Street Blues: Show me your hands, and we’ll get along just fine

My friends sometime ask me if I notice things now that I didn’t before I was an officer. I always mention hands.

Hands manipulate the weapons, the weapons hurt people. After a number of years as an officer, it causes me almost physical discomfort when I’m talking with someone on the street and I can’t see their hands.

But the hands thing is complicated.  “Hands up,” is the normal and prudent thing to say to someone driving a stolen car, but “show me your hands,” is a poor conversation starter if I hope to have a chat with someone on the street with whom I’m only slightly suspicious. “I don’t trust you” is a challenging starting point for any relationship.

This new starting point is another way that I’ve changed since starting this job. I remember being more trusting of people 10 years ago. But years of immersion with the less-lucky, less-capable, less-upstanding, slightly selfish and occasionally downright evil edge of our society have taken a toll.   The lies I’ve been told by people trying to avoid trouble are endless. And I know that the violence that desperate people sometimes use to try to escape police can be crippling or deadly. A rational part of me knows that the vast majority of the people in the world are good and kind and safe, but another part of me has learned, and been trained, to be wary of the minority who aren’t.

Unfortunately, it is often impossible to distinguish between these two types of people.

So I weigh the risk to my family and myself with the damage I cause to feelings and relationships by greeting people I encounter on the street with blunt distrust.  And, perhaps selfishly, I ask to see everyone’s hands.

I’m sure I’ve asked this of people who’ve never committed a bad act in their lives, particularly during traffic stops. It must feel quite badly when their rare contact with police starts off in this way.

I do my best to ameliorate the effects, however. I call it relationship repair. “It’s just a cop thing, no offense intended,” usually accompanies my hand requests.  Ending contacts with a smile and “thanks for chatting,” or explaining why I did what I did to recipients of, and witnesses to, police services are invariably well received. But there isn’t always an opportunity for relationship repair, depending on the circumstances. In those cases I am left to hope that people I contact can empathize with my concern even without an explanation.

Last week I responded to a call of someone walking on the sidewalk, pointing a gun at passing traffic. A few minutes later I found a guy who fit the description, in the right place and time considering the information provided by the caller, though I wasn’t absolutely sure it was him. He was sitting on the sidewalk writing something in a notebook when I and a couple of other officers walked right up to him and grabbed his hands. He stood up and we patted him down, and checked the bag sitting next to him for a gun.

We didn’t find one, and it turned out he had been walking on the sidewalk where the witness had seen him, but he’d been talking on his cell phone, not waving a gun. The police had suddenly and unexpectedly invaded his life while he was simply sitting on the ground sketching a bridge. I gave him my card and explained why we did it, but I suspect he will remember that unhappy police interaction for a long time.

A few years ago I responded with a couple of other officers to an apartment complex where someone had called to report that a guy with an arrest warrant was hanging out in the parking lot. We arrived and spied a guy who seemed to fit the description, but again, we weren’t absolutely sure it was him. He had his back to us, speaking with someone else in a parked car.  We were able to approach him from behind and grab his hands before he saw us. As we turned him around we found a large revolver stuck in the front waistband of his pants.  Had he seen us coming, he could have had it out and firing in a couple of seconds.

And I will remember that interaction for a long time.

3 responses to “Street Blues: Show me your hands, and we’ll get along just fine

  1. Good to hear an intelligible friendly voice explaining the police point of view in these troubled times on the streets. We could all use with a bit more respect for and from each other.

    I have no problem with showing my hands if such a simple thing can make someone’s difficult job a little easier.

  2. Thanks for the explanation. It will help if I ever goof up and get to meet an LEO. Question: I have an old car without power windows, meaning I have to roll the window down, causing my hand to be below the window. If/when I get stopped for a traffic boo-boo, do I stop and roll down the window immediately so my hands can be clear by the time they get to the car or should I wait and roll down the window (put my hand where it cannot be seen) after I get instructions to do so?

  3. I’m a big, ugly broad at 5 feet 6 and 220 pounds (sorry, my Dad’s genes). I get mistaken for a man occasionally, even though I’m not as strong or fast as a man. What kinds of things do I need to do to keep from being assessed as/assumed to be dangerous (besides walking along with my hands out of my pockets).

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