I have been stopped eight times by the Seattle Police Department. I wasn't speeding nor did I have an issue with my car.
Four stops occurred in my neighborhood: two on Beacon Hill and one near the intersection of Rainier Avenue and Martin Luther King Way. I was never ticketed but always asked, “Do you live in this neighborhood” or “Where are you going?”
The eighth was an SPD officer who stopped me earlier this year for a headlight that was out.
Up to this point I had only told my wife, Cayan, about the officers turning on high beam lights in my face when I was walking home from work years ago. They were laughing and then turned them off.
As a parent, I am still irritated about the officer who stopped my kids on their way to football practice at Rainier Playfield. They were in their padded practice uniforms. The officer asked them where they were going. He also asked them, did they live in the neighborhood?
When my kids replied that they did, he told them that black kids didn't live in this particular neighborhood. I remember venting about this with Ron Sylve, a Seattle Police officer who spent hundreds of hours coaching football in South Seattle. He and I co-founded the Paul Robeson awards for academic achievement. Young athletes in a variety of sports were given this trophy if they maintained a 3.0 GPA throughout the year.
When I was on the panel to make a recommendation to Ed Murray, Seattle's mayor, for a new police chief, I told each candidate that I had been stopped by Seattle officers seven times. No one questioned the racial implications of my statement. I wanted to alert them to the need for training.
I had also confided about the stops to some of the members of King County's intelligence team that provided the bulk of my security for my 13 years as King County executive.
My security staff gave me the following advice: When stopped by the police in my car, I needed to get the automobile registration out of the glove compartment and put it on the dashboard; take my driver's license and insurance card out of my wallet and put it on top of the dashboard; roll down the window and keep both of my hands on the steering wheel. If you're stopped at night, do all of this after you've turned on the dome light.
This is what I did earlier this year at my eighth stop.
Cayan and I drink lots of coffee, as do our houseguests. We have Starbucks pods for espressos or lattes. But my favorite is the Arabian Mocha-Java that I get from Peet’s Coffee & Tea across from Green Lake.
I was driving in the morning up to Peet’s. We had run out of coffee and wished to avoid caffeine withdrawals. As I pulled up to the stoplight at Rainer Avenue and Dearborn, I saw the blue and red lights come up behind me. A voice over the loudspeaker said that I was not being stopped because I was speeding. I was being stopped because one of my headlights was out.
The officer ran my plates, then proceeded to my car. I gave him my car registration, driver's license and insurance card. After he ran my driver's license, he returned. I kept saying to myself, “Why didn't the officer just come up and tell me that I had a headlight out?”
After returning to my car, he asked me, with an authoritative voice, “Where are you going?”
I shook my head; I was in disbelief. I said with some firmness that I was going to get a cup of coffee. His last question was unprofessional. It wasn't any of his doggone business what I was going to do next.
As I was driving away, I assumed he was a new and inexperienced officer. I also felt he had time on his hands and nothing better to do than to bother me.
When I went to the auto supply shop to get my headlight replaced, the store manager struck up a conversation and asked me if I needed two headlights. I told her I needed only one. She asked if my indicator light was on – I told her no, that a police officer had stopped me and told me about the headlight.
“You're kidding!” she said. The light wasn’t even completely out – just the high beam.
The man who installed the light joined her; he was also in disbelief.
Cayan and I have dear friends who are law enforcement officers; neither of us would want their jobs. A majority of officers serve the public quite well. They are professionals. They are also sports coaches, tutors and volunteers doing amazing work in the community. And I believe that they would not hesitate to step between you and harm's way. This is why I respect the work of police officers. Most of my experiences with police officers have been very good. Because of that, I always thank them for their service.
Does being stopped by a police officer for no violation made me angry? Yes it does. It is very demeaning and it kind of hurts. Why me, is what you say to yourself, why me? I didn’t deserve this! Even after all of these years it still seems a very unfair price to pay. The stench of it seeps deep into your pores.
"Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load."
Langston Hughes, “A Dream Deferred”
Ron Sims is the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He was also King County Executive from 1997-2009. (Do not confuse him with former Mayor Norm Rice. Although if you do, you'll be feeding into a longstanding joke between the two men.)
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. To submit a story or note one you've seen that deserves more notice, contact Isolde Raftery at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206.616.2035.
This story was originally published on July 12, 2016.