Stories of Fearing the Cops

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Three more readers share their experiences with police that probably went too far. (We are also soliciting stories on the flip side: Has a cop ever saved you from bodily harm? If so, send us a note.) This reader had a moment of mistaken identity:

I’m now retired, but at a time when I worked for the court system at City Hall in [a large city in California], I was walking to my car late at night and saw a burglar climb into a second-floor window of a nearby law-office building. I called 911 and gave the police dispatcher both the address and a description of the burglar.

When the cops arrived, they went to the wrong address. When I tried to get their attention and tell them that they at the wrong address, several of them immediately drew their guns and pointed them at me. While I was saying “don't shoot, don’t shoot,” I could see the burglar climb down and run around a corner.

There was no reason for any of them to suspect that I was a burglar. I was the one who called in the crime. But not a single cop, nor any of the brass apologized for drawing down on me. Not one.

A reader in Vermont recalls a tense encounter almost 50 years ago:

This stuff is not new. It was about 1969, anti-war protests were in full bloom, draft centers were being bombed. On the one hand, I had some trappings of respectability; I was IT manager for an office supply wholesaler in Boston, I was married and had a young child, and I was a student at MIT. On the other hand, my car was completely covered with anti-war slogans and images I had painted.

I was driving to work in downtown Boston when a police car started to tailgate me.

I was driving carefully down a narrow one-way street when two more police cars came up the wrong way, lights flashing and boxed me in. Six cops jumped out, five with guns drawn hiding behind their car doors. The last one walked over and stuck his gun in my passenger window and asked to see my drivers license and registration.

It occurred to me that if I reached for the documents in my glove compartment, he would kill me, so I told him where the documents were. He felt around with his free hand for a weapon and finding none told me to get them. After examining them and radioing in the information, they let me go. So I was close to getting killed for a routine traffic stop 45 years ago.

Here’s another story of mistaken identity, from reader Erika Haub, but this time no guns or direct force were involved:

I grew up in a community where the policeman was a hero—an upstanding member of the community, a friend. I knew such men, and there was a reason kids wanted to grow up and become like them.

When I moved to [a large Midwestern city], those impressions began to shift. Now, [this city] is a bit notorious for police misconduct and corruption, and the city is full of stereotypes and war stories about cops. And when I first heard that stuff, I mostly treated it the way one would experience an episode of a TV show because that is how stereotypes feel. But then, a year or so into living in that community, those stereotypes lost their movie star faces and took on those of my neighbors and friends.

I remember the day that one of the young men I was especially close with started telling his cop stories. Growing up as a Puerto Rican youth who was “neutron,” as he called it (unaffiliated with any gang), he had not been spared from chasings and beatings and humiliations. I remember feeling so horrified at what he described, and I burned with anger toward those who had so consistently harmed this child. I recall one story in particular where he talked about seeing the cops coming and choosing to run through the alleys to escape. I remember thinking that was a foolish choice: of course if you run, they are going to chase you down, right? If you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t run!

Well, that was a bit naive. Oprah will tell you that, if you are a woman who is being assaulted, not to EVER let your assailant take you to a “second location.” Fight with all that you have in you to prevent that move. While I am not willing to suggest that the police station can be compared to a rapist’s house, there is an instinctual reaction to someone who may harm you: fight or flee, just don’t let them “take you.” And if you grow up hearing stories of beatings and seeing your brothers come home bloodied and bruised because they dared to play basketball at the park or walk in an alley, and even if it is only one relative who mysteriously “dies” during his incarceration, that is enough to rewire your response to an unmarked Impala.

I ran a drop-in center [on a college campus] for a number of years, and in its early stages, I was the adult responsible for the kids who came to read or talk or play pool with me on Friday afternoons in the campus game room. When six o’clock would roll around, I would walk out with the kids who were left, and I would walk them home. I remember being stopped on occasion by officers who were quick to tell me that I was walking where I did not belong. They were not polite or kind, and while I was “one of them” in terms of the color of my skin, their disdain and annoyance and offense came through loud and clear.

People would call me a warm and gentle human being, and I tend toward a higher level of politeness, using “sir” and “ma’am” when I speak to my elders. But I remember clearly the snappy tone that came over me when these guys would stop me and speak rudely to me. I felt defensive, and while their behavior was in no way abusive or threatening, my face would get red and my tone would change. I don’t know if it was a mama-bear-like response as I would take a step forward to put my body between my kids and their cruiser, but I know with certainty that I did not call any of them “sir.”

One night, was walking from my apartment to flag a cab for a ride downtown. The daughter of our university’s President was hosting a graduation party and I was invited. I walked to [the street corner], waited for a few moments without seeing any cabs pass, and decided it was wiser to return to my apartment and call (this was long before Uber!).

As I retraced my path home, I was suddenly aware of a man coming up behind me close, and he began propositioning me in Spanish, a language I happen to speak fluently. I became scared by his words and presence, and I felt giant relief wash over me when I saw the white of a police cruiser heading toward us. I began to wave both arms at the car as it approached, and when it slowed to a stop I quickly ran across the street to what I assumed to be protection and safety.

