We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
I met Officer Friendly when I was in elementary school. Two or three times a year, he would come to our class and talk about how we could help him help us. He’d tell us to keep out of fights, cross the street only on green, and keep away from weird people brandishing candy. And if anyone ever touched us where we wore bathing suits, he told us, tell an adult. Sometimes Officer Friendly would be white. Sometimes he’d be a she. But no matter what he was, all of the kids at my school loved it when Officer Friendly stopped past.
Sometimes after a visit, I’d come home and tell my folks about Officer Friendly, and they’d warn me that a day was coming when I wouldn’t think so highly of him. They told me that sometimes, Officer Friendly beat people up or shot them for no reason. I would listen to my folks’ haranguing and dismiss them as grumpy old fools. Officer Friendly was always nice to me, and whenever he dropped by, we got out of our schoolwork. Besides, I liked his cool hat, walkie-talkie, and shiny badge.
When I went to junior high school, I didn’t see Officer Friendly as much. At least not in school. Whenever I did, he’d be patrolling the hallways, breaking up fights and sending kids to the office who didn’t carry see-through book-bags. Sometimes, I would see him out in the street, driving his cool car with the flashing lights. But when he saw me, he no longer stopped to warn me about red lights or strangers. He would just look at me funny and keep moving.
Then one day, I was walking home from school with a couple of friends. We stopped off at a 7-Eleven so that one of my buddies could get some Nerds or some other sweet indulgence. Officer Friendly was standing at the door when we walked in. He was dark-skinned, with a medium build, curly hair, and a slight moustache. He was also wearing a rent-a-cop uniform. He watched us hawkishly as we moved through the store. After my friend bought his candy, we started for the door.
“Come here,” Officer Friendly said with a stony look on his grill.When I walked over to him, he grabbed me by the shirt with one hand and ran his hands through my pockets with the other. He found a dull pencil and some change. When he finished, Officer Friendly took me outside and shot me the hairy eyeball again. A wave of fear flowed through me as he bent down to speak. “If I ever catch you stealing in here again,” he said in a low, gravelly tone, “so help me, I will kill your little nigger ass.” Then Officer Friendly straightened up, gave me another taste of his ill gaze, and walked back into the store.
That was my baptism into young black manhood. For years, I’d heard from adults—except my parents—that Officer Friendly was there to protect me from the crooks and crazies. If not for Officer Friendly, all of America would be overrun by dope dealers, murderers, and other mean people. But every day since the incident in that Baltimore 7-Eleven, I’ve had my doubts about how friendly Officer Friendly actually is.
Those questions have now resolved into something else. I’m 24 years old, about to be 25, and I hate Officer Friendly. Recently, I saw a cop chasing a suspect up 15th Street NW. I found myself hoping the cop would trip and the suspect would get away. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a few Hispanic men being arrested. They could have been ax-murderers for all I knew, yet I found myself muttering, “Damn knockers. Always fucking with somebody.” I’m completely unafraid of the drug dealers who sling their wares in front of the corner store a block from my house. But when I see a cop coming my way down the street, I start feeling like a white woman in a dead-end alley, a pack of young black men advancing toward her.
Living while black has its downsides. For starters, a good five years is immediately snatched off your life expectancy. If you’re male, you’ve got a 30 percent chance of being on the wrong end of the justice system. Your kids have about a 40 percent chance of growing up poor. When you go out to eat, waiters give you bad service because they’re convinced you don’t tip well. If you look young, store managers follow you around to make sure you aren’t pocketing anything. And of course there are the cabdrivers, who always seem to believe that you’re hiding a pistol somewhere.
But of all the times when it’s inconvenient to be a home boy, nothing trumps the everyday run-in with Officer Friendly. You can always boycott a restaurant that gives work to attitudinal waiters, and there’s always the bus if no cab wants to take a chance on you. But the feeling you get when you see Officer Friendly cruising down your block, the fear that in his eyes you’re a narcotics deal waiting to happen or a homicide about to be committed, is unmatched.
There’s just no getting around Officer Friendly. He’s everywhere. He’s taking you into custody because you’re hanging out in the shopping mall with a bunch of kids who can’t be up to much good. He’s giving you funny looks because you’re walking into a really expensive clothing store. He’s threatening you with a citation because you crossed the street on red. He’s pulling you over for advancing a foot past the stop sign. He’s torturing you with stun guns because you led him on a high-speed chase. He’s blowing 19 holes through your body because your wallet is shaped like a gun.
