Handcuffed and Helpless
There’s a naive idea floating around that an innocent person should never be afraid of cops
What you are about to read is not a philosophical argument. It’s a personal testimony. The aim of telling this story is neither to make a political statement, nor to score points for a particular ideology. For almost three years, I’ve mostly held it in. But it’s become clear to me that it’s time to give a more detailed account to a broader audience.
* * *
One Friday night, my wife and I were driving through a small town on the way to a comedy club in Manhattan Beach, California. We were going to hang out and share a few laughs. On the way, we were pulled over by the police.
Two officers approached our car. One of them came to my window. The other one came to her window.
Without asking to see my license or registration, the officer on my side told me to get out of the car. I immediately and respectfully complied without raising a single question or objection. And in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t dressed in gang colors, nor was I wearing a hoodie.
When I exited the car, he turned me around, handcuffed me, threw me against the side of my car, and did a complete body search on me. As he groped me, he said, “This is how we do it in LA.”
I remember seeing a woman walking across the street holding hands with her little girl. We made eye-contact. She picked her little girl up and jogged in the other direction. Who could blame her? If I saw one of society’s most trusted authority figures manhandling a guy, I’d also assume this was a potentially dangerous situation.
The officer then removed the wallet from my pocket and pulled out the cash.
“Why do you have so much cash on you?”
“Sir, I honestly didn’t feel like a $100 was a lot of cash to have on me. I’m going out with my wife tonight and just wanted to have a little cash on me.”
Next, he asked me where I lived. I told him my address. He laughed and said, “This nigger knows his address.” Then he walked me to the police car and literally threw me in the back seat and shut the door. From the back seat of a police car, I watched the officer join his partner who was already busy questioning my wife. They also made her get out of the car. They both got in her face and started questioning her.
Imagine what goes on inside of a man’s head when he’s handcuffed and helpless as he watches two men with guns get in his wife’s face. Imagine the complex blend of confusion, fear, irrational optimism, and rage that festers inside one’s soul as he watches one cop take his wife’s purse and pour all the contents out, while the other officer literally crawls around inside our car for several minutes.
They spent about 10 more minutes aggressively questioning my wife.
One of the officers returned to the car with my wallet and proceeded to look up my info in the system.
“You got any baby momma drama?” he asked me.
“I don’t have any children, sir.”
“You sure you ain’t got no baby momma drama?”
“I am certain that I have no children, sir. There are no women out there who are even under the impression that I am the father of their child.”
“Are you clean? Are you clean? You ain’t got no drugs? You ain’t got nothing on you? No baby momma drama?” he says.
“I am clean,” I said.
For the entire time that we were talking, my eyes were deadlocked on that other officer and my wife. After what felt like an eternity, the officer let me out of the car and took off the handcuffs.
“You’re good,” he told me.
As I slowly walked back to our car, I said to one of the officers, “Sir, I’m not trying to be antagonistic or disrespectful, but is there a reason for why I was pulled over?”
“We just had to check you out.”
I wanted to say, “What does that even mean?” But more importantly, I wanted to get us out of that situation safely. Given the way he man-handled me earlier, it was obvious to me that I was dealing with guys who weren’t above breaking protocol. So I just walked back to the car, took a deep breath, asked my wife if she was alright, and did my best Denzel Washington from Glory impersonation as I tried to keep it together.
Our comedy show started at 8 P.M. We were pulled over at about 7:30. When they let us go, it was about 10 minutes after the hour. We decided that we couldn’t go home, or it would feel as if we let them win. So we drove to a local cinema, watched a movie, came back home, had some coffee, and just stayed up talking with each other about it.
* * *
I’m grateful that we didn’t get killed. I’m grateful that my wife didn’t get assaulted. I’m grateful that they didn’t plant drugs on me or put me in the hospital.
But my gratitude doesn’t change the fact that these men abused their power, disrespected my wife, laid their hands on my body in an inappropriate way, scared the hell out of us both, made us miss our show, and treated us like criminals simply because they felt entitled to do so.
They will not ruin my life, nor will they determine my destiny, but I want to put this story on the record because this was neither the first nor the second time something like this happened to me, and I sincerely believe that things like this happen all over the country.
There’s this naive idea floating around that people should never be afraid of cops as long as they’re innocent and compliant. For a lot of people in this country, that’s simply not true. This isn’t about playing some mythical race-card, nor is it about me promoting the idea that all cops are evil. I’m sure there are lots of cops who are nice to their kids and fun to hang out with when they’re having beer with their buddies. (I’m also sure that’s true of a lot of so-called thugs.)
But if we want to have intelligent discussions about authority in this country, we have to stop using a logic that tells us that people in authority always have a fair reason for doing what they do. We do a lot of talking about what people can do to avoid being abused by cops. We don’t talk as much as we should about the abuse that happens to people who follow all those instructions. If we can’t question authority, we are doomed.
* * *
Here’s a habit I picked up early on: When I see police officers, I shift into my A-game.
If I feel an itch on my forehead, I’ll notify the cops first before scratching the itch because I want them to feel safe and secure about the movement of my hand. This is a technique I refer to as “not getting shot.”
I learned techniques like this from the first day I received my driver’s license. Growing up in the suburbs, I was always afraid to drive my dad’s Lincoln Town Car.
I was too afraid to tell him, but I would cringe when he’d ask me to drive his car because I knew I would be pulled over and harassed by cops whose worldview wasn’t big enough to imagine me in a nice car (even though it was normal to see young people driving nice cars in the neighborhood where I grew up).