The two officers stepped out of the car, demanded to see my ID. “Oh, it’s out of state, isn’t THAT convenient.” While the man who actually engaged in criminal activity walked freely past us on the other side of the street, I was put into the back of a police car for engaging in prostitution.

I pleaded with the officers. I explained who I was: a college student at the Christian university a few blocks away. “Yeah we know a lot of girls like you who get through school this way.”

As they placed me in the back seat of the cruiser, I found myself repeating an absurd phrase: “But I’m Senior Par Excellance! I’m Senior Par Excellance.” This was the name of an annual award given to the graduating senior who most expressed the university’s values and ideals through a life of service on campus and beyond. It was my own much lesser version of Henry Louis Gates’: “You don’t know who you are messing with.”

They intended to take me to the station, but I persuaded them to return me to my apartment three blocks away where my mom happened to be having flown out from Seattle the night before. And so instead of catching a cab to make it downtown to the graduation party for our university’s president’s daughter, I rode in dismay in the back of a police cruiser to my apartment.

I remember shaking as I walked up the three flights of stairs to my apartment door, two Chicago police officers close behind. I keyed in to the door, greeting my mom with the words: “I have just been arrested for prostitution!” After supplying the officers with campus identification, a recent issue of the College News which had three articles on the front page that mentioned me, as well as my weekly column inside, and of course the testimony of my mother about when I left the house and what I was doing, I was finally released with this admonition: “Well, we’ll let you go this time. But we’ll be watching for you. If we don’t pick you up again after a month, the charges will be dropped.”

And I know what any reader is silently wondering: What was I wearing? Loose-fitting brown gap jeans and a brown striped button down. It was summer weather, so I did not wear a coat. And I never wore high heels.

That night my own behavior surprised me. You don’t ever know how you will react in situations you don’t expect, and when I was apprehended, when those officers began to accuse me of prostitution, I could taste the indignity and I wanted to spit it back in the officers’ faces. I was horrified by how they were speaking to me. I was humiliated by their assumptions about my body and sexuality. I was irate that they had so clearly seen a man following me, had watched as I crossed the street and waved my arms begging them to stop, and watched as the only person on the street doing anything remotely criminal walked hurriedly away.

As I stood in the doorway of my apartment, I did not say “sir.” I don’t think I even extended a “good-bye.” I was livid, and as much as my mom tried to persuade me to stay in that night and forgo the party, I was not going to let their intimidation win. I grabbed my things and walked right out that door. A cab came, I made it to the party, and word spread quickly about the incident. And I went down in campus history as the Par Excellance Prostitute!

Update from a reader with two experiences to share:

First time was when I paddled out with a couple buddies to surf a beach that was closed in anticipation of Hurricane Gloria. We “sorta” knew all the beaches were closed but found a spot where nothing was posted—the type of decision that only really makes sense when seen through the “immortality” of an adolescent boy.

Cops call us in over loudspeakers, that we—conveniently—can’t hear for a while. Finally, as I’m emerging from the water with board in hand, a heavy set cop comes running at me, full bore. He trips a bit in what seemed like an attempt to tackle me, nicking his head on the board and splashing into the coastline foam, belly first.

Now, he’s wet, pissed, and looking to vent. He shoves me from behind into the sand and kneels on the back of my neck so my face is mostly submerged in the wet grains. He cuffs me before standing up and unleashes two kicks just below my ribcage. A couple more cops arrive and one sends him back to their cars. They rifle through our backpacks, find nothing, and give me a ride home in the back of the car, still cuffed and in my wetsuit.

The second time was actually pretty sobering. I was with a buddy traveling from Buffalo to Pittsburgh with his girlfriend in her banged up scirocco. We’re pulled over on 79, apparently for being two guys with long hair and a hippie chick in a car that looks like it’s held together with Grateful Dead and Greenpeace stickers, but no explanation was ever actually offered.

Ordered to get out of the car, two more PA State Troopers arrive, one remaining in his car close behind us nearly the entire time. We’re told to be silent, kneel past the shoulder on the grass, hands on our heads, as they rip the car apart. Clothes, cassette tapes, our camping gear, all opened and inspected—most tossed onto the ground in front of us. We have nothing, so they find nothing, which seem too really disappoint them.

At this point, they seem to be poised to finally let us go and are actually speaking to us a bit. In going through my stuff, I guess they surmised that I played for my college’s football team, one even addressed me as “Fairy Football” or something similarly idiotic as he told me to “Wait!” as we were starting back for the car.

I turned to face him. "Yes, Officer?"

“It's Trooper.”

“Yes, Trooper?”

He smiled. “Remember this this season.” And then he wailed down on my leg with his nightstick, landing his blow perhaps not even an inch above my kneecap. I crumbled and he walked off.

I wondered for months if he knows he just missed his target—and how pissed he'd be to find out.