupid for crying. Big deal, so the cop was a jerk. So I had to pay a fine. It’s not the end of the world. I had done something wrong and should pay for it. But the cop's purposefully cold and heartless demeanor had triggered something inside me, especially when he took away my identification. He'd triggered feelings of fear and helplessness I'd felt at other times in my life, when certain authority figures had used their power over me for their own enjoyment.
That night, my daughter awoke from nightmares at 4:00 AM, something she almost never does. I know the exact time her screams began, because I was already awake, reviewing my encounter with that cop over and over again in my mind.
When the officer walked away from my car, I remember thinking to myself, "Wow, he is loving the fear and shame he sees in my eyes." Now, a few days later, I’m wondering what the hell happened to him that he has a need to see mostly decent people cower before him.
Growing up in a small town, I remember cops were the guys who kept you safe. They were the dads of your friends, gruff and burly men who wielded their power carefully, thoughtful of the impact their actions and behavior would have on others. I wonder if this cop realizes or cares that neither I, nor my daughter, will ever look at the police the same way. So much for heroes.
If you ever find yourself getting pulled over by a cop, here's my advice: Behave like this dog and you should be just fine.