When I Was Handcuffed, It Wasn’t A Racial Thing — It Was A Police Thing

“Whether you’re a pundit, a professor or the president, if you’re a black man you better know your place,” writes Keith Boykin in White Men Can’t Judge over at the Huffington Post, about the Henry Louis Gates arrest saga. I’d rephrase that to lose the words “black man” when dealing with the police. That’s because I’m a white guy who had that experience twice with our own local cops in Newport Beach. It wasn’t a racial thing that got me put in handcuffs; it was a “I’m a cop; you have no rights thing.”

I’ve read through the Gates stories, trying to get the facts straight before commenting. That’s hard to do so. All the facts aren’t out there. Gates sounds like he got pretty upset. I can sure understand that, given how the situation appears to have played out. His lawyer suggests that the police story isn’t what happened. I can sure understand that, as well. So for what it’s worth, how a white guy found himself in trouble for daring to question the police.

Let me say from the outset that I recognize police have a tough job. And I’m grateful for those who are out there putting themselves in harm’s way to protect people. But I also recognize we place limitations on the police for good reasons, because while we want our society to be policed, we don’t want it to be a police state. I’ll do some bigger conclusions at the end of this post, for those who don’t want to bother reading the nitty-gritty details about my two recent encounters.

From Traffic Ticket To Handcuffs

The first instance happened in May. I got stopped and cited, accused of going past a no entry sign. The police officer said little to me, simply did her walk around the car, then came back to say she was going to write me a ticket. I said I’d fight it. Didn’t scream that at her or anything like that. Next I know, after signing the ticket, she demanded my fingerprint.

What? I was perplexed. I’ve been licensed to drive in California for nearly 30 years. I’ve had maybe two tickets over that time, and in neither case was I required to give a fingerprint. I’d never heard of any of my friends remarking on this. But the officer decided that my signature did not match the “legal” signature on my license, so she needed my fingerprint. After all, I might try to go to court and say I wasn’t really in the case.

I hadn’t scrawled my signature. It was recognizable as virtually identical to that on my license. I was being hassled, as far as I was concerned. And I didn’t think the officer had a right to that fingerprint. I can get hardheaded about giving up rights.

She assured me that the state “owned” my fingerprint, she had every right to take it and would do so by force, if necessary. I responded, “I’d like to see you try.” Because I was honestly amazed and really was curious to see how the police were going to force me to give up a fingerprint that they seemed to have no right to take (and had cited no provision of the vehicle code).

The officer responded by calling for backup. I responded by sending my wife and two small children to get out of the car and walk the few remaining blocks home. This clearly wasn’t going to end quickly.

While we waited, I picked up my iPhone from the seat next to me, to take a picture. The officer told me I couldn’t make a phone call (clearly indicating she knew it was a phone, which is important later). I said I wasn’t going to make a call but that I was going to take a picture of the situation. At that point, she opened my car door and pulled me out. I didn’t resist this. She turned me around and placed handcuffs on me. I didn’t resist this. She sat me down on a curb, by which point I think a second officer had arrived.

Wow — from traffic ticket to handcuffed. From what I’ve read of the Gates situation, I was in the same frame of mind he was. What the hell was going on, and how did I wind up with a cop doing this to me? For failure to obey something that seemed both unreasonable and perhaps illegal.

And it got worse. The officer couldn’t get the print. That’s because, being a big baby at this point, I’d placed my thumb within my fist. She tried to free my left thumb apparently with her pen, judging by the pen-sized cuts she made to my hand. Then she gave up, and I knew the next step was probably going to be to take me to the police station under arrest. And rights or not, I’d had enough. I released my hand.

Well, annoying but done. She told me to lean against my car, in order to take my cuffs off. Why, I don’t know. I hadn’t threatened her physically. The sole resistance had been not to free my thumb, and rather than struggle further, I relented. I leaned against the car. This wasn’t good enough for her. So I stepped back and threw myself against the car, assuming she wasn’t going to be happy until I was flat out against it. She remarked, “I didn’t do that to you.” I replied, “I didn’t say you did.” I asked again for the cuffs to come off. She refused.

We then waited. She’d called a third officer. I asked why we were waiting. She responded, “I’ve forgotten how to use my key.” Shocked at such a response, I asked her, “Seriously, that’s your explanation, that’s what you’re to tell your sergeant?” She smirked, as said I could tell him what I wanted, if I thought he’d believe me.

I then shouted her explanation a couple of times and my disbelief over in, in hopes that someone other than the second officer would be a witness to it. I’d asked the second officer, by the way, what right she had to take my print. Without citing any law, he simply said she did, that there was a place on the back of the ticket for print.

Eventually, the sergeant came over. As with the second officer, no one first asked me about the situation. There was a long consultation with the officer who gave me the ticket. Then he came over to me. We had a civil discussion. I explained that I felt she had no right to take my print, nor did she have any reason to do so – that she simply wanted to, in my opinion, hassle me for suggesting I’d fight the ticket. I then left.

My neighbor, who arrived in the alley after I left, told me the sergeant then continued talking with her, apparently berating her for trying to take my print.

Later that evening, I went back to the police station. I wanted to know the exact law allowing for a thumbprint. I didn’t go to lodge a complaint. I never even mentioned the officer’s name. The sergeant who came out said that first he had to talk to the officer, which I found confusing. Either there’s a specific law that gives the right for a thumbprint during a traffic stop or there is not – and that’s what I asked about.

