The Long History of Police Abuse on the Road

When Americans think of freedom, they often picture the open road. Yet nowhere are we more likely to encounter law enforcement than in our cars. Sarah Seo reveals how the rise of the automobile led us to accept — and expect — pervasive police power. As Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom makes clear, this radical transformation in the nature and meaning of American freedom has had far-reaching political, legal, and moral consequences. In this excerpt, Seo looks at the long history of abuse by police on American drivers.

Beginning in the late 1930s and with increasing frequency each decade, black Americans wrote to the NAACP about traffic stops for minor or fabricated charges that left them terrified. These letters described flagrant transgressions of constitutional limits, including false arrests, beatings, and shootings.

On top of these Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations, traffic cops were also targeting rights activists. NAACP leaders in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas reported a “southwide pattern” of arresting “Negroes active in the civil rights movement” and fining them for minor traffic infractions. In 1956, the president of the Florida branch was “handcuffed, beaten, kicked and arrested” for double-parking his car in front of the local NAACP office. Newspapers compounded the problem by providing the public with only the police’s account; the local press did not bother to contact the president or the NAACP before running the story.

Whether they were leaders of the freedom movement, respectable members of the community, or anonymous travelers, black citizens had to anticipate the possibility of encountering an abusive officer. Dr. Herman Barnett, the first black graduate of the University of Texas Medical School, was arrested for speeding and, while handcuffed, beaten on the head with a pistol by a Texas highway patrolman.

Dr. Joseph Hayes of Los Angeles was yanked out of his car, knocked to the ground, and informed that this treatment was “the law” because he was “a colored boy driving a big automobile in a white neighborhood, and [he] had on dirty clothes [that] didn’t match [his] car.” The officers refused to listen to his explanation that he was wearing jeans because he had been horseback riding. When the doctor protested that the handcuffs were too tight, one of the officers replied that if he was a medical doctor as he claimed, then he should know that his hands would not be damaged from twenty minutes without blood circulation.

When the Reverend G. W. Jones and his family were driving back to Arkansas from the Sesqui-Centennial Celebration of African Methodism in Memphis, Tennessee, he was pulled over for overtaking two cars with white passengers. The officer immediately began spewing vile names at the minister, interspersed with blows to his face with such force that they knocked off his glasses. When his wife got out of the car to help him, she was slapped and kicked as well. The punishment ended with a $32.50 fine for reckless driving. All this for violating the norms of segregation on the road.

Jim Crow’s dictates were well established. In a letter to his friend Thurgood Marshall, the Informer’s general manager Carter Wesley had to account for his delay in confirming last-minutes changes to Marshall’s visit to Houston. Wesley had just gotten out of jail after two highway patrolmen stopped him for waving at a car that he had passed. “No, there wasn’t any woman with him, so there was no question of mashing,” Wesley preemptively explained. He had not even waved at anybody, but the officers would not give him a chance to defend himself. Instead, they gave him “a good beating” and threw him in jail for twenty-four hours. Then, “to protect themselves for the beating, they filed a charge of resisting arrest.” “No, I wasn’t impudent to them,” Wesley again preemptively maintained. It was just the way things were. Wesley did not need to point out that even if Jim Crow were followed to the letter, it offered no insurance against police abuse.

In many cases, it was unclear which norms had been slighted. Sixteen-year-old William Owens was choked and beaten by a Georgia state trooper while he was driving his white employer, who described the incident as “the cruelest thing I ever saw happen except a hanging once.” When the New York Post asked the trooper for a statement, he replied, “It was just an ordinary day’s work and that’s all I got to say about it.”

Unlawful stops, physical assaults, and false arrests did not happen only in the South. In 1953, Frederick North was killed on the Cross Island Parkway in Long Island, New York, by a Nassau County policeman. The officer alleged that North was speeding and driving while under the influence of alcohol, an allegation that North’s friend, who was in the car at the time of the shooting, emphatically denied. Walter White of the NAACP asked the organization to double check the facts because “it [seemed to him] that this is a cock and bull story by the policeman to get him out of what appears to be a cold-blooded murder.” Death at the hands of the police happened with such frequency that some referred to it as a “One Man Lynching.”

