In the wake of recent news stories about the police shooting death of Philando Castile, More Perfect Union cohost Kevin Kelton shares his own story of being pulled over gunpoint by the LAPD. Luckily, he’s still here to tell it. Which is why it’s valuable.
In 1990, back in my long hair and bearded days, I was driving on a major street in Los Angeles on a sunny Saturday afternoon, when I hear a siren behind me and see flashing police lights. Assuming I’m about to be ticketed, I pull over and keep my hands on the steering wheel as I’d heard you should do. It’s just a traffic stop, right? No big deal.
That’s when I hear, over a loud speaker, “Put your hands on your head and don’t move!”
So I do, then I look in my mirrors and see not one, but three LAPD cars with six cops all crouched behind their open doors while pointing handguns and shotguns at me. Like I was a bank robber. Of course now I’m scared sh**less because it was the first (and only) time I have ever had guns pointed at me. Naturally I’m going to do whatever they say.
Next I hear, “With your right hand, turn off the vehicle.” So I turn the key off and put my hand back on my head. Then I hear, “With your left hand, roll down your window.” I look to my left and push the button, but of course it won’t open because the engine is off. So I yell back, “I can’t open it. The car is off.”
But they can’t hear me because my windows are closed. They think I’m not following their instructions. Once again…
Cop: “Open the window! NOW!”
Me: “I can’t! The engine is OFF!”
By the second or third time they must have figured out what was going on, because they told me to slowly open the door and step out of the car. So I open the door and begin to step out with my hands still glued to the top of my head.
Now stop for a moment and think about how you normally step out of a car. You would swing your feet to the ground and walk forward as you get out, right? That’s what I started to do. But they panic and yell…
“NO! NOT FACING US! Step out BACKWARD and away from the car!”
And the voice definitely sounds panicky, like he’s afraid of me.
So I shift my body to begin to step out of the car backward with my hands still on my head. Do you have any idea how difficult that maneuver is? What if I’d lost my balance and tipped forward into the car, or needed to use my hand to catch myself? They might have thought I was reaching for a weapon.
But I was able to pull off the maneuver and I back out of the car. Then one of the cops steps out from behind her door — her two-handed gun grip still pointing at me — and instructs me to lay face down on the ground. Now again, do you know how much balance it takes to do that with your hands on your head? You have to go down on one knee, then pull the other knee under you — with no hands — then lay down using only your elbows because you have to keep your hands on your head. Luckily, I was young and had good balance and was able to get to the ground without tipping over. The officer puts her foot on my neck and points her gun at me while another cop starts to handcuff me.
But then I realize that my new sunglasses are scratching against the pavement. So I do something really stupid: I turn my head to the side to protect my glasses. She yells “Don’t move!” and points the gun right at my head. I can tell she’s very nervous, too, so I put my head back face down until they can ‘cuff me and lift me up.
They seat me on the curb and search my car. One cop comes up to me holding my red Swiss Army knife that I kept in the glove compartment and says, “Is this yours?” as if he found some incriminating evidence like a gun or a baggie of coke. I say yes, it’s mine, but it’s just a Swiss Army knife that I keep in the car for the screwdriver. Is that against the law? He snarls and goes back to searching my vehicle. Within a few minutes they realize they had made a mistake and un-cuff me.
By this point I’m hopping mad and I demand to speak to someone in charge. Soon a Sergeant appears to apologize for the “mix up” and explain what had happened. He tells me that moments before they pulled me over, the officers had spotted me at a pay phone outside of a motel that they were staking out for a car theft ring. Of course I didn’t know it was a sting location; I had just stopped to check my phone messages. My luck! They saw a guy with straggly hair and army fatigue pants get out of a spiffy red sports car, so they ran my plate.
But they read an E as an F…so the plate number they gave to dispatch came back as not belonging on that model car. Based on that, they assumed the car was stolen.
And that was why six LAPD cops arrested me at gunpoint.
At five times during that encounter, they could have thought I was resisting arrest:
1 when I “ignored” their command to open my window;
2 when I stepped out of my car facing forward, which they found threatening;
3 if I had lost my balance when stepping out of my car backward with hands on head;
4 when I was trying to lay down on the ground with my hands on my head and almost did lose my balance;
5 when I picked up my head to protect my glasses.
When I got home, I called the Los Angeles Times and spoke to a reporter about the incident, then scoured the paper the next day to see if they ran the story. They didn’t. But what I did find was a story about a 57-year-old man who had also been pulled over for a DUI the same day. The CHP instructed him the same way the LAPD had instructed me. But because he was drunk he lost his balance while trying to lay face down with his hands on his head. He used his hand to stop from falling and they thought he was reaching for a gun in his boot. They blew him away. They found no gun.
There but for the grace of God…
Had I screwed up any more that day, the photo above is how I would’ve looked in my obituary — a wild haired bearded guy who had seemingly lost it and resisted arrest. My side of the story would never have been told; the name Kevin Kelton would just be tied to another tragic news story like the ones we are hearing this week. I’d be another Philando Castile, or Michael Brown, or Amadou Diallo. Or any of the dozens of unarmed victims of questionable police shootings compiled by the website, innocentdown.org.
What I learned that day is that it’s really up to the suspect to control events. The police can panic under stress. They get confused and make mistakes. So it’s up to the nervous, untrained suspect – who also may be drunk or high or emotionally disturbed at the worst, most stressful moment in his life – who has to control the situation. If the suspect makes a mistake, it’s fatal.
Yes, most police officers are good people and some are even heroes, and too often good cops get killed out there, too. They have a difficult, dangerous job, and we owe them our unyielding respect and gratitude.
But when good cops make bad kills, they don’t get a Mulligan. They still must be held accountable for those bad decisions if they lead to an unwarranted death. That’s how our legal system works, whether you’re a cop shooting an unarmed suspect or a drunk driver plowing into a family or a parent who leaves a child in a hot car. Because when good cops kill good people, we all lose something.
On a beautiful Saturday in 1990, I could have been Philando Castile. And like Philando, you’d have never heard my side of the story.