Twenty years ago, when I was 18, I was driving back home from my grandma’s house one night. I was on 57 just past the turn-off to Fairy Stone State Park when a car roared up behind me. The driver had his brights on and was just a few feet from my bumper, swerving back and forth like a lunatic.
Given that it was 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, I had no doubt this was a drunk driver, and clearly a dangerous one. If I had to hit the brakes — if I slowed down at all — he would rear-end me. I opted to speed up.
I got up to almost 70 and the guy stayed right on my tail, swerving back and forth erratically. I would have pulled over if I could but there was nowhere to go. My heart was racing; I was unarmed, so if this guy was trying to run me off the road and kill me, he would probably have a pretty easy time of it.
I finally passed the county line and hit my turn signal to pull into a church parking lot and, God willing, let him pass me.
The moment he saw my turn signal, he hit his blue lights.
My dangerous drunk driver was, in actuality, a deputy from the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office.
He walked to the car and asked for my license and registration, a smirk on his face. As he reviewed my documents, he walked around my car.
“F***ing kids,” I heard him say as he stood in front of the hood.
He walked back to my window, still holding my license and registration, and asked me why I’d pulled out in front of him.
Several things went through my mind at once when he said that, and that was the moment I felt truly afraid, more afraid than I was when I thought he was just some drunken weirdo. I HADN’T pulled out in front of him, not unless he’d been driving without his lights on, and he knew it. He knew that I knew it, too. If he was brazen enough to lie to my face about something we both knew to be untrue, what would he be willing to say to a judge? Was this the kind of guy who had a baggie of drugs stashed somewhere, just waiting to deposit it in my trunk?
I don’t remember what I said to him; at that moment, I was actively fighting back a panic attack while also making sure I kept my hands visible on the steering wheel. I certainly didn’t challenge him; you never challenge law enforcement.
Still smiling, he began to drill down on my reckless driving. He told me I shouldn’t drive so fast at night. What if a deer came out of nowhere and rammed into the side of my car?
To punctuate his point, he punched my car door. Hard. I still remember wondering if his big class ring had chipped the paint. I was mostly focused on controlling my breathing.
He told me to calm down, then he walked back to his cruiser to run my information. Ten minutes later, he came back, suddenly much more polite. He told me he was letting me off with a warning and to slow down and be safe out there, then he gave me my license and registration and left.
I know exactly what happened. When he ran my info, someone at dispatch told him that my dad is a local judge.
I’ve never once volunteered that information in a traffic stop. Everyone who has ever said the words “Do you know who my father is?” deserves to be punched square in the face, in my experience. But I know he found out somehow. Otherwise, that evening would have gone a whole lot worse for me.
I no longer remember that deputy’s name, but I do know that he left the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office shortly after that (although not because of anything I did; I just tried to forget the whole thing). Either way, this was 20 years ago; he was a pretty young guy, but he may well have pulled his 25 years and retired by now.
Nonetheless, I think about him often. I think about him every time I see a cruiser. Sometimes, if a police officer is driving behind me, I’ll just pull into a nearby business and wait for them to pass before getting back on the road. Police cruisers make my palms sweaty.
Here’s the thing, though: since that night 20 years ago, I’ve only had positive encounters with law enforcement. When I was a full-time reporter, I frequently interviewed Sheriff Lane Perry, Sheriff Steve Draper, former Police Chiefs Eddie Cassady and Mike Rogers, and Sheriff Dan Smith. I have nothing but respect for all of them, and you’ll never hear me say a bad word about any of them. I’ve met plenty of deputies and officers that worked under them, and I never had a negative experience with any of them, either.
But despite all that, that one cocky young deputy from 20 years ago remains seared into my brain like a hot wire. When I see stories from around the country about police brutality against African-Americans or that state trooper in Arkansas who performed a PIT maneuver on a pregnant woman while she was looking for a safe place to pull over, I think of him and his smirk, the sound of his fist thudding into the side of my car.
There are, in my experience, two kinds of people who go into law enforcement. The majority are good people, folks who care about their communities and want to keep them safe.
But there are also people who enter law enforcement for much darker reasons.
I mention all of this because a video recently went viral in Martinsville. It depicted a school resource officer manhandling a Martinsville Middle School student and appearing to pull (though not fire) his TASER on him. The officer has since been terminated.
I don’t know anything about this incident beyond what everyone was able to see in the video, and it’s not my place to render a verdict.
But I will say this: there isn’t a doubt in my mind that when that young man is my age, he’s going to look back on that day the same way I look back on that frightening night in a church parking lot on the side of 57.
That feeling never leaves you.