I remember driving my dad’s car once, and he left his toolbox in the back seat. A cop pulled me over and asked why I had a toolbox. Fair enough. I told him that my dad was in real estate and construction, and that I was working with him at one of his buildings. The cop had me step out of the car, handcuffed me, and searched the toolbox while I sat on the curb in handcuffs.
“Are there any other weapons in this car besides this hammer here?”
My overly diplomatic reply was this: “With all due respect, sir, the hammer is not a weapon, but rather one of many tools in that toolbox we use for work. However, I understand where you’re coming from and I can see how you might be inclined to see it as a weapon, but those tools are only used for work.”
He let me go. I can only imagine what my fate would have been if I hadn’t learned about the loaded question fallacy. Two points for philosophy. Hurray.
By the way, the officer gave me no warnings, citations, or explanations. Like the guys from my earlier story, he just wanted to “check me out.”
Unfortunately, my techniques don’t make me feel all that secure, nor does the fact that today I drive a car that’s a lot more modest than my dad’s. At every stage of my adulthood, I’ve been pulled over by cops, dragged out of my car, handcuffed, spoken to like I was a stupid little boy, humiliated in public, called racial slurs, and manhandled by multiple guys with badges multiples times (without being arrested or charged with anything), in spite of the fact that I’ve never been armed, and I’ve always complied with their every request.
When I spent two years without having a car, it was one of the most peaceful, cop-free times in my life. I would still get harassed at times, but it was so much harder for them to come up with excuses for stopping me. I have never been physically or psychologically abused by drug-dealing “thugs,” but I have definitely been abused by police who thought it was okay to push me around because I fit their stereotype of a thug.
Some people automatically feel safer when cops are around, but that’s not a universal experience. It’s certainly not mine. I’m not angry at every cop, but I am deeply concerned about the frighteningly popular belief that you must have done something wrong if you were abused by one.
* * *
When I first wrote about this on my Facebook page, I only had my family and friends in mind. Prior to that, I’d never shared the full details with anyone except for a small group of people.
But more and more, I’d been involved in conversations about police brutality. It seems to be on everyone’s mind. And while I acknowledge that these issues are more complex than many people make them out to be, there was one recurring element in many of these conversations that really irked me: The idea that a police officer would never mistreat someone if they conducted themselves in the right way. I know from personal experience that this assumption is false.
Indeed, I know many people who have been mistreated by authorities who abuse their power and they’re simply afraid to talk about it. Since I shared a version of this account on Facebook, over 1500 hundred people have shared my Facebook post. I’ve received tons of messages from people who have been victims of various kinds of abuse, not just from cops, but abuse in general. Many of them thanked me for inspiring them to tell their own story. I’ve even had police officers apologize to me on behalf of other police officers.
But why are people so often silent in the face of abuse? They don’t want to risk their careers; they don’t want to make enemies at their church; they don’t want to be associated with the wrong political party; they don’t want to be seen as liars; they don’t want anyone targeting them.
And I get it. Just since I shared this on social media, people have called me a liar, a bullshitter, a slanderer, a cop hater and an attention seeker. Honestly, I can relate with those people who would rather just stay silent than suffer the indignity of the aftermath — which so often just adds insult to injury.
But then there are the people who find inspiration, perhaps to tell their own story. I wrote this for them. Some have asked why I would write something like this if I have no chance of bringing the cops to justice. My answer is that I wrote this primarily in hopes that some people’s minds will be opened and others’ hearts will be healed due to what I went through. Most importantly, I wrote this for people who stay silent — for whatever reason — will know they aren’t alone.
I wish I had footage of what happened. I wish I had had the opportunity to obtain badge numbers, names, or license plate numbers without fear. Instead all I could think was “Please God let me out of this situation alive.” “Please don’t let them hurt my wife.” “What in the world is happening to me?” When they finally let me go, I was mostly just relieved that we were going to get out safe.
Believe it or not, there was a point when it did occur to me to try to get some information on these police officers. When I asked the one cop why we had been stopped, I thought about getting a look at their license plate number right then. But it occurred to me that things could escalate again if they perceived me as antagonizing them. I was scared of what they might do next if they noticed me looking at their car as if I were trying to obtain their information.
* * *
After my wife and I left, we calmed down. I started to reflect on things. I wished I could have gotten something — a badge number, a license tag, anything. Still, I decided to report it. The next day, I called the police department in the town where we were pulled over. I spoke with an officer who was appalled by my story, but who said it couldn’t be his department. He asked me if I was sure it wasn’t the state police. I honestly didn’t know. He believed my story, though, and he told me that if those were his guys, he would deal with them harshly. He apologized on behalf of police officers. We talked for almost an hour and he promised to have a meeting with his department about my story.
I also called state police as well as the departments for a couple surrounding towns but with the same results. My lack of evidence made things difficult. I tried hard to channel my anger in the direction of holding those officers accountable, but ultimately fell short. So, all I have is my story and the hope that some good can come from telling it.
All I ask of you, dear reader, is that you consider it an invitation to rethink the way some of these police encounters are framed and construed by all parties. If you’re skeptical of my version of events, that’s fine. I encourage you to keep on doubting.
But please don’t be selective in your skepticism. Question me. Question others. Question the police. Question authority. Most importantly, question your own assumptions. The truth will come will eventually come from people willing to search for it.
T.K. Coleman is a philosopher, writer, lecturer, entrepreneur, and life coach living in Los Angeles, California. He is the co-founder and Education Director for Praxis, a 10-month apprenticeship program that combines a traditional liberal arts education with practical skills training, professional development, and real-world business experience. This story originally appeared on the Foundation for Economic Freedom. It has been republished with their permission.