It started when he tapped the brakes. Two, maybe three times. The Bethesda-area student cannot remember. But he will never forget the lights of the police car in his rearview mirror.
When the officer approached the car, he said, the questions started. What were you doing with the brakes? It smells like drugs in here. What’s in the car? Why is your friend so anxious? Why is he giving me so much attitude? I didn’t tell you to step out. Why are you undermining my authority?
The high school student is black. Unlike many high-profile incidents of police brutality, this encounter did not end in high drama. He was questioned, held up for an hour, then sent on his way. But the psychological impact was lasting.
“I felt completely powerless,” the student said, speaking on the basis of anonymity. “He had a very hostile tone…I get scared every time I am on the road and I see a cop, if they are driving the same direction as me.”
Tensions with the black community have marred perceptions of law enforcement across the country. Montgomery County is not exempt. Many members of the black community still live with the fear of racial profiling. Young black men interviewed for this article said they have learned to be constantly wary of police. Their experiences demonstrate that the county is still grappling with issues involving race and police relations.
For B-CC senior Josh Townes, traffic stops have become something of a routine. One Sunday night, he was pulled over twice on his way home from church.
The first officer claimed that his “car was too close to the ground, that the exhaust was illegal, that the window in the back was too big,” he said. “Later that night, I got pulled over again. It was for the same reason—that I am a young, black male driving a nice car.”
Few incidents of police brutality have made headlines here. Montgomery County police officers are highly trained in the use of non-lethal methods—including pepper spray and tasers—to stabilize situations and avoid deadly force.
“Montgomery County is one of the few agencies in the state of Maryland where you actually need a college education to become a police officer,” one former officer said.
In recent years, videos of law enforcement using excessive force against people of color can seem almost commonplace. But the officer, who wished to remain anonymous in accordance with police policies, said these situations are more complicated than they look on camera.
“Someone is very quick to turn in their cell phone to channel 4, 5, 7, 9—and make a few bucks off it,” he said. “They chop the video up…and they do not show the event that led up to the whole situation. Unfortunately, that gives the media and the general population a negative view of the police officers.”
The officer views public fears of law enforcement as generally unwarranted.
“[Police officers] just want to go out there and do their job,” he said. “I can speak to just about every officer that I knew. Nobody cared what the color of a person’s skin was, or whatever ethnicity they were. Nobody cared. It was just a matter of what that person was doing, and whether they should be arrested for it.”
He retired in 2014—the same year that unrest broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer. Protests against police brutality factored into his decision to leave the job, the officer said.
“Any time you went to arrest someone of a different race, you were always called racist or bigoted,” he said. “It definitely wore on you over time.”
Others who regularly spend time with police officers dispute the notion that racial profiling plays no role in police actions, asserting that subconscious biases continue to exist. Bethesda-Chevy Chase senior Jeri Jaller engages in these discussions firsthand as the first high school intern for the Maryland State Police.
“Some of the officers have admitted that there is a bit of racial profiling going on, though they will not admit that they are, in a way, discriminatory based on race,” Jaller said. “They just blame it on upbringing, because a lot of them are from rural parts of Maryland, or even Pennsylvania. They just think it is a matter of perspective.”
Heightened media scrutiny of police made possible by technology and social media has contributed to a dramatic decrease in police officer applications. One Washington Post investigation found that the number of full-time sworn officers per 1,000 U.S. residents dropped from 2.42 in 1997 to 2.17 officers per 1,000 residents in 2016. That nationwide trend holds true in Montgomery County, according to the anonymous officer.
“Applications to be a police officer have plummeted,” the officer said. “During Ferguson, and other times when police were portrayed negatively in the media, I know that even the Montgomery County applications for police officer candidates dropped 50 percent.”
As she rides along in police cars, Jaller noted that many officers are frustrated by constant scrutiny from body cameras and cell phones. Some believe that camera recordings perpetuate tense interactions between civilians and police.
“It makes the dynamic more standoffish,” the former officer said. “Now that you are being recorded, it is a much more stringent thing.”
For many Montgomery County police officers, he said, body cameras also created a layer of risk. In his opinion, cameras become an unnecessary distraction during complicated arrests.
“I might not react in a way to protect myself in an assault, because I’m more worried about the cameras around me than dealing with the person,” the officer said. “If I’m gonna arrest this person and go hands-on with them, well, how is that going to look on the camera?”
But many people of color see video footage as added security during uncertain—and often legally ambiguous—police encounters. Others have adopted preventative strategies to reduce the likelihood of negative police interactions.
“In The Hate U Give, when the main character gets pulled over, she puts her hands on the dash. So when I got pulled over this week, I put my hands on the dash,” Townes said. “You say, Yes, sir. No, sir. Where are you coming from tonight? I’m coming from a friend’s house. What were you doing at your friend’s house? Studying. I always carry my backpack with me for that.”
His script for dealing with police encounters is not uncommon. Within black households across the country, parents giving ‘the talk’ about police brutality has become the new normal.
“My mom first talked to me about [the dangers of police brutality] when I was 12 or 13. That’s when my voice started to change from a high-pitched to a deep voice,” Townes said. “Police determine your life. They determine whether you go to jail or not…I am not gonna say they are all bad cops. That’s not true. But I will admit that there are a few that are out there to get people.”
An officer’s decision to pull someone over “honestly just depends on their mood and what they feel like doing,” Jaller said. “It’s an unspoken rule. You are supposed to give out ten citations per day.”
This casual attitude toward traffic stops became apparent one day, when the officer she was riding with received a message that the corporal would buy everyone free pizza if each officer gave out three more citations.
“We only had 15 more minutes left of the ride along, and he sped past everyone and started pulling over as many people as he could because he wanted pizza,” Jaller said. “It was sort of a game to him.”
That ‘game’ disproportionately targets people of color. There is always the chance that, driving through communities in a nice vehicle, black males will be pulled over based on a misplaced perception.
“They know that they carry a gun and you don’t,” Townes said. “Sometimes they feel that just because they have the power, that they can abuse it towards us.”