Lethal and non-lethal police confrontations

By Frederic Friedel

Some years ago I was driving in the US, just north of New York city. A friend had a lovely new car and let me take over for a while. I was chatting merrily about how nice the car was, when we got stopped by a police patrol — flashing lights and blaring siren. When I stopped they approached from behind, heavily armed, with pistols and tasers dangling from their belts.

I was going to get out of the car as they approached, but Terry said: “Don’t move, stay put.” I wound down the window, and when the policeman reached it I smiled and said: “What’s the matter, officer. Did I do something wrong.” “Please keep your hands on the wheel, sir,” he said, and then asked for my papers. “How can I get them with my hands on the wheel?” I said, with a big smirk. “Please step out of the car, sir,” was his next remark. I did that and he extracted my wallet from a little travel bag I was carrying. Then he rummaged through the bag.

“What is this?” he asked, pulling out a small pill box. “My daily medication,” I said. “You cannot carry medication that is not in a prescription bottle,” he said. I chuckled: “You’re kidding, right?” — but he was not. We had to follow him to the station and Terry spent half an hour convincing them I was just a stupid German who did not know the US laws. They let me go with a warning.

After that incident Terry gave me careful instructions on how to behave in such circumstances: always look straight ahead, don’t smile or joke, show your hands at all times. That was the most important point: never reach into your pocket or your bag — they’ll shoot you dead!

That was potentially life-saving advice. I am writing on a day when I have just seen a man dying from four shots fired by a police officer in a very similar police confrontation, because he reached into his pocket for his ID. His girlfriend actually streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook (with her daughter sitting on the back seat). Watch it if you have nerves of steel.

Screen grabs from the video of the shooting of Philando Castile, streamed by Lavish Reynolds.

And on the same day I see very graphic video of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, being killed by cops outside a food mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana 24 hours earlier. The news is full of it — and there will be riots, nationwide. [Update: today, July 8 2016, I read “Five officers shot dead, six wounded by snipers at protest in downtown Dallas”].

Update 2: Today, July 20 2016, video from the dashcam of the shooting was publicly released. You can watch it below, if you have the nerve for this kind of thing — and compare it to my encounter with a police patrol in Hamburg, described in the second part of this article.

We now switch continents and I will tell you about a confrontation, similar to the one described at the beginning of this article, which I experienced in Germany. For a number of years I used to edit a magazine, on computers, chess and artificial intelligence. It was bimonthly, and every two months me and a colleague spent a week, mainly in his house, editing and lay-outing a new edition. Our daily sessions lasted 12 to 16 hours and were quite exhausting.

One night I was driving back home, at about 4 a.m., when a police car overtook me and then signalled me to pull over. This I did, and the officer approached, saying “Good evening, sir.” I did not look at him but said sullenly: “So what did I do? Why did you pull me over?” — “We just want to check your papers, sir,” the policeman said. “I’m not going to show you anything until you tell me why you stopped me,” I said. “Was I driving erratically, do you think I have been drinking, or do you simply not like my appearance?” (I was looking tired and disheveled). “Actually you switched lanes without using your indicator,” the policeman said. “That is your reason?” I asked. “There are no cars on the road, all the way to the horizon, and you are stopping me for not indicating my intentions to people who are not there?” “This is just routine, sir. Please, just show me your driving licence.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’m too tired to argue. I’m doing this just to get over with it,” and reached into my coat pocket. No wallet there. I searched my briefcase — not there either. “I can’t find it,” I said to the policeman. “Then show me your car registration.” Ahh, that was easier, I usually keep it in the glove compartment. But it was not there as well. “Sorry,” I said, now becoming seriously embarrassed. “Okay,” said the police officer, “what is the license number of your car?” That was the final blow: I had no idea. Something with “HH-” and numbers, 2 something something? “Okay,” I said, “You can take me in,” and held out my hands mock acceptance of handcuffs.

“Why are you out at this time of the night?” the policeman asked. I told him I was editing a magazine at my co-editor’s house and was finished for the day. I showed him a couple of galleys I had on the seat next to me. “Okay, sir,” he said, “drive safely, and in future always remember to carry your papers with you. Good night.” And let me go.

As I read the international news (or try not to) I see what is happening in the US: highly weaponized cops kill over 1000 people a year (including 30 armed with toy guns, like 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was shot ten seconds and 12-year-old 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot two seconds after the police car pulled up). While these killings by US cops are horrible and terrifying, and some of them truly malicious, there is one thing I must say: in many cases, as in Lavish Reynolds’ video above, you get the impression that the police officers themselves are terrified. Watch the first minute of the Reynolds video: you can hear the police officer yelling hysterically: “I told him not to reach for it, I told him to get his hands out.”

[Addendum: Today, June 16 2017, the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, who had been charged with second-degree manslaughter in the shooting of Philando Castile, was acquitted of all charges. Yanez cried during his testimony and said he thought his life was in danger at the time.]

One factor in the 1000 fatal incidents of police killings per year is the fact that there are 300,000,000 guns in circulation in the US. A police officer confronting a man on the street is often in mortal fear for his own life: if the person reaches into his pocket, or makes some sudden movement, the officer will panic. He knows that he might be seconds away from his own death. The German cop who stopped me at 4 a.m. on a deserted city street was unarmed and willing to bet his life that I would not be pulling out a gun to threaten or harm him. In the US cops cannot afford to do this. They must reckon with the worst, they are constantly in fear for their own lives.

And the solution to the problem is definitely not: give the people even more guns, give them permission to carry them anytime, any place, visible or concealed. Anyone who suggests this is ready to accept even more police killings — or is very, very keen to get NRA support in upcoming elections.

Related story: OMG — I own a gun!

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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