Monday, June 18, 2007

An Apology Given, and An Apology Owed

I have what could be most charitably described as a tenuous relationship with law enforcement.

On the one hand, I appreciate that police officers work difficult and dangerous jobs, for often criminally low wages. The combination of such a difficult work environment with such paltry tangible compensation means that many in law enforcement are there because they have an at least semi-divine calling, a strong desire to ensure a safe community.

On the other hand, I also understand that while police officers are not well compensated in tangible ways, there are certain intangible perks. Police officers carry with them a great deal of power (along with a sidearm), and so many people who work in law enforcement do so because they are attracted to guns and power. Many lord that power over the rest of us.

My few personal minor scrapes with law enforcement have done little to improve my opinion. I remember being pulled over one night, on my way to pickup one of Sami's prescriptions before the pharmacy closed. I knew why I'd been pulled over. I changed lanes without a turn signal. A moving violation, and for good reason. Turn signals are, I understand, vital safety devices, and should be used before any turn. I was careless, and I merited a citation. So I patiently waited to be handed one.

However, after ten or fifteen minutes had passed without an officer emerging from the cruiser that stopped me, I started to get nervous. Finally another cruiser pulled along beside the one that stopped me, and three officers emerged from the two cars.

Having blinding lights blare in on me for the last ten or fifteen minutes, I couldn't see anything, and was a little annoyed, but tried to stay calm.

Tap, tap, tap, went the butt of a flashlight on the driver's side window. I rolled it down.

Do you know why I pulled you over?, the female officer asked, accusingly.

I think so. I changed lanes back there without using me turn signal.

That is NOT why I pulled you over. I pulled you over under suspicious of DUI. I saw you swerving back there. Have you been drinking?

I always hate answering that question. I don't drink, so it’s an easy question to answer. But it’s hard to answer that question without sounding condescending. Most people drink, and I don't see anything wrong with that. When I drink, however, I turn into an insufferable asshole. So, I don't drink. It keeps my wife from hating me.

No ma'am, I haven't.

She and the two male officers, who searched my car, detained me (and my wife, who sat patiently next to me, seething) for over an hour. Most of the time they did nothing at all. Occasionally they insulted us. I'm not sure if they were bored, or if they were looking for drugs, or what. I am sure that when it was all over, I'd been cited for reckless driving for changing lanes without a turn signal. That charge was later amended to "faulty equipment." The encounter did little to improve my opinion of law enforcement.

And imagine, Sami sometimes says, How do you think it would have gone if we were black, or hispanic?!?

But that experience must be balanced against the time in high school when one of my best friends was mugged. We'd put together a sort of posse to go retaliate, when we realized that

1.) we were stupid, because

2.) we couldn't fight.

So, with the option of revenge closed to us (another example of prevenient grace!) we decided to go to the police. The detectives we talked to were nothing but compassionate and respectful. And, my adult opinion of them is even better than my childhood one, because they showed compassion not just for my friend, the victim of apparently random violence; they also showed compassion to the perpetrators of that violence, understanding that they too were victims of a cycle of violence.

As a kid I wanted blood, so I was disappointed when I found out that, upon finding the guys who mugged my buddy, and finding that they were just teenagers themselves, with no priors, they sat the down in the station for a while, scared the hell out of them, and let them go. I don't know how those kids turned out, but I suspect that they ended up better off for not going to jail for their foolishness.

What troubles me most about law enforcement, however, is a philosophic consideration. When those charged with enforcing the laws of a society are not bound to obey those laws that they enforce, society is not ruled by law, but rather by raw power. And, at least here in Louisville, far too many police officers appear far too willing to violate the laws that they enforce on the public.

We've had a few highly publicized deaths resulting from cruisers flying through stoplights or stop signs at high speeds, without lights or sirens, and careening into cars or pedestrians. Every time I travel on expressway, I see police cruisers fly through the left hand lane at 90 or more miles per hour; apparently oblivious to the danger such behavior puts the rest of us in.

Of course, not all police officers violate the laws that they are charged with enforcing, and I understand that traffic laws are, at least from an enforcement perspective, a fairly flexible thing. I've gone 70 in a 55, seen a cop, and yet not been ticketed. So I'm hardly in a position to complain too loudly that speed limits are not always strictly enforced. But it seems to me that when those who are supposed to enforce the laws break those laws they are charged with enforcing, there should be a stiffer penalty because of the inherent violation of the public trust. Far too often, however, instead of being held to a higher standard, many police officers benefit from a good-ole-boy system that turns a blind eye.