He returned after about 10 minutes. He told me that she felt she needed it now because I’d lost weight, so didn’t resemble my picture, and the mailing address on my license didn’t make the residence of my car, as well as her concern over the signature. She raised neither of these issues with me, at the time she tried to print me. He also said that she felt I was potentially hostile and so needed to be put in cuffs, as I had leant down to get something (my phone) under the seat. The implication is that the officer, who had stopped me with my wife and two children in the car – who watched me get my registration out of a center console that required me to actually put my hand out of view – who standing right at my window when I got my phone and told me not to make a call – now presumably thought I had a gun.

The sergeant also told me that she had the right to take a print, that technically a vehicle ticket is an arrest and release, and she can do this if she wanted.

Upon returning home, I found section 40500 of the California Vehicle Code:

Whenever a person is arrested for any violation of this code not declared to be a felony, or for a violation of an ordinance of a city or county relating to traffic offenses and he or she is not immediately taken before a magistrate, as provided in this chapter, the arresting officer shall prepare in triplicate a written notice to appear in court or before a person authorized to receive a deposit of bail, containing the name and address of the person, the license number of his or her vehicle, if any, the name and address, when available, of the registered owner or lessee of the vehicle, the offense charged and the time and place when and where he or she shall appear. If the arrestee does not have a driver’s license or other satisfactory evidence of identity in his or her possession, the officer may require the arrestee to place a right thumbprint, or a left thumbprint or fingerprint if the person has a missing or disfigured right thumb, on the notice to appear. Except for law enforcement purposes relating to the identity of the arrestee, no person or entity may sell, give away, allow the distribution of, include in a database, or create a database with, this print.

I complied exactly with the code. I did have a driver’s license in my possession. I presented it. She would have run a check and found it was valid. There was absolutely no reason, nor right as I see it in that vehicle code section, for her to demand the thumbprint.

Stops Signs Aren’t For Everyone

The second incident happened at the end of June. My wife and I were riding along the Balboa Boardwalk when we watched a police SUV just roll through the stop sign. No pause, nothing, just a cruise right through it.

I wasn’t happy. I’ve watched Newport Beach police act as if traffic control signs don’t apply to them on many occasions. They go through no entry signs. They don’t stop at the stop sign outside my house. They speed down our main boulevard. I’ve seriously considered making a YouTube video of NBPD traffic violation greatest hits. They do these things without sirens going and in situations that clearly do not seem to be emergencies.

It was also ironic. I’m on a city committee that looks at how to make the boardwalk safer. One of the major recommendations was better enforcement at the stop signs by the police. And here’s a police officer ignoring one.

I went after the officer. I rode my bike to his car and said he’d just gone through a stop sign. He seemed pretty taking aback. I think his words were something like “you’re kidding me, right.” I assume he couldn’t believe that anyone would question a police officer about their conduct. I asked who he was. He wouldn’t tell me. So I got off my bike, got out my phone and went to the back of the car to take a picture of the license. I then went back and am pretty sure I asked him again who he was. He refused, so I went to take a picture of him. At that point, he got out of the car, told me either I couldn’t take a picture or I’d better not take a picture. At this point, more people came around to witness what was going on. I think he said something else suggesting he was going to arrest me or something, though for what, I don’t know.

I decided to walk away. The plate was really enough to identify him (though keep in mind, the officer who wanted to fingerprint me eventually concocted all types of explanations about how devious people are with the police to assume other identities, so wanting the picture of the actual officer behind the wheel isn’t so crazy).

As I headed back home, he pulled back up to me. He then shouted out something to the effect of how about he gives me a ticket for running the stop sign. I was amazed. Seriously, he’s come back to hassle me? I also didn’t run the sign. If I had, there was a good chance he’d have hit me.

Getting home, I called the watch commander. She was very nice and very calm as watch commanders typically are (when I used to do the police beat for the LA Times, I talked to watch commanders all over Orange County all the time). She suggested that it was extraordinary for a police officer to be approached in the way I did. Asked if I sounded hostile (I said I’m sure I did; I was upset with him). Asked me to consider his frame of mind, that perhaps he was distracted by something on the radio or whatever when he went through the sign; then having me come up to him was so out of the ordinary that he probably was confused, threatened, rather than calming apologizing. And no, apparently when a police officer is asked to identify themselves, they don’t have to, it all depends on the situation. And yes, if they feel threatened, they should get out of their car and I guess get even more threatening.

That’s reasonable. I can totally accept it would have been far better for me to have quietly shot a picture of his plate, called him in and reported it and have been done with it. I can accept that perhaps he was taken aback to be confronted as he was.

But then again, no. His attitude was so similar to the confrontation I had with the previous officer to make me literally scared of the culture of the Newport Beach Police Department. The officer wasn’t scared or threatened. He was arrogant, as if he was amazed anyone would question anything he did.

We’re Not All The Enemy

My experiences have left me feeling like within my own city, the police view everyone as the enemy. That we’re all guilty until proven innocent.

I can understand how that attitude develops. Heck, from my criminal justice course in college, it’s apparently pretty common. Police, dealing all day with people who break laws, tend to develop attitudes that only other police can be trusted.

Here’s the thing. We’re not all lawbreakers, nor are the police perfect. We’ll stand behind our police for the hard job they do, but we also should demand that they admit when they’ve screwed up themselves rather than have a knee-jerk litany of excuses to defend themselves.