Being presumed a criminal is an eye-opening experience

With the exception of my biannual traffic ticket, I rarely find myself on the wrong end of the law. Hence, my recent more serious experience was all the more powerful. I had seen an interesting house for sale online and thought I’d stop by on my way to drop my friend off at his house, which was in the neighborhood. I was uncertain of the house’s exact location, and while making an impromptu turn in hopes of stumbling upon it, I failed to use my turn signal.

As I turned, I noticed an unmarked police car on the other side of the intersection and even mentioned to my friend that I had technically just broken the law. The police car didn’t follow me, so I assumed I was in the clear.

After pulling up in front of the vacant house a few streets over, I bent between the seats to grab my phone. In that brief moment, the officers had already pulled behind me and were walking up the sides of the car, their hands positioned to swiftly draw their weapons if necessary. They quickly told my friend and me to show them our hands and get out of the truck.

Over the next 45 minutes, three officers and their canine companion thoroughly searched my truck, my friend and me for the drugs that they were certain beyond any doubt we possessed.

I don’t presume I can here add anything substantially new to the discussion surrounding police force in U.S., especially as it pertains to the discourse surrounding race relations. While as an Asian-American I am an ethnic minority, I would not presume my own experience gives me insight into what it is like to be of an ethnicity that has been systematically oppressed in our country’s past and present through such avenues as American police forces.

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Yet, my experience gave me a new, though limited, lens for thinking about this potent discussion with serious implications for American life.

First, I felt the pressure of abjection under the threat of harmful force. I had never felt an alienation like this before, because I had never been presumed a criminal. There was something unique about knowing that if I resisted the exact demands of the officers interrogating me and searching my car, I put myself closer to danger. They had weapons, and while I don’t deny that it’s important that they do, I did not have a way to protect myself if I had been treated unjustly.

It was my first experience of feeling threatened by the very individuals I had been raised to assume will protect. It made me understand a bit better why it might be that someone else in my own situation, perhaps under more serious scrutiny, may not hold up as well under the pressure of that abjection, and why that may lead to unintended escalation.

Of course, I had no intention of escalating the situation. But the very nature of the situation showed that misunderstandings could easily lead to escalation outside of our control. My greatest fear in that moment was that, despite my certain innocence, something would go terribly wrong. In only half an hour I had already come closer to that danger than I'd ever been before.

Another aspect that has been on my mind for some time is that I felt my own rights were violated. Of course, I remained calm and cooperative. But I did so in spite of the fact that I had given no permission for my vehicle to be searched, nor had I been provided a reason why it had been. Even after I was allowed to leave, no reason was given.

I made a choice to cooperate, and it was probably the right choice for my own safety and the safety of my friend. But I have certainly lost sleep over how I felt degraded. I felt violated. I felt that, in some way, my rights had been ignored in a gray interpretation of “reasonable suspicion.”

It opened my eyes to the fragility of the rights we hold dear, even it if it was not necessarily anyone’s fault in particular.

By the same token, I realized that the person under scrutiny is not the only one afraid in such situations. I’m sure that had the officer been brought before a court to name his reasonable suspicion, he would say he saw me lean between my seats. He insisted to me that he saw me either hide or retrieve something, a gun perhaps.

Beyond my own individual actions, police in the U.S. have reason to be afraid. The growing anti-police sentiment has police on edge. This, I’m sure, can only increase the likelihood of escalation.

It’s likely that my account has added nothing new to the conversation. Many, I’m sure, have come to these same conclusions long before I did. Perhaps my own experience merely brought me up to speed.

Nevertheless, it’s opened my eyes slightly wider to the situation at hand and given me something to continue reflecting on in the future. It seemed worth sharing.

[Zachary R. Dehm is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Originally from Ohio, he has studied at the University of Toledo and recently graduated from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry with his Master of Theological Studies.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time a Young Voices column is posted to NCRonline.org. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up. This article was updated Sept. 24, 2015, 9 a.m. CDT.


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