The Problem with Officer Friendly in Schools

“Why do they arrest people for an expired registration?” That’s what I asked Officer Friendly when he came to my first grade class. 

“We wouldn’t arrest someone for that.” 

They did, I know they did, because I was there.  My father was handcuffed and put in a police car, we sat in the station for hours, he was in a cell, my sister and I played cards with the cops.  

It was all a mistake they said.  The car matched another car they were looking for.  He was livid and wanted to sue.  But you can’t. 

Officer friendly and I went back and forth some, he seemed to think I didn’t understand “arrest” that my dad was pulled over, then when I explained what happened, he intimated that there must have been something else, some more serious crime. 

There wasn’t.  But that the police wouldn’t arrest someone wrongly.  Right?

That was the story they were peddling.

Thankfully a girl in the class blurted out something about her mom having pot under her bed, and the conversation moved off of me.

The second time I met officer Friendly, someone had hit a house with bb gun fire in the neighborhood.  We pulled up on our bikes and offered to help.  Who had a bb gun, they asked, and we told everyone we knew.  I had one.

A little while later they knock on my door.  I get my mom.  They say the that there is a law that you have to be 13 to have a bb gun and need to confiscate mine.  My mom, always the fighter, told them it was her BB gun and asked them to leave.  They did.

On Halloween, someone broke out our widows.  As the first and only Black family on the Block, I didn’t understand why my mom was so upset.  It might have been an over the top Halloween prank.

But maybe it wasn’t.  We were the only family targeted.  We called Officer Friendly, they dismissed it.  It’s a prank.  Nothing to do, no report.

So yeah, we ran from the cops as kids.

The Tickets I have gotten and Times I have been Pulled Over

Riding a bike while Black-I got three tickets in Berkeley for riding my bike.  (1) Riding a bicycle at night without a light, (2) riding without a helmet and (3) riding an unregistered bike—you have to register your bike?  A cop by the side of the road flagged me as I was riding home, I thought maybe he needed help.  Nope, and as another (White) guy rode by us with no helmet or light I asked why don’t you stop him?—because I have you.   They never filed these tickets, or something, since I never got anything in the mail.

Driving a jeep while Black- (1)I got a carpool violation for having a 2 seater because a cop thought I altered my vehicle and took the seat out (which is not illegal either)- I bought my jeep with no back seat, it was a two seater (two person two seater is legal in carpool).  I get pulled over, and the cop alleges that I took out the seat, so even though it’s a two seater, it doesn’t count for carpool, I get a $200 plus carpool violation.  (2) No rear seatbelt-so I bought a back seat for the jeep (which seemed like a death trap, since the seat would crumple if we had an accident), I was pulled over outside of Gilroy, and since I wasn’t actually doing anything wrong, that was the ticket they gave.  There is no way they could have seen that as I was flying down the highway, and who even knew that was a law in the 90’s.  A lot of the time, they just want to see if you are doing anything and they pull you over to check.

Driving While Black most generally

(1)Registration expired- this I did do, but I was pulled over on the highway and the only way you can see the registration is up close in 80s in NY.  The registration is on the front windshield with punchmarks on a credit card size decal for the months.  So, he said he could see that as I was going 60 Mph.  He also did an illegal search.  “can I search your car?”  “Why, I didn’t do anything” “I can just call the dogs and have them sniff the car” then he opened my door went through my glove compartment when he saw the corner of a baggie.  “what’s in the bag?” “nuts” as I told him when he asked, he pull sit out to find nuts.  (2) Headlight out, I was visiting my child and his mother, she is not Black, I have to pick her up at work at night, she mentions that a headlight is out.  I’m worried, she says she’s been driving for months like that. 

First trip. Bwoop bwoop, red flashing lights halfway to pick her up, luckily, I had my infant child with me in the car seat.  Which gave credibility to my story, but I didn’t know where her registration was, it is not my car etc., all the things that are trouble especially upstate.  I am glad to get just a ticket. 

Not to mention the dozens of other times, I have been pulled over and not ticketed, sometimes with a get out of the car or some weird kind of patdown to make sure I don’t have weapons.  Often an attempt to do a consensual search, “can you pop the trunk” Do you have anything the car illegal,” “No”

“Then you wont mind if we search”

“Can you open the passenger side door”

“Any needles or weapons in your pockets”

“what’s in the (under the, behind the) insert any random thing that might be in a car (ie. Bag, box. Jacket etc.)

I also have gotten well deserved tickets and had times when I went through a pink light got pulled over and got no ticket.  And I must say when I had a gun stuck in my face in New Orleans I was glad to see the cops.

We tend(ed) to tell a story in schools of police being knights in shining armor.  And for some they probably are.  However, to others they are not.  The police have always functioned to protect a certain social order, and we should not see that order as neutral. 

That said I did have a real Officer Friendly, who taught boxing at the Boys Club, one of the few Black troopers at the time, if I remember correctly.  He was killed on duty, getting hit by another car while he pulled someone else over.  Lots of conspiracy rumors.  But he was a good guy and good mentor.

It is well past time to re-assess what the police really do, and to get police who understand, represent and serve the community.  And as schools we need to assess the context that Officer Friendly is presented.  It should not be one that rubs against the experiences of many if not most of the youth in the room.

What do you think?

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