by Jack Bragen
Content warning: This article describes police harassment perpetrated toward me. I acknowledge that this article could reopen old wounds of some past acquaintances and could step on some toes: You know who you are. I am sorry about that. However, this is a story that I need to tell.
As a teen, I was arrested in an incident where I was clueless, and didn’t have any “criminal intent,” as law enforcement would call it. I was released shortly after being detained. At the time, the incident was terrifying. But a few years later, as an 18-year-old, I was arrested again. This was partly a consequence of the onset of a severe psychiatric disorder. I was very delusional at the time, and psychiatric conditions run in my family. Yet the arrest was also a consequence of my failure to consider the rights of others.
This happened 40 years ago, and I’ve had time to ponder the episode. Since then, I’ve been harassed a great number of times by police officers. I need this to stop. I’m not a criminal.They haven’t arrested me since the time of the one incident, but they’ve taken me in on psychiatric holds (called a “5150” in California) and they have otherwise made their presence known.
I am certain that if I were Black or brown, by now I would be behind bars, because of how unequal things are. Racism continues and it is widespread in the criminal justice system. I remember with great sadness Al Sharpton’s eulogy at the George Floyd memorial, in which he said, “Get your knee off our necks!”
I am grateful not to be treated with horrifying unfairness and murderous cruelty due to skin color. Yet having white skin doesn’t get me fully off the hook. As a white mentally ill man who is not at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, I am targeted by police who seem to believe it is acceptable to keep after me.
At the same time, I am also grateful to police who have helped me when I actually needed their help. When I’ve called, so long as I’m able to communicate adequately, the help exists, for me at least. I’m careful not to accuse anyone of anything. The only thing I’m going to do is to report facts. This is respected by dispatchers and officers.
I have residual trauma due to my past interactions with cops. Because of that, my perceptions of events involving cops will always be skewed. Recently, police departments across the country had their “National Night Out” event. The organization that manages my housing had its own participatory event, and at the last minute, I decided not to go, because I had a panic attack. It is an annual event intended to improve relations with police and communities, and I couldn’t do this.
To my apartment manager’s credit, he brought a plate of food to my unit. This is commendable—I’m not used to being helped when I dodge out of something.
Now, let me tell you what happened to me not too long ago. I jotted down some parts of it in a notebook just afterward, and it was retraumatizing…
At about noon, I had a lot of difficulty finding a parking place reserved for residents of my building, so I parked in a metered spot in front of the building. The meter accepted my payment, so I was legally parked. My car registration is up to date, my car is insured, and I have a valid license.
I have a habit of smoking cigarettes in my car because smoking is not permitted inside the building. So, after feeding the parking meter, I sat in the car and lit up, with my door slightly opened for fresh air.
I was then subject to a very ambiguous possible police encounter. This is one of many police encounters I’ve had, and as far as I’m aware I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Police arrived and had a way of creating much fear and upset, and when it was clear they couldn’t come after me, I finished smoking, locked my car, walked past the officers, went into my building, and I went up to my studio apartment. I wanted to cry.
This followed a trip to Walgreens, where I’d needed to buy cigarettes and bread so that I would be able to smoke and eat. When I returned to my building, parking wasn’t possible because the spaces were all taken. I was unhappy about paying two dollars to the parking meter, and about needing to move my car elsewhere within four hours.
To give the reader an advance hint, this incident ends very anticlimactically. And where police encounters are concerned, anticlimactic is good.
Now, I will describe the scariest parts of this incident: I was in my car smoking, and a giant black police cruiser pulled up in front of my car, and then backed up slowly to the point where it was just a few feet away from the front of my car. But the cop who drove the vehicle managed to do this in a way to maximize the threat element. I’m not certain as to how this was done; maybe it was how slowly and deliberately he backed up.
Finally, the cruiser was parked. Then, a huge, frightening-looking officer emerged from the vehicle, and looked at me while not appearing to look at me. And a second officer arrived on the scene in another police cruiser. There was some to-do with putting on gloves and taking them off. This was done very deliberately, probably to maximize the effect.
The cop looked at me, I looked back. My back-look wasn’t scary, but it was sufficient for the situation.
After a while, things seemed to settle down. Someone else—maybe the person who might have called them—spoke to them, and there was some type of apology audible. The whole thing likely had nothing to do with me. It was likely to have been someone else they were after. However, I happened to be present in front of the building, and maybe I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
With my past as it existed, with being mentally ill, and having low income, these are factors that make me more vulnerable and an easier target.
All told, I would guess that people who live on the streets or in homeless encampments could be convenient targets because they may not even have so much as a cellphone with which to record incidents of bad conduct by officers or have an opportunity to upload a video to a television station.
Officers, some of whom are putting their lives on the line, and who are following orders, aren’t solely to blame—it is the policymakers we should go after.
Police have been known to do a poor job in dealing with mentally ill people. Some of the better trained, younger, nicer officers, many of them people of color, many of them female, come across as relatively nonthreatening. However, the huge, formidable firearm they wear is enough to let me know the cop is to be treated cooperatively and with respect.
I don’t believe in defunding police; I believe in better training and in better corrective measures for officers who do harm. Realistically, we need police, and we will always have them. The question is that of keeping them accountable, well trained, and taken care of. When a cop is overly stressed out, they, too, can make a regrettable mistake.
Jack Bragen lives and writes in Martinez, California. Opinions expressed are those of the writer, and not necessarily of the publisher.