I was really hesitant to share this story, because it includes a lot of personal details, and also... it was just an embarrassing incident that I would rather pretend never happened. But that is selfish and it makes the incident about me, and ignores that this is a symptom of a bigger problem. Transparency is an important step in recognizing patterns, trends and finding solutions.
So, below is the letter (with some edits) that I wrote to Officer K. Munoz, Badge #17713 of the California Highway Patrol. Upfront, I want to acknowledge that I made a mistake by not paying my parking tickets on time. Don't do that, folks.
Thank you all for reading and allowing me to share.
On March 23rd, for the first time in my 30 years, I was handcuffed by you, for reasons I’m still unclear on.
Before I explain the purpose of this letter, I'd like to provide some background. In 2007, when I
graduated from college, I moved to Los Angeles to be a teacher in Watts as part of an Americorps program called City Year. From August 2007 to June 2008, in exchange for my voluntary service I received a complimentary Tap Pass which allowed me to ride LA Metro at no cost.
After my year of service, in June 2008, I moved back to DC to teach at a summer program and I ended up staying until August 2012 when I returned to Los Angeles for graduate school at USC. While in graduate school, I worked part time as a courier, delivering meals and items to busy LA centers, and in the process, I racked up six parking tickets - tickets I was unable to pay at the time. To make a long story short, I ended up building up a $1400 bill in car registration fees as well as escalated parking tickets which had in many cases quadrupled in cost.
As a graduate student in Los Angeles, I couldn't really afford that but I scrounged up the money and wrote a check. Days later, I was in an accident with an uninsured driver and was forced to pay a sizable fee to get my car fixed, causing my check to bounce. It wasn't until recently when I gained full time employment that I was in a position to comfortably pay that fee. I mailed a money order to Sacramento even though I knew it would take 6-8 weeks for them to process. It was a risk to allow for that gap and it was absolutely a mistake not to go to the DMV instead. I take full responsibility for that. My failure to pay everything in a timely manner led me to our encounter, but how you chose to address this issue is the reason for this letter.
When you pulled me over directly in front of my place of employment, I wasn't sure what to expect. Several people in my family are police officers and my cousin is in the South Carolina Highway Patrol. They are all decent, kind people and have never given me any reason to doubt the professional nature of the work that you all do. Many people I know have shared less than favorable experiences with police officers, but I assumed those officers were just a few bad apples and that most officers treat people with dignity, and respect. I still believe that.
Nevertheless, I do not believe that respectful is a good way to characterize my experience with you. I am not a lawyer, so I don't know if what you did was illegal, but it certainly wasn't in line with the "protect and serve" mantra I am familiar with.
Without providing any reasons, you told me to step out of my car so that you could talk to me by your vehicle. I politely asked you why I needed to leave my vehicle. I had never been asked that before, I hadn't committed any crime that I was aware of, and I was also directly in front of my office watching my coworkers walk in, growing more and more humiliated by the moment. You yelled, barked and at various points told me "Because I said so!... You're interrupting my investigation... This is my jurisdiction now!... Get. Out. Of. The. Car!... You are getting on my last nerve. Stop asking me questions! Just stop talking!"
Then, you opened my car door, and out of the blue, told me there was a warrant for my arrest and made me stand outside of my vehicle, all while yelling at me, explaining nothing. When I asked why, you refused to tell me. Finally you revealed that my car was being towed and you would not even allow me to sit down to write down the towing information. Then you handcuffed me, still not explaining what the alleged warrant was about until later. You told me that in August 2008, I had been ticketed for fare evasion on LA Metro. This is impossible as I was no longer living in Los Angeles - I was 3000 miles away in our nation's capital. Moreover, when I did live in LA, I had a tap pass. This made no sense. You were hostile, unnecessarily loud, careless (You actually said "I don't care!" when I mentioned that I was being polite and I was unsure of why you were yelling at me.)
Eventually, you said "I'll do you a favor and I won't book you if you just sign these tickets here and agree to appear in court to clear up this train fare evasion." At this point, I was a crying, sniffling mess and I couldn't even talk. I just signed it so that I could get away from you. I'll be honest, you scared me. I had no idea what you were going to do. It is a scary thing when someone is repeatedly asking you to do things without justification and they have a gun and you do not.
As I mentioned, I am not a lawyer, but I am a human being. I know what it is like to be treated with respect and what it is like to be treated unfairly. I also know that the latter is not good policing. It creates distrust and fear in the community, which isn't good for anyone. I still believe in the general goodness of peace officers, highway patrol and police officers. But from now on, when people share their bad experiences with the police, I will be unable to say "I can't relate."
Also, this bad experience didn't end with our actual interaction. The following day, I went to the address you provided to get a release form for my vehicle from the Highway Patrol. They told me that their office doesn't handle that, so I spent an additional hour going to the correct office.
Then, after perusing the two court dates you provided, I realized you had scheduled them for the exact same date and time - one in Compton and one in Culver City. I don't know if the experience that you provided for me was unique, but it is obviously impossible for me to be at two places at the same time. You set me up for failure and a possible opportunity to miss a court date and cause a future arrest. Thankfully, the kind CHP officers on Bristol Highway explained to me how to change one of the court dates.
I sincerely hope that the way you spoke to me and treated me was an anomaly. I hope it is not often that you handcuff people with expired registrations. I hope it is not often that you yell at citizens for asking simple questions well within their legal right. But if it is often, I hope that you change course. When we all treat each other well, everyone benefits. It makes the community safer for both you and me. In the interest of transparency, I will be sharing my experience (and this letter) with others.
All the best Officer K Muñoz,
P.S. The silver lining here is that my colleagues had a good laugh discussing how the new employee who doesn’t even drink alcohol managed to get handcuffed directly in front of the office. I am grateful that this experience didn’t end differently -with the image of a woman of color in handcuffs perpetuating a pervasive stereotype in our society. Others have not been as fortunate as I was.