These extralegal executions started happening early on. In 1937 — just a year after the Negro Motorist Green Book launched its inaugural issue — Stanley Jackson, an employee at a service station next to his home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, decided to take one of the serviced cars for a spin. Near Trenton, a state trooper started his siren and brought the car to a stop by shooting the left rear tire. Even though the local paper, giving the police’s side of the story, reported that Jackson “stole” the car for the pleasure ride, many people, including police officials, did not consider juveniles who took unattended cars for “joy rides” to be real criminals. Whether or not New Jersey officers agreed with that assessment, Jackson’s moment of teenage rebellion surely did not warrant what followed. Upon reaching the immobilized car, Trooper Bull told Jackson, “I ought to kill you,” and proceeded to shoot point blank. Jackson survived the shooting, but the bullets lodged in his body gave him lead poisoning. About a month later, the police transferred Jackson from the hospital to jail, where he sat for two charges, resisting an officer and reckless driving.

The all-but-certain futility of receiving justice kept many African Americans from seeking redress. For one thing, it was easy for officers to concoct a defense. To explain why he fired five bullets into Earl French, who was being brought in for drunkenness, the officer testified that he thought French “was going to try to kill me in the car.” According to black papers, it was “nothing unusual” for police to shoot and then afterward claim that the victims “resisted arrest” or “drew a deadly weapon.”

Prosecutors often accepted these stories at face value, which explained why grand juries were unlikely to return indictments against officers. Coroners reliably cleared policemen of guilt, and judges routinely dismissed cases. Even if a case made it to trial, the jury might be biased, too.

When an all-white jury in Mississippi freed a sheriff in just twenty-three minutes — even though four witnesses saw him beat a black man to death — newspapers reported how he had rejoiced, exclaiming, “By God, now I can get back to rounding up bootleggers and damn niggers.” The criminal justice system was insurmountably stacked against the black American such that newspapers referred to “whitewash” as a noun.

Whitewashing or, just as often, stonewalling also rendered administrative channels a dead end. A New York City lawyer told Thurgood Marshall that “from bitter experience in the past, I have come to have very little faith in the sincerity or effectiveness of the so-called Departmental Hearings or Trials.” The most that victims could hope for was to clear their good name of bogus charges.

In one 1949 episode, an off-duty cop in civilian clothes fatally shot Herman Newton during a traffic dispute, and a Brooklyn grand jury declined to bring an indictment. The NAACP and the American Jewish Congress petitioned the court — and appealed to the court of public opinion — to open the grand jury minutes, arguing that the district attorney could not be trusted. While the prosecutor claimed that there were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, the NAACP had located eight of them. Their pleading described a “reign of terror” in Brooklyn that was just as frightening as “in some of the most lynch-ridden places of the South,” where officers uttered threats like “Down here we never try an officer for manslaughter. . . . We try the dead man to see if he should have been killed.” It was demoralizing that even up north, “officers can and do murder and assault Negro citizens with utter impunity.”

For those who suffered the police’s suspicion-fueled aggression during traffic stops, the lack of legal solutions to overweening or abusive conduct raised troubling comparisons with totalitarian governments. One victim, upon reading the Fourth Amendment, exclaimed, “I don’t know whether that means anything or not.” But “it had better,” he warned, “or we’ll soon have the same situation here that they had in Germany.”

When Americans encountered the police in their cars, they grappled with an unsettling question: shorn of political labels, what kind of society had the United States become? The “hatred that Americans can bestow upon others for no crime at all,” one wrote to the ACLU, had made him “afraid of my own Nation.” He implored the civil liberties organization to “do something that is tangible to prevent the inward destruction of our Nation.”

These drivers were beginning to form their own ideas about democratic policing, or at least what it was not. What they experienced, they concluded, was not policing that represented a free society. In conflicts with the police that unfolded daily on the streets and in their cars, many individuals sensed that something was fundamentally, constitutionally wrong. The problem was not just lawless police. The problem was also a legal system that provided insufficient remedies for innocent victims of arbitrary policing.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store