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Texas Roadway Blues

A traffic stop offers some lessons for all of us.

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Sandra Bland's tragic, untimely death has revived questions about racial profiling, police conduct, and civil rights in the U.S.

We'll never know all the facts about that incident, but I know a little about what Ms. Bland and countless other Americans have experienced. Seven months ago, I was stopped, detained, and released outside Houston in an arbitrary but probably legal procedure by an officer of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

I was alone, driving east on Interstate 10, when the officer drove beside me in a gray, unmarked SUV and signaled for me to pull over. He approached my five-year-old Toyota Corolla on the passenger side, hand on his sidearm. He asked if I had a weapon (I didn't) and politely ordered me to step out of my car and stand between his vehicle and mine. I followed all commands and handed over my license and registration. He ran the plate and asked a few perfunctory questions. All this took about 12 minutes.

"Terry stops" — so named after the defendant in a 1963 Ohio case — have been legal in the U.S. since a U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1968. They allow police to stop, detain, and search anyone if they have "reasonable suspicion." Reasonable suspicion is a catch-all that can include refusal to establish eye contact with an officer, too direct eye contact with an officer, or, in my case, driving the legal speed limit, alone, on I-10, a corridor frequently used by drug smugglers, in a car with an "unusual" tag. My car is registered in Memphis, where I have lived for nearly 20 years.

Since 9/11, policing powers in the United States have expanded dramatically, and local police departments have become militarized. A law passed in 1994 allowed the Pentagon to "donate" surplus military equipment to local police departments. As a result, officers in small communities are equipped with combat rifles, riot gear, and armored personnel carriers. Nearly 90 percent of U.S. cities with at least 50,000 people now have a SWAT team.

Police officers are heavily armed in direct proportion to America's weapon fixation. There are about 310 million firearms in the U.S., or roughly one for every citizen. Americans hold about 114 million handguns. Naturally, police are worried, and they do get shot and killed. The starting salary of a federal DEA officer (between $50,000 and $55,000 a year) hardly seems commensurate with the dangerous work. Americans are generally not interested in paying more taxes to push up salaries of our public officials, even those in law enforcement.

As traffic whizzed past on Interstate 10, the officer quickly established I was no "El Chapo" Guzmán. I sensed he was ready to move on, so I asked, carefully, if he would explain the detention. He told me that my out-of-state tag was suspicious and the I-10 corridor is used by drug smugglers. He also explained that I had "failed to establish eye contact" when he pulled up beside me. This was true, but we were both wearing sunglasses against a bright, morning sun. I let it go. What else could I do?

I wasn't quite done. I asked, using English and Spanish, "seguramente Usted habla español, given that many people who travel here only speak Spanish, right?" He waved his hand, dismissively, and said, "Nah, I don't speak that shit." My cross-examination had ended. But the language question made me realize just how badly this whole detention might have turned had I not spoken careful, respectful English. What if my only language was Spanish, Hindi, or Vietnamese? What if I hadn't answered any of his questions because of a language barrier? What if I decided to answer in an ironic, sarcastic, or evasive manner?

Or, what if I chose to question why he decided to stop me in the first place when I was breaking no law?

Finally, he asked to look in my trunk, which I agreed to open; hiding there was a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, purchased a day earlier at an East Austin ceramic shop. He looked, shrugged, and closed the trunk. He said "thank you" and walked to his cruiser.

Police in America are stressed out, underpaid, and in many places deeply resented. Innocent people who are detained can avoid danger, arrest, and death by listening more and talking less. As a history teacher, I spend most of my day talking. In Texas, this past January, I decided to play it safe and spent 12 minutes beside I-10 mostly in silence.

Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

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