A police car followed me on the way to work yesterday, and as I was driving, it occurred to me how differently I perceive the world in comparison to most of the people I know. For most people, discovering a police car in their rear view mirror can be slightly unnerving, but for me, it’s an entirely different situation.
When I was 19, I was arrested and prosecuted for a crime I did not commit. I’ve written about the incident before, so I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that my arrest and subsequent prosecution came as the result of a single police officer who was convinced that I had stolen money from my employer, despite the fact that my employer did not believe that I was guilty and did not press charges.
In the end, I was found not guilty, but not before my arrest and the subsequent trial cost me my job, more than $25,000 in legal fees and two years of my life. The arrest also placed me in the position to later be robbed at gunpoint and suffer more than a decade of post traumatic stress disorder.
One police officer's conviction that I was guilty changed my life forever.
As a result, I do not trust police officers.
Though I know several cops on a personal level and respect and admire the work that all police officers do, I am also keenly aware of the power that they possess and their ability to ruin an innocent person’s life as a result.
When I see a police officer in my rear view mirror, my mind immediately returns to 1991.
I recall the intimidation and the humiliation that the police officers used in an attempt to coerce me into a confession.
I recall the paralyzing fear for my freedom and my future that consumed me for almost two years.
I recall the loss of my home and the long nights spent homeless, sleeping in the backseat of my car, wondering how I would survive the approaching New England winter.
I recall the nights spent crying on a cot in the pantry of a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who agreed to take me in when I had no place else to go.
I recall the two years spent working 70-80 hours a week in order to pay for my legal fees while my friends and girlfriend were off at college, preparing for their futures.
I recall the intensity and stress of the trial. The fear of the unknown. The realization that one man’s decision could send me to prison for five years of my life.
These are the thoughts and images that flood my mind whenever I drive by a police officer.
I wonder if the cop is running my plates. Examining my arrest record. Thinking that I somehow got away with a crime twenty years ago. Maybe dodged prison on a technicality. Made a fellow officer look foolish in the process.
I wonder if that cop is just looking for a reason to pull me over, search my car and find a reason a lock me up.
Paranoid? Perhaps. But spend two years of your life waiting to be tried for a crime you never committed and tell me that I am paranoid.
We need police officers to keep us safe. We ask these men and women to risk their lives on a daily basis for salaries that do not match their station in society. We trust these brave individuals to do the right thing on our behalf, and they almost always do.
But there is an inherent, unspoken danger in the existence of law enforcement as well. By conferring authority and power on these people, we run the risk of them not being perfect.
We run the risk of police officers making mistakes.
For most of us, these mistakes are hypothetical, and as a result, they are palatable and easily ignored. They do not strike fear in our hearts. For most people, the thought that they might be arrested, tried and convicted for a crime they did not commit never even occurs to them.
Until 1991, it never occurred to me.
In most people’s minds, it’s theoretically possible by realistically impossible.
But I know that this is not true. For a few of us, the impossible has become the possible.
For me, the possibility that I could be arrested and tried again for a crime I did not commit is always present in my mind. Not a day goes by that I do not think about it. It's underscored every time I drive by a police officer or walk past a cop on the street.
The world looks slightly different to me. It is shrouded in a veil of uncertainty and constant anxiety.
I am jaded, but I have a good reason to be so.