Fairness: My Experiences with Law Enforcement

I rise today to give my second speech this week discussing the issues we are facing as a nation following last week’s tragedies in Dallas, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge. This speech is perhaps the most difficult, because it’s the most personal.

On Monday, I talked about how the vast majority of our law enforcement officers have only two things in mind, protect and serve. As I noted then, we do have serious issues that must be resolved. In many cities and towns across the nation, there is a deep divide between the black community and law enforcement. — a trust gap, a tension that has been growing for decades.

As a family, one American family, we cannot ignore these issues. Because while so many officers do good, and we should be thankful as I said on Monday, we should be very thankful in support of all those officers that do good. Some, simply, do not.

I’ve experienced it myself.

So today, I want to speak about some of those issues. Not with anger, though I have been angry. I tell my story not out of frustration, though at times I have been frustrated. I stand here before you today because I’m seeking for all of us, the entire American family, to work together so we all experience the lyrics of a song that we can hear but not see: Peace, love, and understanding.

Because I shuddered when I heard Eric Garner say, “I can’t breathe”.

I wept, when I watched Walter Scott turn and run away and get shot and killed from the back.

I broke, when I heard the four year old daughter of Philando Castile’s girlfriend tell her mother, “It’s ok, I’m right here with you.”

These are people lost forever. Fathers, brothers, sons. 
 Some will say and maybe even scream “But they have criminal records, they were criminals, they spent time in jail”. And while having a record should not sentence you to death, I say ok then. I will share with you some of my own experiences, or the experiences of good friends and other professionals.

I can certainly remember the very first time that I was pulled over by a police officer as just a youngster. I was driving a car that had an improper headlight. The cop came up to my car, hand on his gun, and said,” boy, don’t you know your headlights are not working properly?” I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and scared. Very scared. 
 But instead of sharing experience after experience, I want to go to a time in my life when I was an elected official and share just a couple of stories as an elected official. But please remember that in the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers. Not four, not five, not six, but seven times in one year as an elected official.

Was I speeding sometimes? Sure.

But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.

One of the times I remember I was leaving the mall.

I took a left out of the mall, and as soon as I took a left, a police officer pulled in right behind me. So that was my first left. I got to another traffic light, I took another left into a neighborhood; the police followed behind me. I took a third left onto the street that leads or at the time led to my apartment complex. Then finally I took a fourth left, coming into my apartment complex.

And then, the blue lights went on.

The officer approached the car and said that I did not use my turn signal on the fourth turn.

Keep in mind, as you might imagine that I was paying very close attention to the law enforcement officer who followed me on four turns. Do you really think that somehow I forgot to use my turn signal on that fourth turn? Well, according to him I did.

Another time, I was following a friend of mine, we had just left working out and we were heading to Outback to grab a bite to eat at about four o’clock in the afternoon. And he pulls out, and I pull out right behind him. We’re driving down the road and the blue lights come on. Officer pulls me into the median, and he starts telling me that he thinks perhaps the car is stolen. Well, I started asking myself because I was smart enough not to ask him.

Asking myself, is the license plate coming in as stolen? Does the license plate match the car? I was looking for some rational reason that may have prompted him to stopping me on the side of the road.

I also think about the experiences of my brother, who became a Command Sergeant Major in the United States Army, the highest rank for an enlisted soldier. He was driving from Texas to Charleston, pulled over by a law enforcement officer who wanted to know if he had stolen the car he was driving because it was a Volvo.

I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell — no matter their profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life.

I also recall the story of one of my former staffers. A great guy, about thirty years old who drove a Chrysler 300, a nice car without any question, but not a Ferrari, not a super nice car.

He was pulled over so many times here in D.C. for absolutely no reason other than for driving a nice car. He sold that car and bought a more obscure form of transportation. He was tired of being targeted.

Imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops.

Even here on Capitol Hill, where I’ve had the great privilege of serving the great people of South Carolina as a United States Congress member and as a United States Senator for the last six years.

For those who don’t know, there are a few ways to identify a member of Congress or Senate. Well, typically when you’ve been here for a couple of years, the law enforcement officers get to know your face and they just identify you by face. But if that doesn’t happen, you have a badge or your license that you can show them, that shows you’re a Senator. Or, this really cool pin. I often times say that the House pins are larger because our egos are bigger, so we need a smaller pin. So it’s easy to identify a U.S. Senator by our pin.

I recall walking into an office building just last year after being here for five years on the Capitol. And the officer looked at me with a little attitude and said, “The pin I know, you I don’t, show me your ID.”

I’ll tell you, I was thinking to myself either he thinks I’m committing a crime, impersonating a member of Congress, or what? Well, I’ll tell you that later that evening, I received a phone call from his supervisor apologizing for the behavior.

Mr. President that is at least the third phone call that I’ve received from a supervisor or the Chief of Police since I’ve been in the Senate.

While I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have however felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted. I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness, and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you’re being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself.

As that former staffer I mentioned earlier told me yesterday, there is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul, than when you know you’re following the rules and being treated like you’re not.

But make no mistake, no matter this turmoil these issues should not lead anyone to any conclusion other than to abide by the laws.

I think Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it so well, “returning violence with violence only leads to more violence and to even darker nights, nights to paraphrase without stars.
 There is never, ever, an acceptable reason to harm a member of our law enforcement community…ever. I don’t want anyone to misinterpret the words that I’m saying because even in the times of great darkness, there is light.

As I shared Monday, there are hundreds, thousands of stories of officers who go beyond the call of duty. Ms. Taylor, as I spoke about on Monday night at the Dallas incident, was covered completely by at least three officers who were willing to lose their life to save hers. We have a real opportunity to be grateful and thankful for men and women in uniform.

I shared another story on Monday night as well; and while the one I want to tell you today doesn’t involve a tragic loss of life, it does show support that meant a lot to me at the time it occurred.

Prior to serving in the United States Senate, I was an elected official on the county level, the state level, and a member of the United States Congress. I believe it’s my responsibility to hang out, to be with my constituents as often as possible and to hear their concerns.

At some point during my time as a public servant, I traveled to an event that I was invited to along with two staffers and two law enforcement officers — all four were white and me.

When we arrived at the event, the organizer seemed to have a particular issue with me coming to the event. He allowed my two staffers to go into the event, seemed to be allowing the two officers to go into the event who both said they weren’t going in if I wasn’t going in.

In order to avoid a real tense situation, I opted to leave because there is just no way of winning that kind of debate, ever.

But I was so proud and thankful for those two law enforcement officers who were enraged by this treatment. It was such a moment that I will never forget, in a situation that I would love to forget.

This is a situation that happens all across the country whether we want to recognize it or not. It may not happen a thousand times a day, but it happens too many times a day.

And to see it as I have had the chance to see it helps me understand why this issue has wounds that have not healed in a generation. It helps me to appreciate and understand and hopefully communicate why it’s time for this American family to have a serious conversation about where we are, where we’re going, and how to get there.

We must find a way to fill these cracks in the very foundation of our country.

Tomorrow, I will return with my final speech in this three part series on solutions and how to get to where we need to go by talking about the policies that get us there and people solutions. 
 Because I like you, Mr. President, don’t believe that all answers are in government. I don’t think all the solutions that we need starts in government. And we need people doing things that only individuals can do.

Today, however, I simply ask you this, recognize that just because you don’t feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean it does not exist.

To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear, it simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable.

Some search so hard to explain away injustice that they are slowly wiping away who we are as a nation. But we must come together to fulfill what we all know is possible here in America; peace, love, and understanding.


This post is part of a series of speeches on the Senate floor in response to problems that are facing our nation and the recent tragedies in Dallas, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge.