The day after violence erupted in Charlottesville, my 16-year-old son was pulled over by a police officer.
He recently obtained his learner’s permit, and I had taken him to a quiet parking lot on that sunny Sunday afternoon to practice driving.
When we arrived, the only other vehicle in the otherwise empty high school lot was a Chesterfield County Police patrol car, and as we looped around again and again (with me in the passenger seat), I exchanged waves with the officer sitting inside.
About half an hour into my son’s lesson, the officer began to drive away, then suddenly turned around.
Sgt. Chris Hugate (who gave me permission to use his name) parked his squad car and climbed out. With a smile and a welcoming gesture, he motioned for my son to approach.
My son (carefully) pulled alongside him, and Hugate introduced himself.
He stooped to peer at me through the driver’s side window and chuckled when he saw the look of trepidation on my face.
Nothing to fear, he reassured me; he simply wanted to chat with my son for a few minutes — with my permission — about how to stay safe as a new driver, especially if he is ever stopped by police.
I gave my consent, and before he launched into his advice, Hugate led with his heart, sharing with my son:
- How he had spent the day before our encounter driving around a similar school parking lot with his 15-year-old son, teaching him how to drive; so he knew how meaningful and memorable the task at hand was; and
- How every day when he goes to work, he wants to be sure to make it home to his wife and two children; so the advice he was prepared to share was designed to keep both my son and him safe.
He then demonstrated for my son how an officer typically approaches a vehicle and explained that an alert officer is always on guard because he never knows who or what he may encounter when making a routine traffic stop — regardless of race, gender, age, etc.
Next, he ran down a list of actions that many parents of color (and many others) often share already with their adolescent sons and daughters, during what we call “The Talk”:
- Keep your hands visible at all times. (He demonstrated where to position them on the steering wheel and suggested that placing them on driver’s side windowsill would be another option.)
- Over-communicate about every single move you make, from shifting to reach for your license to reaching to open your door.
- Stay calm and respectful and respond to all questions when asked. (Most people actually talk themselves into getting tickets, he said, because they can’t manage to stay calm.)
- If the situation permits, before placing your hands on the steering wheel or outside the window, call a parent and put him/her on speakerphone, so that there is a “third party witness to keep both of us safe.”
My son appreciated the feedback, which reinforced messages he has already heard from me and his father and others in our parenting “village.”
I appreciated the fact that Hugate, who is Caucasian, gave this unsolicited advice from a law enforcement perspective, and especially on the day after such heartbreaking hate splintered our nation.
Before leaving, he locked eyes with my son and informed him that yes — there are indeed some cops who shouldn’t be wearing badges or in the law enforcement field, because they don’t do what is right or good, but he is not one of them.
We didn’t discuss Charlottesville, Trayvon Martin, or any of the senseless violence that has occurred in many instances in between.
In those few minutes in that high school parking lot, the olive branch he extended was an “aha” moment that even some officers are willing to be real and honest about what it takes to stay safe in this day and time.
Everyone wants to make it home alive.
I first shared this encounter on my Facebook page the day it occurred — Aug. 13 — and since then I’ve been touched by how it has resonated with Facebook users around the nation. The post has been liked more than 1,000 times and shared by nearly 200 people on their personal Facebook pages.
Readers have indicated that Hugate’s practical advice is worth sharing with teens and young adults they know. Others were inspired by his willingness to be honest about the mixed feelings some Americans have about police officers.
Yet, some have questioned whether my son’s conversation with Hugate’s was nothing more than a misdirected “feel-good” gesture. Shouldn’t he instead be focusing his energies on educating his fellow officers about how to interact with people of color, they’ve queried.
From my position in the passenger seat that day, and as a mom, his actions were appreciated and worthy of mention because he was one individual taking a chance to do what he could in his own sphere of influence to make a difference.
His efforts, in effect, represented a pebble in the sea, but it still caused a ripple.
I tracked down Hugate through the Chesterfield County police department last week to let him know how much support my Facebook post about him had garnered.
He was stunned and grateful, and expressed hope that his actions will spur more good officers to take time to educate youths from all backgrounds.
He and I chatted about why he chose to speak to my son that day and why he felt compelled to give such candid advice and encouragement.
In his own words, here’s what he told me was running through his mind when he saw my young African-American son bearing a bright smile as he practiced his turning, signaling and parking skills:
“I have a perspective from working with young African-American students that has helped me understand a lot of their apprehension,” said Hugate, who during his 21-year career with the Chesterfield police force has served stints as a school resource officer at Monacan High School and Manchester High School.
“Something told me that day — to break a barrier with your son and put him at ease. ... It’s the equivalent of keeping something behind a curtain and guessing whether it’s there. I know police officer misconduct occurs, but there’s way more of us on the good side than the bad. Either way, it helps to know steps to protect yourself.”
Hugate (who once coached football and basketball at Monacan and softball at Manchester) approached his ability to make a difference from the micro level that day, intent on helping one young man, but he indicated that in his current role as a sergeant who mentors other officers, he takes the macro-level approach of trying to educate his colleagues every chance he gets.
While he has taught his teen son the same rules he shared with mine, it isn’t lost on him that his son won’t necessarily feel the same anxiety over being stopped that my son or another driver of color may feel — including some of his son’s friends.
“I’ve explained to him, ‘You may be with your friends and they may be driving or you may be driving and your African-American friends, for reasons going on all over the world right now, are going to be nervous during a police interaction. You need to understand that. Don’t discount how they feel. Reassure them.”
Though he asserts that most officers are fair and honest, he doesn’t quibble with the reality or perception that all don’t meet those standards.
“I would say probably 99 percent of officers are good officers, out here for the right reasons. It’s that 1 percent that will make the news because they’re not normal. Normal doesn’t make the news.”
In the meantime, Hugate intends to continue doing his part, one youth and one officer at a time.
Just last week, an officer who reports to him stopped a teen driver on Route 288 due to a driving-related issue, Hugate said.
The young driver was extremely nervous.
“The kid didn’t speak up,” Hugate said. “He had to get his thoughts together.”
Hugate understood the youth’s angst and inability to communicate effectively, and he tried to help the officer who made the stop understand it, too.
“I wish more officers would do what I did with your son,” he said. “The more we try to educate everyone, the safer we all are.”