Jul. 15, 2015
Former NFL Star's Cop Encounter Shows Status Doesn't Matter
By Sope Eweje, For The African-American Athlete
Last Wednesday night, former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver and NFL free agent Roddy White was pulled over by a DeKalb County police officer for a minor traffic violation, and received two tickets.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “And…? Why is this making national headlines?” That’s what part of me wanted say as well when I first read this story. But in this particular case, the devil is in the details.
White later tweeted that he had absolutely no problem with receiving the tickets, but was concerned by the fact the officer who pulled him over unbuttoned his holster, and approached his vehicle with his hand on his weapon, an action that White took to mean that the officer was expecting a threat.
When he asked the officer if it is standard procedure to take such measures during a routine traffic stop, the officer at first said it was standard police protocol, but later admitted it’s only something he does as a police officer.
“It was a scary moment for me because at the time I was like anybody else – I felt vulnerable,” said White, the four-time Pro Bowler said. “If something went wrong or I tried to argue with this guy…I could’ve got shot.”
Some of you are probably still questioning the significance of this incident. One might argue that it is perfectly reasonable for a police officer to put his hand on his weapon when approaching a vehicle in the middle of night, as a way to ensure his safety. But it must be acknowledged that White’s emotional reaction to this situation is based in fact.
African-Americans, regardless of their social or economic status, have ample reason to be fearful during any interaction with the police in this country. A study released by the Center of Policing Equity in July found that blacks were three times as likely to be subject to police force compared to whites.
In a different study done on racial profiling and African American motorists, authors Alpert Meehan and Michael Ponder argue that middle class African Americans who travel outside their neighborhoods to other areas increase their chances of being stopped by the police by between 325% to 387%. Most statistical evidence supports the notion that blacks, at any socioeconomic level, are more likely to have negative interactions with the police than whites of similar socioeconomic status.
Not only is there statistical evidence, but there is anecdotal evidence to support White’s visceral reaction as well. Take for example Tim Scott, a black Republican Senator from South Carolina who was stopped seven times by police in Washington, D.C. in just one year, often for trivial or non-existent reasons. Or Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after simply trying to get into his home in Cambridge, MA, a home not too far from where I sit writing this article. Or Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha, who is currently suing the NYPD after being injured during a wrongful arrest outside a nightclub last year. The list goes on and on.
Maybe the police officer who stopped Roddy White on Wednesday night was not nervous at all and simply placed his hand on his weapon out of habit; in fact, this is likely the case. But the true story is that White, just like many other African-American men, had every reason to be fearful when he was stopped, regardless of whether the officer placed his hand on his weapon because of baseless fear or otherwise. The statistics prove that. People’s stories prove that. And our country’s negative reaction to movements advocating for racial equality particularly when it comes to policing, such as Black Lives Matter, proves that. That is the problem.
It’s not about whether or not a police officer putting his hand on his gun during a traffic stop is a big deal. It’s about why in our society it is considered by some to be a big deal, and why many people of color engage police officers with apprehension. Although White has been ridiculed by some for having such an emotional reaction to what can be perceived as a benign act, it is important for us as a society to explore the deeper reasons behind this inherent fear that pervades the black community rather than argue over whether we should be scared.
(Sope Eweje, hails from North Carolina, where basketball is king. He is a student at MIT, and is studying bio-mechanical engineering. You can contact him on Facebook (Basically Basketball) and Twitter (@basicallybball).