When people talk about crime, they always raise the issue of putting more cops on the street. I wish there were fewer cops on the street. Admittedly, I’m a pretty big dude, but I’ve never had any problems with the District’s criminal element. No one’s ever tried to force me to buy crack or heroin. I’ve never had a gun or knife pulled out on me. I’ve never been carjacked, mugged, or assaulted. But at least once a month, I have an ugly exchange with Officer Friendly. One night I was trying to park my car in a tight space on my block when I saw Officer Friendly coming down the street. He actually paused and stopped to berate me for trying to fit in the spot. I wanted to ask him how his haranguing was contributing to assuaging the District’s crime problem. But I know the rules with Officer Friendly.
I used to tell a white female colleague about my travails with Officer Friendly. She’d shake her head and assure me that the same thing would never happen to her. “Next time, get his badge number,” she once told me. “File a complaint. He shouldn’t be able to get away with that.” Her comments were well-intentioned and probably even correct. But I felt as if I were talking to someone who lived in a parallel, but entirely different, universe.
In Blackworld, you never ask a cop’s badge number, unless you want the situation to escalate. In Blackworld, you do what Officer Friendly says, you don’t make any sudden movements, and you speak only when spoken to. In Blackworld, it’s futile to negotiate with a man who has a gun, especially if he’s wearing a uniform.
My interactions with Officer Friendly used to be restricted to getting bad looks when I mostly walked around, but then I got a car. About a year ago, I was driving home from an Oscar De La Hoya vs. Felix Trinidad fight party, way out in Montgomery County. I didn’t know my way back into the city, so I decided to follow a couple of young ladies who had also driven out from the District. My man Frank was in the front seat, and my man Terrence was in the back. We were shooting the breeze about Terrence’s rap career and debating whether Oscar had been ripped off that night.
I turned off the Beltway and followed the two honeys down Georgia Avenue, heading toward the District. When we got to a stoplight, I looked over to their car to wave them off and tell them that I would be straight from there. But one of the women was pointing behind my car and trying to tell me something. I rolled down my window to hear what she was saying. “He’s running your tags,” she noted. I looked back into my blind spot and peeped Officer Friendly cocking his head over to the left to get a better look at my plates. I felt the bubbles of rage building in my gut.
My moms had given me the Nissan Stanza I was pushing a month before. This was the second time Officer Friendly had dropped in on me. When the light turned green, I cautiously pushed the Stanza across the intersection, confident that the cop had nothing on me. But a few yards through the light, in my rearview mirror I saw the lights atop Officer Friendly’s cruiser catch fire.
There were a few other cars at the intersection, but only one with three young black males riding inside—which meant he could only be stopping me. I pulled over to the side of the road, my face clenched in a mask of annoyance, the bubbles of rage multiplying inside me. A beam of light shot from the side of the police cruiser down on my Stanza. I was cursing to myself in a low, guttural voice. Either Frank or Terrence was telling me to chill out.
After a few minutes, Officer Friendly stepped out of his car. He was doughy, white, and firearmed—and had a long stream of light extending from the wand in his right hand. As he moved to the car, I thought briefly of Malice Green and then of Chuck D: “This is what I mean, an anti-nigger machine.” As the cop stepped up to the car, I rolled down my window and placed my hands on top of the steering wheel. I was careful not to reach for anything, lest my keys, the stick of Doublemint in my ashtray, or my license be taken for something else, like a Tec-9.
“Good evening, gentleman,” he said. “I’m Officer Blah-blah-blah. Your license and registration, please.” I reached slowly for my wallet and took out my license, then reached for the glove compartment for the registration. It was buried in a pile of papers relating to the car. The cop’s flashlight beam was centered square on my lap, and before I could even get to the registration, he noticed a paper that had given me an extension on my tags. “What’s that right there?” he said. “Pass that here.” I handed him the paper and my license. He walked back to his cruiser, to do whatever business he needed.
Across the block, I noticed the two women I had been following waiting to make sure everything was OK. Officer Friendly came back about 10 minutes later. He told me the computer said my tags were suspended. I told him that the paper he had in his hand gave me a temporary extension. “Yeah, I see that,” he said, handing me the paper and my license back. “You gentlemen drive safely.”
I wanted to ask Officer Friendly why he had stopped me to begin with. Did he run everybody’s tags sitting at that red light? Didn’t he know that I paid his salary and that at 2 in the morning I wasn’t in the mood for this? I wanted to take his badge number and phone in a complaint. I wanted to tell him how close I was to a Colin Ferguson moment. But I knew the rules. I simply rolled up my window and pulled off slowly into the night. I hadn’t run any red lights, I hadn’t been speeding, and I hadn’t cut anybody off. There was no legitimate reason for Officer Friendly to have run my tags, except one that it made me sick to think about. CP