The current spotlight on policing brought back my own experience of police overreach some 50 years ago in The Hague, Holland, where my husband Bill, our 11-year old son and I had just finished a two-day visit before vacationing in the British Isles.
It had been disappointing, as the Torture Museum was closed, the Money Museum had been robbed, and a guard in the Postage Museum had mistaken our son for an errant school boy and manhandled him in the front entrance. We couldn’t take him to a Tarzan movie for consolation because admission was restricted to age 14 and over. Consolation finally came when he went fishing for the Loch Ness monster, the promise of which was what convinced him to agree to the trip in the first place.
We were eager to leave The Hague, so we had packed up before bedtime, ready to make a morning train.
We were wakened at about 6 a.m. by loud, masculine mutterings and shufflings outside our door. We were sure we were going to be robbed, and I hurried to hide money and passports while my husband tried to phone the desk. No answer.
Pounding on the door started, and, in English: “Open up!”
Me: “Who’s there?”
“Go away, come back later!”
We were the last room in the hallway, so we banged on the one adjoining wall with my husband’s shoes. The window opened onto a narrow alley, no help there. We put the old-fashioned key in the lock and propped a night-stand under the knob, but a key turned on the other side and the door was pushed open.
Three men with long hair and sports jackets rushed in, threw my husband on the bed and pinned him down, one on top and one on each arm. Bill did the only possible thing and bit the one on top of him in the neck.
I rushed out the door, only to be stopped and sent back in by a young policeman. I would have thought by his ornate, gold-braided uniform that he was a theater usher, except that I had seen plenty of police on the streets the day before. Japanese emperor Hirohito and the empress were visiting, but the unwelcoming Dutch had stoned their car so the city was on alert.
I came back in and said there was a policeman in the hall. The men in our room said they were all police, and showed laminated cards proving it. When I found our hidden passports, they inspected my husband’s and said he was not the man they wanted. As they left, a woman standing in her doorway across the hall said in English: “Please have some consideration for people who are trying to sleep!”
We pulled ourselves together, went down for breakfast, found the manager and complained. He said he’d been told there was a disturbance and would look into it. Soon the policeman my husband had bitten was back, wearing his uniform and telling us this was all our fault because we had not opened the door when they knocked.
It seems the police had come while an Indonesian student was on the night desk. When they described the man they wanted, whose first name was John, the student fingered my husband, as our last name was John and we were the first John in the register. After leaving us, the police went to the next John on the list, who opened the door and let himself be captured even though they found three loaded guns in his room!
We were scared. This was the late 1960s, the era of riots in American streets, and we knew what could have happened here if police met resistance and believed their quarry to be armed.
The police never apologized, and it turned out Bill had only gotten a mouthful of that one policeman’s long greasy hair, so he wasn’t even hurt. But there were two consequences: One, whenever we traveled our code word, if one of us had to knock for entrance to our hotel room, was always “visitors.”
Two, we dined out for years on the story of “The Time Bill Bit the Policeman.”
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