It was an early March morning in 2015, around 6:15 a.m., darkness just lifting over the sprawling, still-awakening city. I was driving from my mother-in-law’s house in West Hollywood down Santa Monica Boulevard toward the 101 to check into my downtown hotel for that weekend’s L.A. Marathon. First, though, I planned on meeting some of the early arriving out-of-town elite athletes at Griffith Park for their morning shake-out run, a good opportunity to get some insight into Sunday’s competition.
It was a busy weekend ahead, and as I came to a red light at the intersection of Santa Monica and Hudson Street, my mind was already drifting toward all the celebrations and spectacles that attend a major city marathon celebrating its 30th anniversary running.
As I pulled up to the traffic light, I saw a small white barrier with three red flares fronting it and a car parked/stalled diagonally behind on the far side of the intersection. While I saw a police car farther up ahead, I didn’t immediately identify the situation as a closed road. Rather I thought I’d happened upon a minor accident that the police were just now beginning to sort out.
I was the only car at the intersection at the time, so when the light turned green, I slowly went around the barrier and car before looking to tuck back into the right lane and proceed to the 101 on-ramp. But moments later an LAPD officer with his flashlight beam dancing across my face came marching from the left-side of the road with a look in his eye that I can only describe as intense menace. And I mean daggers!
“What are you doing?!” He spat scornfully as I lowered my window.
“Trying to get to the 101.”
“You’re driving on the wrong side of the road!”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that. I was just going around that vehicle stuck in the intersection.”
“Have you been drinking?!”
I hadn’t even had my morning cup of coffee yet, and this was all a little over-the-top from my perspective.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
Where I was coming from, or going for that matter, was none of his business. But I reminded myself to keep an even keel as I was in Los Angeles and I knew the reputation the police had around here. So I figured, just let it go.
“I am coming from my mother-in-law’s place,” I responded in as non-threatening a tone as I could.
I had driven that route innumerable times – though not at that hour -and was caught unawares. I’m thinking I was just going by a minor traffic accident, and now here’s this guy on Defcon 3. What the hell is going on?
“Back up behind that police car, and give me your license and registration,” the officer finally instructed, still glaring.
As it turns out a city water pipe had burst farther down the way, and the street was flooding and now had been closed off. What I thought was a minor accident was, in fact, an unmarked police car stopped diagonally to block traffic. But there was no cop in the middle of the intersection to reinforce that impression.
Well, that cop gave me a ticket for driving on the wrong side of the street, when a warning to pay closer attention would have sufficed just as well. But what stayed with me, and took some time to reduce a racing heartbeat from, was the manner in which that police officer approached me with pure venom in his eye.
None of this, “Watch out now, sir. There’s been a pipe burst up the way and we are re-routing traffic.” No, it was like the Manson Family had somehow reanimated, gone on a killing spree in the neighborhood, and I somehow looked like Tex Watson (or was it Leslie Van Houton). Me, a 60+-year-old white guy in an adult gray sedan in West Hollywood California. Imagine if I had been a black kid?
I have friends who are police officers around the country, and I respect the job and sense of duty that is manifest in the vast majority of the men and women who wear their blues everyday. At every road race I attend I make sure to thank the police officers on duty, emphasizing that they “have a safe day”. Many of the drivers of our marathon lead-camera motorcycles are former state motorcycle cops. Good friends all.
And certainly I don’t know what it’s like being out on the streets everyday where one’s life hangs in the balance every time you approach a closed door or darkened vehicle. But something has gone terribly awry, something is way out of whack when the default approach toward citizens at a Thursday 6:15 a.m. traffic stop is a preemptive hostility, a scared to take any chance, ready to freak out, gun at the ready menace. What else to say but that we have lost our collective way?
After yesterday’s police shooting incidents in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, I have a wife who is afraid to leave the house for fear of driving-while-black, which is evidently all it takes these days to set bullets free.
Land of the free? Home of the Brave? You still think so?