When I was younger, policemen were larger than life in my mind. They were the ultimate place of safety in a big, bad world (aside from my parents of course). It was drilled into our heads at school and at home…. “if you think you are in danger or you are lost, walk up to a policeman and ask for help, he will help you.” As far as I was concerned, the police where there to serve and protect.
It took one personal experience with the police in this country for me to learn that the danger does not lie in a deep, dark alley, nor does it lie in the heart of a malevolent stranger wearing a trench coat and trolling the streets at night. The danger lies in the very place where we should seek safety.
Soon after moving to this city I was invited to a birthday party at a local cocktail bar. When my then boyfriend and I arrived, we discovered it was a cash bar so we had to leave, find an ATM, draw some cash and be back at the party in a flash….easy peasy.
What happened next could not have taken more than 10 or 15 minutes and yet it felt like a lifetime. A lifetime that I remember in great detail.
As we pulled up to an ATM on a main road, I noticed a dark, unmarked Citi Golf parked close by. As human beings our greatest asset is our instinct: that inexplicable gut feeling that identifies danger before the brain does and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That feeling assaulted my senses as we drove past the Golf. I made eye contact with the man in the driver’s seat. He was staring right at me. Of the sequence of events that ensued….I remember those eyes the most.
We were already pulling up next to the ATM as I turned to my boyfriend and told him something was wrong. He, the stubborn goat (I say that with affection) that he was, said he would be quick. I have no doubt the same sense of danger assailed him too despite the fact that he would not admit it. He left the car door open and the engine running as he stepped to the ATM. I watched the Golf. Its headlights came on as he walked back from the ATM. Right then, we both knew we were in trouble. He threw the money and card on my lap and we took off. The Golf gave chase. He took a very sharp left in the opposite direction from where we were supposed to go. The Golf followed. He sped up, overtook, the Golf followed. He slowed down and they started to catch up so he sped up again. He was driving a 2L engine vehicle. Theirs was a 1.4L or 1.6L maximum. We could get away……
Then the curve ball came……
A police siren. There was no mistaking it. Yet, neither of us could see a police car anywhere. It had to be coming from the Golf. Suddenly the Golf had blue lights. I was confused. I lowered my window to try and identify the direction the sound was coming from. Just then, a loud hailer identified our car by the license plate number, colour and make and asked us to pull over. They did not identify themselves.I think we were both too shocked to think clearly. The situation was clearly wrong but could we disobey a direct order from what appeared to be the “police?” They called twice more. We hesitantly pulled over and started to get out of the car. The Golf pulled up behind us.
I will never ever forget the sight of two armed, angry looking men dressed in all black with what looked like army issue black boots stepping out of that vehicle. One had an automatic weapon, the other had a handgun. He cocked it, walked right up to me and held it against my head. Anyone who has ever watched an action movie knows what that sounds means. In that moment fear knew me by name. Then I looked down and saw the word “police” embroidered in yellow on the jacket pocket. I was torn between relief and horror. What was happening? They both had name tags. One was patting down my boyfriend on the other side of the car. The other verbally assaulted me non stop on the other side…. his gun levelled at my head. I rallied my senses and I looked right at his name tag. The name was in vernacular and difficult to read. He saw me and covered it with his hand and then he removed it. So did his friend. I could not help but think something very bad was about to happen.
Just then, a marked police vehicle pulled up across the road. There were two uniformed officers in it. I thought the Calvary had arrived. The guys in black waved them away and horror of horrors… they drove away. I started to panic.
The search of my boyfriend’s pockets and wallet yielded nothing. He had all his paperwork in order. They grabbed my clutch bag and opened it? There was nothing in there but makeup. He turned to me and said “who goes to an ATM and comes back with no money?” In all the mayhem I had forgotten all about the money. I knew it must have dropped onto the floor when I got up but I didn’t say anything. Every time I spoke I seemed to antagonise them more.
My boyfriend was my knight in shining armour that night. He started calmly talking to them. Negotiating. Asking what exactly they wanted. They demanded my passport. I didn’t have it. I had submitted it to the local Immigration Authority as part of my Visa Application. I had my student card though. I had also had proof of submission. They were not interested. What they wanted for him to drive away and leave me with them. My knees buckled and I sat on the sidewalk. I knew exactly what that meant. I would be raped. Everyone who lives in this country knows the shocking statistics when it comes to women being raped by police officers. My brain could not process that this was happening to me. But my boyfriend would not let it happen. Again and again they demanded that he should leave. They pointed their guns at him. Raised their voices. Insulted him. He stood his ground. He kept negotiating. He kept talking calmly. He steadfastly refused to leave. Eventually he gave them all the money. They took it. They stood and watched as we got into our car and drove away. I was shaking like a leaf. When he touched my knee and asked if I was OK I started crying and couldn’t stop…
Looking back, there is so much I would have done differently. I would not have stopped. I would have driven to the nearest police station at full speed with my hazard lights on. I would have ignored the siren and the loud hailer. I would have remembered, as a law student should, that a male police officer can not legally detain a female between 6pm and 6am because of the rape statistics. Above all, I would have trusted my instincts.