VOICES: Authority of Fear

One fateful night, I chose to run from the police. Why?

The pungent aroma of urinal cake and pot filled my nostrils. It was 11 o'clock at night. Three other kids stood huddled shoulder to shoulder with me, looking for whatever warmth we could find.

I tended to feel invincible in the shadiest of situations—that is, until the night I got arrested.

As we sat in the smoky, bug-laden park bathroom in Sahuarita, I had no fear of anything. Then I saw the lights of an incoming car. One of the kids I was with walked outside for a moment and then came back into the bathroom, wide-eyed. "It's the cops!"

That's when the second flood of lights hit us. Red-blue-red-blue, the flashing repetition could be seen, bright and vivid, just beyond the threshold of the open bathroom door. I panicked, my mind overtaken by several thoughts: I am stuck in a bathroom with three other kids who are smoking pot and drinking. My parents don't know I am here, and this isn't what I need right now.

One of the other kids had a warrant out for his arrest. Following his example, I flew out of the bathroom as fast as I could.

I see fear of the police as an unnecessary and often irrational response to the contempt that many teenagers harbor toward authority. It isn't productive to automatically dislike a police officer for being a part of the force. I believe, in fact, that the fear created from this dislike tends to breed an atmosphere in which the police are actually given more authority or control than is comfortable for even them.

The logic is simple, if you think about it. The very presence of a police officer is, in most cases, enough to unnerve the general public. Think about how you respond when a police car appears in your rearview mirror.

"Some people just freak out," says Officer Fabian Valdez of the Tucson Police Department.

Officer Valdez's post is the downtown area, where he often walks by my high school. "We will be driving and put on our lights, and for no reason, (people) run."

We slow down when we see traffic cops and don't jaywalk when there is an officer on the other side of the street. Mix this with an underlying fear of the police, and what you end up with is a recipe for control.

Police are people, and as such, they tend to get caught up into the same mob mentality that affects the rest of us.

Don Grant, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona who studies the dynamics of social inequalities, says that fear is passed from individual to individual. "Fear spreads for irrational reasons," he says.

Sociologists believe that fear is created in group settings as a defense mechanism against losing our basic needs for survival: food, shelter and safety. When we feel like we don't have these things, we become vulnerable and then scared.

According to Grant, fear spreads, like in the case of mob behavior. Take, for example, the case of a bomb scare. "We observe other people and how they're responding," Grant says. "If you act like there is a bomb in here, and I presume there's a bomb in here, and if you start dancing around, acting nervous, I'll assume there's something wrong."

Sometimes we react just because the people around us do—this is what happened to me when I started running from the police that night in Sahuarita. My friend's fear of the police, and his fear of the consequences of getting picked up, motivated him to run. Picking up on their cues, I did the same.

Grant also says that "peer pressure" exists among members of any group as a way to monitor and regulate membership in that group. For example, a police officer might empathize with someone who's being arrested, but "you know that to be evaluated positively by your peers, you have to be tough," says Grant. The pressure is on for the police—one slipup could create a rift in that officer's professional persona.

Don't get me wrong: I don't for a second believe that all police are trustworthy and just. Can it be said that anyone is always trustworthy and just? If you think about it, being a police officer amounts to being paid to be the perfect example of what an ideal human should be: responsible, timely and empathetic. I don't believe that anyone is capable of being a perfect, ideal person, and therefore, police are no exception.

"Police are human," says Officer Valdez, "and cops make mistakes like doctors do, like attorneys do, like teachers do, (but) they do hold us to a higher standard."

If we—teenagers—start looking at police officers as people, rather than as part of an overbearing, unstoppable force in our lives, we will have much less ill will toward them for simply doing their job.

I barely remember hopping the first fence. I thought I made out the words, "Get on the ground!"

It's funny how the thought of stopping hadn't even occurred to me. I knew that because I had already started running, I looked just as guilty as the others. I persisted. The shuffling and yelling behind me got clearer and clearer with every ragged, shaky breath that escaped my throat.

"Sahuarita Police! Get on the ground!"

As I sprinted through the pitch-black desert, I could feel the cactus and thorns clinging to my legs, the only other reminder that I was "on the run" being the sporadic bursts of light originating from the officer's flashlight behind me. It seemed that with every step I took, the officer took four. He was closing in fast, right behind me, still going strong 10 minutes after I had initially begun to run. I was tired. I was cold.

As I ran through the darkness, brush clinging to my legs, I could make out a barbed-wire fence, and one of my friends, tangled in the wire, struggling to break free. I heard a voice say, "This is your last warning! Get on the ground!" I turned slowly to be greeted by a laser pointer aimed squarely at the middle of my chest. The game was over, and I had lost.

Three days later, my friends and I reconvened, with nothing to show from the ordeal other than a hefty fine and an irrational fear of parks.

Even though it's not helpful to imagine that all police are out to get you, I guess having at least a little fear of them can be a good thing. It's been keeping me out of trouble lately.