If you’ve noticed the absence of blog posts lately, it was mostly because I spent the Summer working at a late night warehouse job. I had plenty of time to write during the afternoon. I just didn’t. For whatever reason, my creative juices flow best when I can stay up past dawn, then sleep all day. Sometimes, if I get writer’s block in the middle of an essay or piece of fiction, I will quite literally try to “jog” my thoughts loose. I’ll put on a pair of running shoes, and head outside for a run, usually covering two or three miles before I come home, shower, then sit back down at my computer to finish what I was writing.
A few nights ago, at three in the morning, I ran, or should I say “blundered,” past a crime scene, and came within a hair’s breadth of spending the night in jail. To give you a better idea what happened, let me describe the area where I live. My town is a largely African American, working-class suburb about 15 miles outside of Manhattan. It was devastated by the 2008 financial crash. Property taxes are high. The school system is decidedly sub par. Many of the houses in my neighborhood are vacant or abandoned. The ones that are still occupied have fallen into disrepair. Only a few hundred yards from my house is the Garden State Parkway, which is also the border between working-class, multicultural New Jersey, and segregated, white, upper-middle-class New Jersey. The same four bedroom house on the east side of the Garden State Parkway that’s advertised for $100,000 dollars and stands no chance of being sold will cost you a half million dollars a few blocks west, and will often have a waiting list of buyers. All of this, along with the presence of a large office park, usually means that the whole area is heavily policed.
As I cleared the office park, I also looked down a side street and saw three police cars flashing their lights. I didn’t think much of it at first. It could have meant anything from a mass shooting to an old lady falling down in the bathroom. A block later, however, I noticed another police car sitting along the shoulder begin to creep slowly alongside me as I ran past. The window rolled down and a police officer shined a flashlight in my face. “Hello,” a voice said from inside the car. “Who me?” I asked as the car stopped, and the driver circled around the hood and blocked me way. “What is it?” Neither of the police officers, a young white man, and a black women in her thirties was particularly intimidating. I also sensed almost immediately that it was all somehow connected to what I now knew to be a crime scene. My first impression was that they wanted to ask me if I had seen anybody else run by, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that they didn’t want me as a witness, that I was a suspect.
The whole thing could have led to disaster, or at least to my getting roughed up and thrown in jail for the night. Fortunately, the black female officer who had shined the flashlight in my face also turned out to be surprisingly level headed. “Don’t be alarmed at the show of force,” she said, as three more police cars rolled up alongside the road. “It’s just protocol.” Her partner was a rather short young man in his 20s. I would have preferred a bigger cop. The last thing you need to be dealing with when faced with a very young man with a gun, a badge and a pair of handcuffs is “short man’s syndrome.” What’s more, being an idiot, I only made things worse. If you know me on the Internet, you know that I keep odd hours. If you know me in real life, you probably think of me as a big pompous bastard most people want to cut down to size. I often have a haughty air about me that sometimes causes offense where none is intended. I don’t scare easily, and I don’t show deference easily. All of these qualities can be fatal when dealing with the police.
“So do you often run this late at night?” the young man said.
“Sometimes,” I said, “but I apologize. I didn’t know there was a curfew.”
The female police officer, who seemed to realize that I was perilously close to getting my ass kicked, stepped alongside.
“There isn’t,” she said. “But there was a break in down the block.”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
“Do you have any ID?” she said.
“No,” I said, forgetting that you’re not legally required to carry ID in the state of New Jersey and thinking that I would shortly be under arrest. “I never run with ID.”
“That’s OK,” she said. “Can I have your name?”
After hesitating for a few seconds about whether or not I was required to give them my name, I finally blurted it out. It didn’t matter. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite convince the office that my name was “Stan Rogouski” and not “Sam Kowalski.” I don’t think she had intended to call my name in anyway. It was all part of some elaborate “protocol” designed to prevent me from leaving while the six other officers, who had gotten out of the other three police cars, took up positions around me to block any possible escape route. It was clearly a waste of resources. I’m in pretty good shape for a 51-year old, but there’s not much chance I could outrun eight police officers in their 20s, or at best early 30s. There was no danger of my escaping. One of them, a well-built man with a small Hitler mustache – cops really do wear them – and a neat buzz cut joined his fellow officers in their interrogation.
“Where are you from?” he said.
I told him.
“Do you always run this late at night?” he continued.
“As I previously explained,” I said. “I do sometimes.”
“Do you run on this street a lot?” he added.
I actually laughed.
“Son,” I said, exercising my old man’s privilege. “How old are you, 25? 26?”
Astonishingly, he nodded his head as if to say “yes.”
“Son,” I continued. “I was running in this neighborhood a decade before you were born. In fact, I remember when that pizza place down there was on that side of the street.”
The female officer either out of frustration with her inability to figure out my real name or simply not wanting to fill out the paperwork — for she seemed to be the one in charge — that my arrest would have entailed stepped in and dismissed the idea that I had been involved in the break in.
“This isn’t the right guy,” she said. “You can go,” she added to me.
They all got back in their cars, and I proceeded on my way. I was lucky. Not only had I avoided spending the night in jail, the incident was just so flat out bizarre that it totally broke my writer’s block and I was able to finish the essay I had been working on a day earlier than I thought. I woke up thinking I had been foolish acting like a smart ass, but in retrospect it was probably the right thing to do. My air of arrogance and entitlement had probably convinced them I had been a lawyer or a rich capitalist instead of a broke-ass failed writer and late night warehouse slave. I also think that it was one of the rare cases in which the police acted properly. They were within their rights to question me as a suspect. How often do people jog past an attempted burglary in progress at three o’clock in the morning? The female police officer who told me “not to worry about all the police cars” and that “it was only protocol” was in some ways a textbook example of a “good cop,” deescalating the situation by explaining to me what was going on. They checked me out, quickly realized that I hadn’t been involved in the break in, and moved on.
The problem as I see it was how there was no room for error. If it had been colder, if I had been wearing a coat instead of a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, if any of the officers had felt paranoid that I had been carrying a weapon, it could have led to disaster. If I had been a 20-year-old black man instead of a 50-year-old white man it could have led to disaster. If any of the officers had been sleep deprived or jumpy it could have led to disaster. If I had been wearing a iPod and hadn’t heard the female officer say “hello” it could have led to disaster. If I had been deaf, mentally ill, handicapped, or in any way unable to communicate it could have led to disaster. If I had been afraid or if I had acted in a way that made them think I had a guilty conscience instead of like a contemptuous, arrogant asshole, it could have led to disaster. If I had been running with a cell phone that could have been mistaken for a weapon it would have led to disaster. If it had been 8 white men instead of 7 white men and one black woman it could have led to disaster. If the police had not instinctively realized I “wasn’t the guy” and that they had better let me go and find the real suspects it could have led to disaster. If it had been a big city instead of suburbia, it could have led to disaster.
Shock and awe policing – rolling up on a non-threatening middle-aged man with four squad cars and eight police officers – is dangerous. It leaves little room for human error. It’s cumbersome. It straight jackets even the rare sensible police officer – like the black woman who calmly explained to me what was going on – into a prearranged response that takes all the initiative away from the individual. It turns city cops into soldiers and the typical American city, or suburb, into the occupied West Bank (which should no more be subjected to militarized policing then my town in New Jersey). As I said, I got lucky. At the very least, I could have easily gotten roughed up and thrown in jail for the night, and as recent headlines make clear, it could have been much worse.