I forget our probable cause, although I'm sure we had some. The whereabouts of the traffic stop are but a vague recollection, but I do know that it took place in the unincorporated area of Monrovia, Calif.
The thing I do remember very well was the way the man cocked his head as though hanging onto every insightful word my then 22-year-old mind had to offer. That, and the way he stepped slightly to my right as he smiled that ingratiating smile at me.
The man and his friend were standing on a sidewalk near the friend's Oldsmobile. I was acting on my training officer's orders in getting their horsepower.
As I was fresh-out-of-patrol-school vigilant, sure that every octogenarian grandma was conspiring to first take my gun, then my life, his movements did not go unnoticed by me. With each step the man took, I compensated, stepping back myself with my right foot so as to rotate my gun hip away from him. After three such rotations, I finally—and quite belatedly—asserted my authority and told him to stand perfectly still. Grudgingly, he complied. I asked for his identification.
The man explained that he didn't have a driver's license, then presented me an old military ID. I stared at the faded black-and-white photo.
"Leroy Griffith, huh?"
At the mention of the man's name, my training officer extricated his upper torso from beneath the front seat of the Olds and told the two men to get in the wind.
Inside our patrol car, he explained his reason for abruptly cutting the line.
My training officer hadn't known Mr. Griffith by sight at least, not until just then only by reputation. For Mr. Griffith's deep and abiding contempt for deputies was well known around Temple Station. It was a hatred that found him routinely practicing weapon takeaways at nearby Pamela Park where the civic-minded Griffith would generously share his techniques with locals.
According to my t.o., Griffith had in fact nearly been shot and killed by a Temple deputy for acting on his conditioned instincts, thereby nearly averting such episodes for other cops. Unfortunately, discretion had prevailed after he'd succeeded in wrestling a deputy's gun from him only to find the barrel of a second deputy's revolver screwed in his ear and the slightly muffled words "Drop it!" filtrating around its bore.
I was glad that I hadn’t allowed him to get the angle on my gun waist. While I had been taught weapon retention techniques, the holster that carried my .38 revolver was by no means as secure as those that officers wear today. One sure as hell wouldn’t want to have gotten into a knock down, drag out fight over the weapon (which I nonetheless did years later, but that’s another story).
Was Mr. Griffith's hostility congenital in nature, or merely the predictable result of his less favorable contacts with deputies? Had the local shooting of a pregnant black woman by a deputy the year before had some impact on Griffith's frame of mind, or was he just one mean-spirited SOB?
It's enough to know that at the time he was gunning for a cop and preferably with the cop's own gun. And for him, the act of disarming started with a disarming smile.
In 1971, the Undisputed Truth had a hit with the song "Smiling Faces." Whenever I hear that song, I think of Mr. Griffith's well-affected smile.
Now, to be fair, the song asserts that "your enemies won't do you no harm, because you know where they're coming from." But it's getting them identified and on radar in the first place that's the problem, and first impressions at least as they relate to smiling faces and our profession can be an iffy proposition, at best.
For the smile can be variously interpreted as an invitation, a deferral, a threat. Such cultural differences are part of the reason China is encouraging its participants to use the smile, a facial expression that has historically had far greater ambiguity to it to cater to Western sensibilities when they host the Olympics.
Back at home when dealing with strangers in the scope of your duties it's best to remember that other lyric from “Smiling Faces,” the one that also asserts that "smiling faces tell lies," then ask yourself: “Would I be smiling at me if I was this guy?”
In any event, be assertive, professional, and officer safety conscious.
Oh, and smile.