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My View: Niece pulled over for driving while brown

By Bob O'Connor

I have been driving for nearly half a century and I have never been stopped by the police. Let me clarify: I’ve been pulled over several times for speeding; I’ve never been stopped without just cause.

I know someone who has been pulled over many times and she has only had her license a couple of years. In fact, she was once stopped twice in one day. She conscientiously obeys all traffic laws. She works two jobs, comes from a “good” family, and proudly carries an Irish surname. Although in her early 20s, she has a cherubic face and could easily pass for a high school sophomore.

Here’s the thing: she was born in Colombia and has dark skin.

Last year she was driving in the predawn darkness heading to her job at a fast-food restaurant. Although she was driving just below the speed limit, she was startled when she saw the flashing lights behind her. She stopped and watched in fear as the cop approached her car with a Maglite in one hand and his other hand resting on his holstered firearm.

His first question was: “Whose car are you driving?” The second question was: “Where are you hiding your drugs?”

Bob O’Connor.

Shaking, she explained that it was her car, she didn’t use drugs or alcohol, and she was just on her way to work. The officer didn’t believe her and searched her vehicle. He continued to badger her about being a user and then followed her several miles to the restaurant and sat in the parking lot watching as she entered the building.

This young lady is my niece and she is one of my favorite people. She is smart, funny, and hardworking. Some police officers don’t see that, they see a Latina driving a nice car in a middle-class neighborhood.

She jokes about her high insurance rates and, after a recent nasty incident, posted on Facebook that she was moving to Bogota. Since she left Colombia as an infant and speaks only high school Spanish, I assume she wasn’t serious. Being just 21, she has the ability to shake off the police harassment. I suspect that will get old and it seems inevitable that she will grow bitter and begin to resent the profiling.

Next time she’s hassled she may get angry and give the cop the excuse he needs to arrest her. I hope not.

I grew up in South Buffalo, where nearly everyone was white, Catholic and Irish. I never saw prejudice against “them,” because there was no “them.”

If I didn’t hear these horror stories firsthand, I would not believe that such bias exists here. Oh, I am not naïve; I know prejudice is part of the human condition and exists in every corner of the globe. But here in Western New York – and directed at one of my own?

The thought of some big, armed police officer picking on my brother’s daughter makes me angry.

When my own kids started driving I warned them to be extremely respectful if they were ever pulled over. On the street, the cop has all the power. Sure enough, all four of them experienced the joy of going to traffic court for excessive speed. But none of them was harassed. They weren’t interrogated about illegal substances and weren’t followed by a police cruiser.

My dad was a Buffalo cop and two of my brothers were in law enforcement. I know the great majority of the men and women who wear the badge are decent people.

But not all … and that makes me angry.

Bob O'Connor, of Hamburg, grew up in South Buffalo as the son of a police officer.

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