So many terrible things have happened this week, beginning with the killing of two black men in different states under questionable circumstances and ending with the calculated murder of five and attempted murder of many more Dallas police officers, solely because they were “white cops”. I am saddened for both law enforcement and all of our shell-shocked communities, each interpreting the events through the lens of their own experiences. It makes me remember a middle-aged man I will call “Joe”. I was appointed to represent him years ago, and I learned from him how different those experiences can be.
The first thing Joe said to me was, “It ain’t illegal to say, ‘There go a cop car’.”
Well, of course that wasn’t illegal. Unfortunately, Joe had chosen to say “There go a cop car” to an undercover police officer whilea hooker was plying her trade and sellinglarge quantities of very serious drugs in a nearby car. Even more unfortunately, it all happened in a “school zone” (most of densely populated Metro Nashville is broadly defined as a “school zone” even if there is no school in sight). On the theory that Joe was acting as lookout, he was arrested with the others and charged with Conspiracy to Sell Drugs in a School Zone.
As it turned out, Joe had virtually no criminal record, no history of trouble, noconnection to the people involved in the drug deal, and further, no allegations that Joeever did a thing except to say, “There go a cop car.”Joe was angry and convinced that he was arrested just because he wasa poor black man in a bad neighborhood.
“I bet they don’t even have cop cars in YOUR neighborhood”, he said resentfully.
I knew what he meant, but I only said,“I really don’t think they can prove anything.”
I didn’t say that I would walk home from the courthouse that day, and that I was certain to see police cars. Our street was a regular gathering place for the homeless and was patrolled so often that my neighbors and I would have only noticed a police absence. I lived in a nice building, but it was not a crime free area. In my world, the police were there to protect us, not to conduct undercover operations. In Joe’s world, the police were there to do both, and sometimes the lines got blurry. Joe was wrong about me and where I lived; however, Joe was right about one very important thing:
I would never be arrested on a downtown sidewalk just for saying “There’s a police car."
I don’t know what happened to Joe after he chose the only practical thing that he could afford to choose, a plea to a charge that could never be proven so that he could keep his $7 an hour job and not endure what could be a multi-year journey to an acquittal. I doubt that he would ever have reason to think of me, but I know that I have never forgotten him. The lesson I learned from Joe was this: Don’t Judge. Even terrible things are not always as they appear. Ask yourself if you will ever be arrested and charged just because you said “There’s a police car.”
Connie Allison is a lawyer with advanced training in taxation and complex business transactions. She is a native Nashvillian with three adult children, one of whom is currently serving in the military. For more information, her website is www.connieallison.com.