My preschooler's first police stop: I'm embarrassed — but not for us

"Daddy, I'm a ballerina!" she says, while I think about how quickly these stops can go wrong for Black drivers

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 17, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

A policeman pulls over a driver, getting out of the police car to write a traffic ticket. (Getty Images/kali9)
A policeman pulls over a driver, getting out of the police car to write a traffic ticket. (Getty Images/kali9)

My three-year-old daughter recently experienced her first police stop, a milestone that left me embarrassed, but not for myself or for her.

Dance class begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday mornings. My wife normally runs the show, leaving me with the pedestrian responsibility of loading the car, but last week she had to accompany one of her clients for a news hit, which made me the boss. 

Baby girl's bags were packed with snacks, toilet seat covers, a change of clothes and the tiniest ballerina slippers anyone has ever seen. She had a banana, some yogurt, and her shiny chrome water bottle with "CROSS WATKINS" across the front was full to the tip. We pulled off 25 minutes early for the 11-minute ride and I felt like Daddy of the Day. Anyone who spends time with toddlers knows that getting them out of the house on time is MIT graduate school-level difficult. She kicks, screams for Mommy, twirls until she falls, twirls again to prove she can twirl without falling, demands to wear the paper-thin raincoat in 10-degree weather, screams for Mommy again, smashes banana on my everything, looks around for mommy, twirls, and settles for Daddy. Then I get her into the car seat.  

Secretly, I had been extra excited about this dance class. My daughter had missed a few due to sickness. During her downtime, she discovered the 2016 kids' movie "Ballerina," titled "Leap" in the U.S. It's about a talented orphan girl who fakes her identity to gain admission to a prestigious dance school in Paris. Initially, she can't keep up with the other students, but her hard work, perseverance and grit accelerate her to the top of the class. The film includes some messages on classism, loyalty and unfairly judging people with disabilities, too. I'm sure my baby doesn't fully grasp all of the concepts yet; however, she was mesmerized by their beautiful uniforms, leaps and, most importantly, their twirls. She has been twirling nonstop since she discovered the film. I had imagined how excited her dance teacher would be seeing the twirls and dips she had picked up since her last class. That day, I thought, my daughter would be the star, and I would have a front-row seat.

This is what I was thinking about as I drove down Charles Street, before screaming sirens snapped me out of my trance.

I want to say that I'm not a speeder. If the speed limit is 30 mph, then I drive around 30. I don't rush. I don't like driving fast. I always leave early because I don't like rushing or driving fast. So I thought there was no way those cops were pulling me over. I signaled and moved out of their way so they could pass and catch up to the people they were looking for. 

The cop car slammed to a stop behind me like we were filming an action movie. Two uniformed officers — one Black, one white — slowly approached my vehicle, one on each side. The Black cop approached my window as the white one cartoonishly waved from the passenger side. Which one should I talk to? 

I rolled my window down. "Is this your car?" the Black cop said. The white cop held his hand over his brow, peering in through the window's tint.

My normal response would be something like What do you want? or I am driving the car; of course, it's mine. But I glanced in the rearview mirror, saw my daughter mouthing the words to one of her favorite songs, and focused my energy back on the cop.

"Yeah man, it's mine." 

"OK, I need your license and registration," he said. 

"Why?" I asked calmly. I glanced back at Cross and saw she was completely unbothered by their presence. It was as if they didn't exist. I took my cues from her. If a three-year-old could chill, so can I. 

"We couldn't see your tag," said the cop. "I see it now, but I didn't see it at first."

My last car had been hit while parked, crushed, and left in the shop for six months awaiting repairs. When I finally got it back, the body was fixed but nothing else worked right, so I traded it in for another car, which came with one of those flimsy temporary tags. The cop could see the tag. Anyone looking could see the tag. But I chose to remain as calm as my daughter as I passed the officer my paperwork. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

"Look man," I said as the white cop made his way around to the front of the car to peek over his partner's shoulder. "I really don't want to be late for her dance class. I don't want any trouble, and I'm not trying to stop you from doing your job, but all of this paperwork is clean." 

The cops said nothing. The Black one shrugged. They walked back to the squad car and proceeded to run my paperwork. I was so happy the baby didn't cry or scream or peek her little head forward to wave hello because she is known for speaking to any and everyone she sees. Not to sound like that guy who wears sea shell necklaces and carries quartz crystals, but maybe — just maybe — she felt their energy. Maybe she felt mine. We were good. 

I have been fortunate; I've never been a part of a traffic stop that ended with me dying or going to prison. But I know how quickly these things can go from zero to 100. The whole nation saw how bad a traffic stop can go back in January with the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis.

As I sat in the car waiting, I prided myself on my ability to keep cool despite the situation. Cross was OK, so I was OK, and that's all that mattered. Traffic stops happen all the time. But with so much crime in Baltimore, with so many shootings happening, with the hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown at our police department to solve these issues, which never works, why were they wasting time bothering me and my child over a legal temp tag they admitted they saw? My daughter should have been twirling. 

The whole nation saw how bad a traffic stop can go back in January with the killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis.

I saw the cops chuckling in my rearview mirror. I was polite, but I told them I was in a rush, and he said he saw my tags but chose to hold me up anyway. It felt like they were making me wait just because they could. And this is the part where the anger seeps in, the part where I feel like screaming something profane or maybe exiting the car in an ego-driven attempt to prove I'm the dominant person. This is the part where traffic stops can go left. Mix those emotions into a cocktail — what's happening in this country, their laughter, how I knew they would never do this to a white man, how the Black cop probably feels white because he's uniting with a white man to ruin my day — and any situation could turn a thousand times worse.

"It's OK, baby," I said to my daughter. "We'll be at class soon." 

"Daddy, I'm a ballerina." 

"Yes, baby," I said, spinning around to tickle her feet. "You are the best ballerina ever." 

I restarted her song, opened my phone and saw an article about a shooting that happened in the suburbs of Baltimore. David Linthicum, a 24-year-old white man, shot a Baltimore County police officer in his home, then shot another county police officer before stealing his unmarked car. The craziest part of the story is that Linthicum was taken in alive and well. It's like officers see white skin and develop a superhero level of restraint. There's no way these guys would have held Linthicum up in traffic over a visible temporary tag.

How can we tell Black kids that if they move the wrong way in front of the police they could be shot and killed, while white kids can actually shoot multiple police officers, steal their cars, and be arrested without harm? That level of racism is embarrassing. 

"Everything checked out. You're good to go," the white cop said to me. "I'm going to give you this card that explains why we stopped you." 

I looked back at the Black cop, who chose not to come back to my window, and took the card from the white cop, who then walked away quickly.

I continued down Charles Street with a strong sense of gratitude. We were still going to be on time. I didn't lose my cool. My daughter who hates sitting still didn't lose her cool. The only people who were embarrassing in this whole ordeal were the cops — adults who work in public service with less impulse control than my child.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Essay Parenting Police Racism