How to Survive Driving While Black

(l-): Linda Wade Brickhouse, Calvin Wade, Speaker Larry Reese, Rev. Andrew Wardle, Mildred Wardle. (photo by Cass Teague)

The Youth Ministry of Spruce Street Baptist Church recently held a program for youth and parents to understand the best ways to negotiate a traffic police stop safely. After a Welcome by Linda Wade-Brickhouse and a Prayer by Andrew Wardle, youth pastor, the attendees were treated to hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, drinks, etc. and an insightful and informative presentation by an enthusiastic law enforcement professional.

The Speaker, Detective Lieutenant Reese, is a 41 year police veteran who recently retired his Police Commission with the Vanderbilt Police Department (VUPD) after 30 years. He began his career with the MTSU Campus Police Department while a student there majoring in Criminal Justice Administration. He later accepted a position with the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department as a Deputy and was promoted to Detective. Over the years, Mr. Reese has held many various high-level professional positions in law enforcement and has several very impressive credentials, too numerous to list here. Currently, he works with VUPD as a Community Service Officer and actively works to reduce the number of Police abuse incidents to the public.

He began his presentation saying he prefers to discuss Driving While American, and referenced the historical publication, The Green Book, which was available from 1936 through 1966 as an aid for black motorists, especially in the South, in “being safe getting from one place to another” driving in the era of segregation. That book listed both safe places to stay overnight, motels and restaurants open to blacks, as well as places to avoid, especially the notorious “sundown towns” where blacks were at extreme risk of death if caught out in public after dark. Reese suggested that maybe we need a “Blue Book” nowadays for places where there may be a higher probability for blacks to be be stopped by law enforcement and speed traps.

During his hour-long talk, Reese hit on several high points, which basically centered on the fundamental human nature aspects of the interaction between a police officer making a traffic stop and the motorist being stopped. The main point was that the motorist should never do anything to trigger the fear of bodily harm to the officer, based on a legal decision (Garner v Tennessee) that gives the police the authority to use deadly force if they fear bodily harm to themselves or others.

Reese uses a four-step acronym, CALM, to detail how to behave when you are stopped. C = be compliant; do what the officer tells you to do without backtalk and delay; A = answer the questions you are asked, directly, with a good answer, not a question or distraction; L = stay level-headed, don’t be belligerent or snarky; and M = manage your anxiety, as you will be nervous, fearful, and should be, but don’t let your anxiety make you do something wrong.

Keeping in mind that operating a motor vehicle is a privilege that bears responsibilities to keep the vehicle in proper order, insured, and licensed as is the driver. Sworn officers have a proactive mandate, a ‘prima facie‘ imperative to act to act if they see something improper happen in their presence. This includes speed limit violations, lights being out (even if only one of your two license tag lights is out, they should stop you), and so forth.

Reese emphasized that now that hand-held device use is illegal while driving, that cell phones are the new major threat to the safety of (young) black drivers, “the next generation of problems for our children,” he said, because officers are essentially mandated to stop you if they see you on your phone. Now, why is this so important? Because when the officer stops you it triggers all kinds of potential for the stop to go wrong. Remember Garner v Tennessee gave officers the right to use deadly force if they feel threatened. If you do ANYTHING they can say they felt was potentially dangerous, they can kill you… and get away with it.

Because of this, it is important to safely negotiate the stop. First, when they hit the blue lights for your car, acknowledge that you know you are being stopped; put on your flashers, and pull over to safe place where the officer can get to your door and do his business safely. Turn on your interior lights, roll down all your windows (only if they are power windows, please), turn OFF the music, and keep both your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden or furtive moves, and greet the officer, by name if possible, and be ready to provide I.D.

Remember that Tennessee is an ‘open carry’ state, which means that motorists do have the right to have a gun in the car. Therefore, “officers can reasonably expect that you may be armed”, said Reese. It is up to you to communicate, verbally and non-verbally, that you are not a threat to them, and have nothing to hide. After all, 530 guns have been found in cars in Tennessee so far this year in 2019.

Also, when they run your tags, they get a readout of every citation issued to that vehicle, no matter the driver, so if anybody used it and racked up tickets that haven’t been paid, that’s ‘probable cause’ and you do not want them to search your vehicle. You don’t know what might be (accidentally, even) in your car. If you are in the wrong, just ask to be given the citation and leave safely. Argue it in court. Do NOT consent to a search; you don’t have to, unless there is legitimate probable cause.

Because the presentation was designed for a youth audience for teenagers and young people, Reese suggested that the auto registration and insurance should be together on a page with this statement: “If this car is stopped with a juvenile, please contact ___________ (list parents and another responsible party with at least 2 phone numbers), professional and parental courtesy.”