Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Foreigners Being Caught


I was late to work this morning and doing my best to make up for lost time. I was on my usual route up the Pacific Coast Highway and it was a familiar routine, including the film crew setting up on the northern end of Malibu. I had just driven through the one odd bit that began after I noticed a patrol car behind me. I lifted my foot off the gas, shifted to the right lane, and the patrol car passed me. The other cars also caught on and for a few miles we were all driving in a nervous caravan at the unnaturally slow speed limit of 50 MPH. At one point the patrol car turned on all the flashing lights on the roof and moved over to the right lane, sandwiching himself between a white van in front and a truck behind. The lights went off and the patrol car did some serious tailgating of the van. The driver was sticking at 50 MPH and the patrol car was right on his tail.

After a few more minutes like this the game ended. The patrol car, which turned out to be from the Los Angeles Sheriff's department, turned on all its lights and was pulling the van over. I passed the van and saw man who appeared to be Latino, around 30 years old, wearing that defeated smile when you know something unpleasant involving a traffic officer is about to happen. He was in a gray sweat jacket and his hair was still wet; the van also was clean and seemed spotless. I drove by him with trepidation. Why was he being pulled over? Did the sheriff pull up close to examine the registration dates and discover they'd expired (I've been stopped by LA sheriffs for this)? Did he call in the license plate number and discover it was the escape vehicle for a bank heist?

Or, my bet, was this one of those increasingly routine pullovers to indicate "concern" and make an identity check on the driver's legal status. I first learned about the "concern" excuse associated with racial profiling practices when I taught at the University of Michigan. During a discussion on the topic an African-American woman was distraught and I asked what she was thinking. She explained, "I live in Detroit and drive a BMW. The police pull me over without giving me tickets, but they say it's because they're 'concerned' about me and want to check to see if everything is okay." I asked her how often this happens and she said all the time. I asked the White students in the class, "Has anyone here been pulled over by police and then told it was because the police wanted to see if everything was okay?" Not a single hand was raised and the student shook her head, sort of like the guy driving the van.

Later, in a colleague's office, I listened as an exchange student who had been caught cheating (turning in the same work for two different classes) explain that he never thought his two professors would figure this out, on the hunch that we wouldn't talk to each other, a really great guess under normal circumstances. The other professor teaches in a different department and still believes the Bush administration went into Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction; the only time we've talked was during an argument that began at a workshop meeting in the library and ended in the parking lot. But what the student didn't know was that my colleague has a nose for finding cheaters. He had a suspicion that this student might be pulling a stunt like this, had his schedule pulled, saw another independent study course on it and shot me an electronic version of the same paper I'd just been reading.

I mulled over the two events, wondering about the fate of the man in the van, if I had a nose for Sheriff misconduct or the Sheriff really had a legitimate reason for his actions. I called the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office in Agoura Hills and when the voice mail message I left wasn't returned, I stopped by on my way home, off the 101 between the exits for Liberty and Lost Hills.

I pulled into the empty parking lot and walked into the building, which was small, like a post office mini-station. There was dark glass behind the desk and I could see a shadow that moved when I approached. When the sheriff on duty appeared I explained the event I'd witnessed and asked for a report. "Why would I give you this report? I don't know who you are." I offered to show the sheriff identification, but that wasn't really the problem. Tomorrow I'm supposed to call the Operations Manager. (This is the same place where Mel Gibson was booked for drunk driving on the evening of his anti-Semitic tirade, duly noted by an officer and then publicly released. If Gibson were born in Australia and not the USA, then S. 1348 might mean his deportation, since 3 drunk driving convictions and you're out, literally.)

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