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True story: Several years ago, my mom was caught in rush hour traffic, paused on a railroad track, when the light ahead turned red. Without thinking, she threw her car into reverse and ran into the truck behind her. Fortunately, while she dented her bumper, she didn’t damage the truck. What the policemen told her, though? “Just blame them. No one is going to believe a white woman backed up into a truck full of Mexicans.” Full stop.

Say Hello to Officer Friendly

In our culture, we are raised from an early age to believe police are the good guys. In elementary school, “Officer Friendly” visits to tell us about his job, and he’s very reassuring. Our parents tell us the same thing: If you’re ever in trouble, look for the nearest person in a police uniform. There’s even a Muppet cop on Sesame Street. Sometimes there’s a policeman in the family or living just down the street.

As we go through life, chances are we encounter the police in a variety of settings—some of them good, some less so. Most of us get stopped once in awhile for a traffic violation, and sometimes the officer is nicer than others. I always get the ticket. My teary daughter always gets out of it. But it’s generally a quick and relatively polite exchange, either way.

On one occasion, my then boyfriend was detained while I was with him because he “looked like the suspect in a nearby crime.” He also looked to be a bit of a hippie, with bare feet, tattered jeans, and hair down his back. The guy they eventually arrested? Not so much. At all. On the positive side, my boyfriend was a PhD student; the police apologized.

The positive memories of Officer Friendly run deep. And of course, there’s Olivia Benson of Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit.

On another occasion, I was sitting in my apartment at 5:00 pm in Pittsburgh when I heard a noise sounding suspiciously like gun shots. I ran outside—as did my neighbors—to discover the police racing through our backyards in pursuit of two teens who’d stolen a vehicle and crashed it nearby. My own backyard, in the middle of summer, where as often as not I’d be digging in the garden about that time. The teens were caught without incident. They were unarmed.