Former prosecutor: How Black men can survive a police encounter

Former prosecutor: How Black men can survive a police encounter
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Black men need to get better at following police orders.

If you want to hate-tweet me after reading this full column, my Twitter account is listed in my bio. But let me save you some time: I understand how bad it sounds for a lily-white former federal prosecutor to tell Black men what to do — while appearing to ignore police wrongdoing.

Video evidence makes it impossible to ignore the violent misconduct of some bad cops. Not just any misconduct, but violence that has its genesis in the racism that has been with this country for centuries. And while national security advisor Robert O’Brien recently blamed the racial disparity of treatment on a “few bad apples,” our eyes and minds know that excuse is no more plausibly applied to America’s police force than it is to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump: McConnell 'helpless' to stop Biden from packing court Romney on NRSC awarding Trump: Not 'my preference' McConnell sidesteps Trump calling him 'dumb son of a b----' MORE’s Cabinet.


It’s time to end the debate over how pervasive the problem is. It’s pervasive enough that many African American mothers fear — each time their sons leave the house — a telephone call asking them to come identify the body.

In the midst of the protests spawned by the murder of George Floyd, “The Daily Show” host Trevor NoahTrevor NoahRace-baiting media's 'rush to motive' after mass shootings is exploitation at its worst Michelle Obama jokes living in the White House prepared her for quarantine Beyoncé and Taylor Swift win big at the Grammys MORE did a segment in which he suggested that police kill African Americans because they are Black and any effort by African Americans to change how they interact with the police is worthless. He’s wrong.  

The notion that every encounter between a white police officer and a Black man is going to end in death is not true. Perpetuating that meme does a disservice to the many police officers who do their best every day to protect the communities they serve. More important, it leaves African Americans with the impression that every police encounter will turn deadly so there’s nothing to gain by carefully controlling what they say and do. That counterproductive fatalism only increases the likelihood of more midnight vigils. 

Changing a white cop’s racist impulse is vastly different than making it safely through an encounter with a racist cop. A Black man isn’t going to extinguish a cop’s racist beliefs, but Black men have a lot of control over whether they make it home alive.

When I was 19, I was pulled over by a cop while driving back to school in Manhattan from a gay resort outside New York. The officer said I was driving in the left lane too long. I wasn’t sure if the cop needed to make his daily ticket quota or if he just wanted to hassle one of the "queers" who invaded his town every summer weekend. When I asked him how long and how far I had travelled in the left lane — and how many minutes or yards is allowed — he became enraged. In seconds, a pillar of law and order morphed into a backwoods cop who left me feeling like I was in a scene from “Deliverance.”


I never feared for my life, but I didn’t want to end up bruised, battered and left in a county jail cell for the night. That was the one time in my life I referred to another man as “sir.” Intuitively, I knew what I needed to do. I went from smart aleck to "bitch" so quickly the cop must have thought I had a split-personality — but he calmed down, handed me a ticket, and sent me on my way.

Later, as a state and federal prosecutor, I worked with cops every day for 28 years. On the handful of occasions that I was pulled over for a traffic violation, I didn’t see myself as the Justice Department attorney who just spent the day directing an FBI investigation. In my mind’s eye, I was the gay guy and the cops were the homophobes who refused to go to Aunt Sally’s for Thanksgiving because Cousin Leo was bringing his partner home to meet the family.

I put my hands on the wheel so I could not be perceived as reaching for a weapon. When asked for my registration, I didn’t reach for the glove compartment until I asked if the officer wanted to get it or if I should get it. I didn’t argue over my speed, even though once I was certain the cop was wrong. And when given a ticket, I said “thank you” and asked if I was free to go. 

And so, I’m saying that a Black man on the side of the road, with a cop’s flashlight shining in his face, should not spin the roulette wheel to see if he’s got a good cop or a bad cop. He should instead assume the cop is a Confederate-flag-waving racist who just had a blowout fight with his girlfriend and, as he was storming out of the house on the way to his midnight shift, she called him a coward.

Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and allies — talk with the Black men in your lives. Tell them this: Don’t argue with the cop about why he stopped you; do exactly what he says; don’t make a move without asking first; and if you’re arrested for something you think you did not do, have your day in court — not on the side of the road where the odds are stacked against you. 

Black men should listen to the people who love them and the voice inside that's saying "You play a role in what happens next."

It’s unlikely George Floyd could have done anything that would have changed the fatal trajectory of his encounter with Officer Derek Chauvin. But had Rayshard Brooks not resisted arrest, fought with the police, and shot a Taser at the officers, he would have spent the night in jail for drunk driving and we never would have known his name. 

I know the flip side of the argument: Treating the police with kid gloves means we won’t get systemic change fast. Maybe. Or, maybe the momentum currently in play is enough to fuel needed police reform without the need for another sacrifice. And maybe the TV and Twitter pundits, raging for a black and blue war while sheltering at home, need to consider that if Black Lives Matter, every Black life matters.  

If this all sounds like a bunch of “white privilege” talking ... it is. And it’s telling African Americans how to stay alive long enough to see the day when their kids can learn in history class about this tumultuous time of American change.

I understand that African Americans should not have to worry that racism is going to fuel their encounters with the police. No one is disputing that. But sometimes the stakes are high enough that it’s necessary — at least for a few crucial moments — to accept things the way they are, not the way they should be.

Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for more than 24 years with the Department of Justice in Detroit and Los Angeles, prosecuting high-profile crimes, including conspiracy cases related to international drug trafficking and organized crime. He has since worked on the indigent defense panel for the federal courts. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelJStern1.