Editor’s note: University professor Quintus Jett penned this commentary last Thanksgiving weekend, as he reflected on public reactions following the recent turmoil and grand jury decision in Ferguson, Mo. Since Hurricane Katrina, Jett has been a frequent visitor to New Orleans, where he developed a project that organized hundreds of student and resident volunteers to map blight and the pace of rebuilding in neighborhoods, including in Gentilly, the Lower Ninth Ward, and New Orleans East. While the incident he discusses occurred near his home when living on the New Hampshire/Vermont border, it reflects an experience many Americans know and others need to understand.
Driving home late one night in the Upper Valley, I passed through a town and a police cruiser pulled out and began to trail me on a brightly lit road. I confirmed my speed below the limit and continued, wondering if the cruiser’s lights would suddenly turn on. For what reason might I be pulled over?
By that time, after some years living in this regional nexus of New Hampshire and Vermont, I realized that my rate of getting pulled over by police (or state troopers) was higher than anyone else I knew. And it was a higher rate than anywhere else I’ve lived in the U.S. But I had never gotten a ticket. Being treated respectfully was the norm. Only once did an officer suggest I was arguing with him when I asked a question. Only once did an officer return to my vehicle with my license, knocking on my passenger window with one hand and touching the holster and his gun with the other.
I made a couple of turns to pass through town that night with the police cruiser behind me. It continued to trail me. As I turned onto the road that’d take me beyond the city limits, the cruiser pulled away.
Every place I’ve lived, being on guard for my own safety includes vigilance about police encounters. That includes places I’ve felt at home and welcomed. So even here, when I return to my house at night while the streets are empty and quiet. During casual walks in the neighborhood by day. I carry an ongoing balance between being comfortable enough to not draw suspicion, yet not being so comfortable I’m surprised and get sloppy about making the assessment. Especially when the encounter involves police, I can’t afford to make an error on either side: discerning a racist encounter when there really is none, or discerning it’s not a racist encounter when indeed it is.
The day after being trailed by the police cruiser, I drove back to the town and visited the police station. At the station, the community liaison officer listened to my concerns about unwarranted surveillance, and he offered some unexpected assistance.
“Every time a license plate is run through the database, there’s a record. I’ll check it for you.”
I gave him my license plate number, and he returned several minutes later. “Yes, your plate was run last night.”
He didn’t have an explanation for me. Other than license plates get run all the time, especially at night when things are slow and there’s not much on the street going on. Given how I wouldn’t have known about the license plate check and record if he hadn’t told me about it, I didn’t inquire more. I’d have no peace if I sought to ensure racial justice in every decision affecting my life.
So here’s an uncomfortable truth to summarize it all. The actions of police are a reflection of the values and biases inherent to the regional community. The higher rate of my getting pulled over in this area. The way I have been treated respectfully, even courteously, when pulled over. My own response to go directly to inquire about potentially unfair treatment. The helpful offer and demonstration of transparency by a public servant in response to my concern.
Within all these things are elements of the local culture that I experience beyond police encounters.
Quintus Jett is a university professor and a native of southern California. He has been driving for 30 years. You can email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org