I’m not sure when I realized my distrust of police officers. Maybe it was at about 12 or 13, when my best friend and I had to fight off older boys who tried to steal our bikes with a baseball bat. It was broad daylight on a busy street, but I’m not sure if the cops who rolled past saw the young thief who brandished a Louisville Slugger. Perhaps they shared his lack of concern for our lives. Either way, my boy knew it wouldn’t matter. “Don’t look at them,” he said. “They ain’t gon’ help you.” They didn’t, so we defended ourselves at the risk of our own safety.
It might have been one of the times when I was jumped, or had a gun pulled on me, or otherwise had to fight or flee within a mile of the house my mother had saved her whole life to buy. It could have been the time I was chased through a Sears by a crew that didn’t appreciate the shade of blue on my jacket when I tried to visit a girlfriend in their projects. It might’ve been one of the times we ducked shells spit indiscriminately from passing cars, the kinds of bullets said to have no names on them but which always find their purpose in the soft flesh of young, Black bodies. Sometimes the cops showed up, sometimes they didn’t. But when they did, we were never treated with respect or empathy. And it isn’t that they’re balancing their contempt with effective crime solving, at least not where I’m from—years later, we still don’t know who shot my best friend’s father trying to jack him for some beer, or who let off the round of bullets that came through my grandmother’s windowsill and hit her in the hip. Both survived their wounds but their assailants never did a day.
It’s not as if there wasn’t a police presence around my way. There were probably more cops patrolling our neighborhood in the mid-90s than there were in any other part of the city. You knew who they were even in unmarked cars because the jump-out routine was unmistakable: roll by twice, three cars deep, four deep in every car. Then, bam—a phalanx of guns and billy clubs and black-and-gold t-shirts announcing whichever task force was descending. “Pittsburgh Narcotics” some days, “Gang Task Force” others.
My cop anxiety probably predates my personal experience with the storm-trooper routines of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. For Black men anywhere, it’s like learning how to walk: you don’t remember when it happens, but you know it’s necessary. Being anxious around police is a coping mechanism for dealing with the mortal threat they pose. That innate nervousness helps protect you in the same way it would were you being stalked by a dangerous animal. In places where “stop and frisk” isn’t a recent phenomenon, the lesson is taught early and reinforced often: Officer Friendly doesn’t visit this neighborhood.
For Black people, and especially for Black men, the police are an ever-present force—one to be feared and avoided, not to be trusted to protect and serve and certainly not to be sought out when in trouble. Interactions with cops were too unpredictable to gamble that you’d get one who deemed you deserving of his help rather than his suspicion. The irony of this is that it feeds the very problems police are supposed to be there to solve. Because black men are more likely to be murdered than anyone else, and because we can’t trust police to protect us — to quote Jay-Z, “We take care of beef ourself. And another thing, yo, we police ourself.”
I’ve never called the police for any reason and I probably never will. I’m not sure what I’d do in a situation like the one that doomed Jonathan Ferrell, the 24-year-old former FAMU football player who was tased, then shot to death by North Carolina cops as he ran to them for help after surviving a late-night car wreck. I wonder if the same, “this could end badly,” calculus that runs through my mind when I see cops crossed his before he decided to approach them. It horrifies me to think that Farrell’s last thoughts might have been about what he could have done differently because surely he didn’t do anything wrong, except frighten the wrong people — the people with guns— into thinking that he, unarmed, was the threat.
I wonder if anyone not in a Black, male body experiences the stress of knowing that neither fight nor flight are viable options in the presence of the law, that either paints you as suspicious, or dangerous, or worse, as an imminent threat.
I wrestle with those thoughts as I teach my teenage sons, being raised Black in a mostly-White suburb, to have both a healthy skepticism of police and the proper respect for their authority. That respect wasn’t something I could afford to have at their age. It was better to simply avoid cops at all costs—for your own good. I try not to lay the weight of my cop phobia on their heads. They live in a safer community than I did at their age, where shootings are uncommon and police don’t occupy streets like a martial force. Still, it’s impossible to hide my fear for them.
My boys already know “the rules” to follow if they’re ever stopped by the police, especially while driving a car. Keep your wallet in the center console (where an officer can see it) rather than in your pocket, where you’d have to reach for it. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and never move them. When asked to produce your registration from the glove box, explain that it means you’ll have to move your hands off the wheel and ask if that’s OK. Following the rules is an act of self-preservation, but imparting them is tough in a neighborhood where my sons’ peers won’t need to develop the same existential distrust of police as they will. Even worse, names like Jonathan Ferrell and Trayvon Martin (for you don’t even have to be a police officer to be granted the right to police Black boys) are haunting reminders to parents like me that knowing the rules and doing everything right still doesn’t guarantee your children will make it home alive.
Already, my 16-year-old is almost two years past his first interaction with the cops. On the same weekend that Trayvon Martin’s name first crept into news reports, my son had the police called on him because he cut through someone’s backyard on his way home from school. The officer who responded called me to tell me how respectful my son had been, how he’d waited for police to show up even when other kids told him he should run, how he was so “Yes, sir-no, sir” respectful that the officer gave him a ride home.
Some parents would have been proud of their children. I was horrified. It was good that my son knew better than to be confrontational with cops, but waiting for them to show up and accepting a ride home weren’t choices I would have judged to be safe. The next few weeks, with Trayvon news breaking all over the place, were full of difficult conversations that nobody ever really wants to have with their child.
But better that than a taser and a hail of bullets.
Keith Reed is a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @k_dot_re