Police StopAround noon on New Year’s Eve, I got pulled over by the police.  Here’s the story through my eyes:

I’m in a foreign part of town trying to follow my (sometimes fantastic, other times annoyingly wild-goose chase) Waze app to the nearest Post Office.  I turned into the back parking lot of the post office and was driving around like a moron trying to find the front entrance.  I made a wide U-turn in the mostly empty parking lot and headed back for the gates I had come in.

A police officer pulls up next to me (driver window to driver window).  I’m thinking, “He can tell I’m lost.”  I roll down the window and with a smile say “Hey Officer!  I’m just trying to figure out how the heck to get in this post office!”  He speaks into the lapel of his shirt “I’m in the parking lot behind the post office.”  At this point, my heart starts racing because, did he just call for backup?  WTF.  Now I’m in super alert mode and cataloguing everything about his body language.  Remember, I’m a psychiatrist, so I’ve been trained in listening and watching for the unsaid.  To me, he looked on edge.

He looks at me and says “Do you know why I pulled you over?”  Literally shocked, I made a mental checklist of my body language, my facial expression and my tone.  I made sure there was no aggression and no sarcasm in my response.  “No?”  I said it with a question mark facial expression because until that point, I didn’t even know I was being pulled over.  He says in a parental tone: “At that light, you were in the straight-only lane and you turned left.”

Now at this point, a little back story is appropriate.  As the Waze was navigating me to the loading dock of the post office, in true Georgia fashion, the road I was on made a left turn at the intersection.  So “Stay on Main Street” actually meant “Turn Left.”  I noticed this at the last second, quickly checked my blind spot, threw on my turn signal, turned left and continued on my wild goose chase.  Apparently, he had been following me the whole time, but I never noticed because whatevs, I was watching the Waze, not my rear-view mirror.

Now back to my interaction with the officer.  Once I realized he had a legitimate reason for pulling me over, I relaxed.  I said conversationally, “Oh wow.  You’re right. I definitely did that.  I noticed at the last second that I was supposed to turn left at the light.”

In response, he leans out of the window (because we are both still sitting in our cars), stares me aggressively in the eyes and says in a bullyish way “I could give you a ticket right now if I wanted to.”  I think to myself, hmmm…he’s already called for backup and he’s looking for a fight.  At this point, my heart starts pounding, my mouth gets dry and I get pissed off.  All I can think of is Sandra Bland.   Again, I check my posture, my facial expression and my tone to make sure I removed all traces of anything that could ratchet up the situation.  I say “Well, obviously I would prefer if you did not give me a ticket, but if you did, I would totally understand.  I mean, I did turn left out of the wrong lane.”  I could tell he was surprised.  But instead of taking the opportunity to back down he says (again aggressively), “If you had gotten in an accident, it would have been your fault.”   I go through my checklist (posture, facial expression, tone).  I say “You’re absolutely right.”

He stares at me hard for what felt like 5 minutes, but was probably only 10 seconds.  Anyway, it was a long stare.  I spent all 10 seconds noticing my heartbeat going faster and harder and checking my posture and facial expression to make sure it didn’t show.  I maintained eye contact so as not to appear suspicious, but I made sure it was a soft eye-contact and not a hard stare that could be interpreted as a challenge.  After what felt like forever he said “Turn left and then turn left again and you will get to the front of the post office.”

A little confused, I repeated the directions and he said yes and then drove off.

It was only at that point that I realized I hadn’t turned on my phone to record.

So of course I’ve been thinking about this experience obsessively.  I know what my experience was, but what was his experience?  Maybe he called for backup because that’s just what they automatically do, and I  just happened to hear it.  Maybe he’s just not a warm and fuzzy guy and he wasn’t looking for a fight, he was just being himself.  (If so, his regular self is pretty pissed off).   Maybe I over-interpreted his malice because of my perception of the police. Maybe he thought I was being evasive when I turned into the back lot of the post office because maybe he thought I knew he had been following me.

So many maybes.  Admittedly, I got to those second.  My first line of thought was what if.  What if I didn’t have doctorate-level control over my emotions?  What if I didn’t know to go through a checklist of all of those nonverbal cues that can agitate people?  What if he didn’t allow himself to back down?

Even if I was over-interpreting his malice, it was clear that the situation could have easily escalated, and for what?  A simple traffic violation.

I shared this story on my Facebook page and the response was overwhelming.  My FB friends mentioned the way their hearts pounded when they read it, flashbacks to their own experiences with police.  One even asked, is this PTSD?  This experience reinforced my belief that our police officers need to be trained differently.  In that situation, I was certainly experiencing a fight or flight reaction in response to his aggression.  I wonder if he wasn’t experiencing his own fight or flight reaction.  What did he see when he looked at me?  He certainly didn’t see an Ivy-league trained physician who is the Chief Medical Officer of a Behavioral Healthcare System.  Whatever he saw made him angry.  And that anger was not about me — but rather about whatever experiences he has previously had and how that has shaped his belief system about people that look like me or people who turn left out of the straight only lane.

This also reinforced my belief that we all need to be trained to manage our fight or flight reactions and de-escalate situations.  We have to know at this time that police officers are afraid.  They are afraid and they are angry.  We are angry and we are afraid.   We are responsible for recognizing our emotions and managing our behaviors.   In my opinion, police officers as professionals, are responsible for recognizing these emotions and managing their behaviors even when the person they have stopped doesn’t have the skill to do so.

Unfortunately, we know by experience that had either one of us not managed our fear and anger in that moment, my story could have easily been the next in a long series of terrible and even tragic outcomes.

Nzinga Harrison, M.D.

A well-respected physician and educator, Dr. Harrison is the Chief Medical Officer for Anka Behavioral Health Inc. and serves as the Official Campaign Psychiatrist for the national Let's Get Mentally Fit!...

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