My neighborhood has narrow streets, putting parking at a premium. Consequently, cars often park on the sidewalks. From the perspective of motorized traffic, this is a simple solution to a persistent problem. From a pedestrian perspective, however, this is a nuisance in the first degree.

Adam, Pepper (the dog), and I go for a three-mile walk every morning, before it gets too hot. You don't know awkward until you've tried to negotiate a sidewalk doubling as a parking lot with an eighty-pound dog and a stroller. You can either push the stroller in the grass - which this stroller, to put it mildly, isn't designed to do - or you can risk walking with a toddler in the narrow road, with limited visibility. One is difficult, the other risky. Life would be much simpler if the cars would park in the grass, leaving the sidewalk for us pedestrians.

Along with the nuisance of it, there are a couple other considerations. First off, the sidewalk is public land. You don't own the sidewalk in front of your house; the city does. As such, it is meant for public use, and is not to be permanently claimed by your automobile. Additionally, there is a law against parking on the sidewalk.

Saturday, Sami joined Pepper, Adam and me for our morning walk - the weekends are a treat! During the walk, my brother Tom called, so I decided to complain to him about all the cars parked on the sidewalk, interfering with our walk.

Do cars ever park on the sidewalk in your neighborhood? I asked, as we passed yet another car butting into what should have been a relaxing morning stroll.

Hell no, man! They'd be towed if they did that!

Just then we passed what I thought was an unoccupied police car, true to form, parked in the middle of the sidewalk.

Not much chance of that, I said, glaring at what I assumed was an empty cruiser. Here even the police park on the sidewalk.

We walked for a few more steps before a loud voice exploded behind us.


Oh crap, I thought. There was a cop in that car. Well, I guess I'd better keep walking and pretend I can't hear him. Sami and I looked at each other a little nervously, but kept walking.

SIR! the booming voice called out again. COME HERE PLEASE!

No use pretending I can't hear him. I guess I'd better go see what he wants.

Yes, officer, I said, as calmly and politely as I could, trying to keep my heart from jumping out of my throat, my hands trembling with the palsy of fear.

Sir, I heard what you said.


I heard what you said, and I just wanted to say... I'm sorry. I'll move my car at once. I'm really sorry about that.

What just happened? I'd been prepared for conflict. I'd been prepared to have my ass summarily handed to me for daring to criticize the actions of a police officer. I didn't know what he would do to me, but I sure didn't expect an apology. I'd never seen any police officer apologize under any circumstances for anything.

I walked off stunned, my limbs still quivering from the adrenaline flowing through my body, triggered by my quite confused "fight or flight" reflex.

A police officer apologized to me, and now I need to apologize to him. Not, of course, for criticizing his behavior. He was wrong, and he knew it. But rather for assuming the worst about him, based on my own prejudice. So I, too, am sorry. And I, too, was wrong. And, at least once, I've seen a cop admit to being wrong, and apologize for it.


Anonymous said...

Wow-- charitable interpretation in action, huh? It really sounds like you (and Sami) have been through a bit of a wringer lately. Sorry to hear that.

Knowing you as well as I do, the idea that you would be pulled over on suspicion of DUI is especially ridiculous. Although I've cut back, I drink far more often than you, and I've never been stopped on suspicion of DUI. (Of course, I do take care not to get behind the wheel after drinking-- ask Cheryl, who ends up bearing the burden of my enjoyment of fermented beverages.)

Princess Pinky said...

And imagine, Sami sometimes says, How do you think it would have gone if we were black, or hispanic?!?

While driving down the interstate in Bessie (for all who don't know her, Bessie is a red Ford E-150 conversion van with broken sun shades that are always down), we were pulled over and the first words out of the cop's mouth weren't "Do you know how fast you were going?" or even "Do you know why I pulled you over?"

It was "You got any Mexicans in there?"

We were, after sufficiently proving we were not carting around illegal immigrants, free to go.


I was thankful for their presence when I had to pull the gate of my store because a gang fight has broken out in the mall corridor in front of my store and I had scared parents and children cowering in my back room just in case bullets started to fly. I am thankful as well that since that occurrence close to four years ago, they maintain a presence in my mall and the officer who stayed to take my statement still remembers me and says hi when he passes, even though I am with a different store and I don't think of myself as particularly memorable.