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Police Questioning of Law Abiding Citizens
For a member of one of the most staid occupations, I have had a disturbing number of encounters with the police. I can count nine or ten times that I have been stopped and questioned in the past few years -almost enough to qualify me as an adjunct member of the Mafia. Most recently, when the officer told me he had the right to stop anyone any place any time-and for no reason-I decided I had better write an article. Let me describe some of my adventures.
My problem is that I like to walk. In Chevy Chase, Maryland, a tree-lined suburb that smells of honeysuckle on spring nights, a police car swooped down on me about eleven at night. The officer wanted me to identify myself: where did I live, where was I going. He was not looking for anyone in particular; just on patrol. In Santa Barbara, California, where I had gone to give a paper on conservation, I was stopped on Main Street, about ten blocks from where I was staying. I was looking for a restaurant, a search which I was allowed to continue after giving a satisfactory explanation of my presence. In Belmont, Massachusetts, I was halted two blocks from my brother's house. I admit that it was very early morning. But my small niece had been up. In New Haven, about eleven at night, I was stopped a half mile from my own residence. Since this was home territory, and since the officers had summoned me off the sidewalk without even getting out of their patrol car, I protested. This was the only time that the police implied they were actually looking for someone-a prowler, they said. Two more patrol cars and a sergeant arrived as I continued to stand my ground on the sidewalk. After ten minutes' discussion we all dispersed. In Long Lake, New York, an Adirondack vacation town, a state policeman stopped me on the main street about ten at night. I was walking on the sidewalk. He demanded I tell my age, occupation, and reason for being out on the street, and that I produce some identification. When I told him I had none, he was ready to arrest me-for walking on the wrong side of the street, or for vagrancy, he said. I pointed out that my family has owned a house at Long Lake for sixty years-and that there was no sidewalk on the other side of the street.
I should add that I have been stopped many times without cause while driving a car. It has happened in New York State, in Massachusetts, and as far away as Oregon; always in broad daylight; each time I asked why I had been flagged down with siren and flashing light; each time at first no answer was given; only when I was dismissed did the officer say "just checking." In each case the officer wanted not only to see my license, but also to know where I was going, where I was coming from, and my business. In all of my experiences, I have never been arrested, never told that I was committing an offense, and never told that I answered a particular description.
These circumstances define the problem that I wish to discuss. In this article, I am not concerned with police investigations after a crime has been reported, or with circumstances which suggest that the individual who has been stopped may be doing something illegal. My problem is this: no crime has been reported, no suspect has been described, there is no visible sign of an offense, there is nothing whatever to direct police attention to this particular individual. I am concerned with what is called preventive police work.
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