Police Work, in Black and White
Recently, I was reflecting on some experiences I had as a cop in the high-crime area of Brooklyn known as Bedford-Stuyvesant. Much like these days, every white cop was a target – if not from a bullet in the back, then, from charges of racism.
It was about 3:00 am, and I was working the midnight shift with my partner on radio motor patrol. Suddenly, as we turned a corner, we saw a car at the next intersection slowly moving past the red light. As we drove up on the auto, it had come to rest halfway across the avenue and stopped, as if it were parked. We exited our car and approached carefully. The man behind the wheel was slumped over it and appeared to be sleeping with his foot on the brake.
Luckily, there was no traffic at that late hour on the side street in the middle of the single-family-home area. Afraid to alarm the man, I reached into the car and turned off the engine, while my partner placed our car in the intersection with the roof lights on. When the engine stopped, the man jumped in his seat, slamming his foot on the accelerator, confirming my reason for grabbing the keys. It was evident the man had been drinking, stopped at the light, and fell asleep. I ordered him to slide over, and I drove the car to a space across the street. After checking his license, I found that he lived just a few houses away.
He was apologizing for his actions and pleaded with me not to arrest him. My decision was to give him a ticket for passing the light and let him off down the street at his driveway. After receiving the summons and walking unsteadily toward his front door, he made some kind of snide comment toward me as he looked back. I dismissed it as someone who should have been grateful instead of angry, and I continued on patrol with my partner.
A few days later, while working a day tour, I received a command to report to the station house. When I did so, I was ordered to report to the division office in regard to some sort of investigation. My partner was assigned a foot post until my return. I was ushered into an office and seated in front of a desk being occupied by a ruddy-faced lieutenant in civilian clothes. He was holding a crumpled piece of paper on which was scrawled a letter of complaint against me.
"Officer Weir, do you have a problem with black people?" he asked.
"Excuse me, Sir?"
"I have a letter here from a man who says you used a racial slur when giving him a ticket," he growled, tossing the letter on the desk for me to read.
"Lieutenant, I assure you that's an outright lie," I protested after perusing the ragged document.
"Really?" he replied, furrowing his brow. "I doubt the man would go through the trouble of sending a letter unless he was outraged by your insult."
"Sir, I was very respectful toward that guy." I went on to explain what happened, but the lieutenant seemed intent on finding me guilty.
"Who were you working with that night?" he asked.
"Officer Parker," I replied, as he picked up the phone and called my precinct. "I'll find out what your partner has to say, because let me tell you, he could be in as much trouble as you if he didn't report your actions."
For the next 30 minutes, he read me the riot act, determined to add my scalp to his belt.
"Lieutenant, Officer Parker is here," said the woman on the intercom.
"Send him in," he barked.
The door opened, and my interrogator looked up in shock. "You're Officer Parker?" he said to the tall black man standing in the doorway.
"Yes, Sir. I was told to report here."
Looking as though his fish had just popped off the line, the supervisor was at a loss for words. "Er...were you with Officer Weir when he gave a ticket to this man the other night?"
"Oh, yes, I remember this," Parker said confidently. "This guy is saying Bob called him what? That's baloney! I've worked with Bob long enough to know that's a lie, and I was there that night. This man was lucky he wasn't arrested."
The lieutenant glared at me and snatched the letter back. "Officer, why didn't you tell me your partner was black?"
"Sir, you didn't ask me. You just assumed I'm guilty because the complainant is black and I'm white."
"Get the hell out of my office!" he sneered, unwilling to admit his own knee-jerk bigotry.
On the way back to our precinct, I told my partner that lunch was on me.
"Why?" he inquired.
"To thank you for being black," I replied with a grin.
"Aw, don't mention it," he quipped. "It's my pleasure."