Trusting the police: another racial divide

I saw a policeman lie on the witness stand once. Of course, I couldn't see into his heart and so I don't know if he was misremembering or deliberately misstating the truth, but he spoke with authority. He said than he had seen a young neighbor of mine, Victor, get out of the driver's seat of a stolen car.

Victor's account was that he was getting out of school, and a friend pulled up in a car and offered him a ride. He got in the front passenger seat. They were less than two blocks from school when a police car passed in the opposite direction. The driver was rattled, crashed into a fire hydrant, opened the driver's door and ran. Victor didn't know what was going on. He didn't know the car was stolen. He got out on the passenger side of the vehicle and stood there. The police car made a U-turn, pulled up behind him, and the officer arrested him.

Victor was a big young man, maybe 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds. He said he had a hard time getting out of the car. And he's not a fast runner. So he stood there to see what was going on.

It was the end of the school year. As I think about it today, after his mother got him out of jail that night, he could have gone to his teachers the next day to get proof that he had been in school. But they didn't think of that, and now it was midsummer and the policeman was testifying that Victor had been the driver.

Then the public defender, whom Victor and his mother and the rest of us had just met, came over to where we were sitting and showed us the evidence photos. This was an informal juvenile hearing, not a trial. The front seat of the car was a bench, not separate seats, and it was pulled up under the steering wheel. The public defender asked the officer how Victor could fit and the officer suggested that the evidence team who had taken the photos had moved the car seat looking for a gun and then took the photo. There was a little back-and-forth about evidence teams. But looking at the picture, no wonder Victor had had trouble getting out of the passenger side.

Eventually, the judge ruled that the veracity of the evidence was a matter for a jury, but since this was juvenile court, he could offer Victor a year's probation without any admission of guilt. Victor took the year's probation, graduated from high school and is living his adult life well.

But I went home with a sour taste in my mouth for that policeman's lie. It certainly would color Victor's life -- as well as the lives of his mother, younger sister, cousins. It changed me, too. I understood that this experience of the police testifying with authority, even against the evidence, is not unusual in the black community.

Now, black people in St. Louis are saying publicly what they have said in private: The police lie. It's an inheritance the community has come by honestly. 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here