Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Encounters with the police

The cops have had an awful lot of bad press lately, for example the interactions with OWS protestors such as this one, and this sobering article from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, or this report of a former marine killed in his home by a SWAT team who erroneously thought he was a drug dealer. And erroneously thought their team member who tripped had just been shot.

My personal encounters with law enforcement have been qualitatively different. I have interacted with the police 26 times, and although that number seems large, none of them ended in an arrest, and in only two seemed like good material for an episode of Cops. In rough order of occurrence (I'm approximating my age on a few of these), they are:

1. When I was about 13, I was on a canoe trip where a boy drowned, and the police were called to investigate. A friend of the victim broke down crying at one point, and the officer taking the report was very consoling to her.

2. At 15, my bicycle was stolen. My stepfather called the police, an officer came to our apartment to take a report. Our apartment smelled of weed most of the time, as my folks smoked quite a bit of it. The officer either didn't notice, or didn't mention it. He took the report, informed us that it's rare to make a recovery, but they would nonetheless give it the ol' college try.

3. At 16, a pair of officers knocked on our open apartment door late one night when we were sleeping, to verify we weren't being robbed. I assume a neighbor saw the door accidentally left open and called on our behalf.

4. Also at about 16, a group of my friends and I were horsing around at Graceland shopping center, jumping up and smacking a high awning. We were mainly just seeing who could jump higher and not trying to vandalize it. A patrol car slowed down and warned us to knock it off.

5. At 17, I took a late-night walk, and ended up near some closed office buildings. A patrol car came to make sure I wasn't vandalizing the buildings or trying to break in. I was in sort of a bleak mood that night, prompting them to give me the "Problems at home?" quiz. I passed, apparently, and they shood me on, asking me only to stay on the sidewalk so as not to look like a prowler.

6. At 18, my car was in the shop, and I wanted a late-night snack, so I walked down to a local gas station. I took a shortcut back home, crossing through a car dealership and onto the train tracks behind it (Jack Maxton Chevrolet by 161 and Proprietors, if you're familiar with Worthington). Unbeknownst to me, a car had recently been stolen there the previous night, so the police were patrolling around it more. An officer jogged up to me on the railroad tracks, but saw that I was just drinking my Mountain Dew and strolling along, so he explained all this to me. When he asked my name, he even went so far as to say I wasn't obligated to answer. I cooperated, said I'd stick to the sidewalks in the future, and he let me go.

7. My first speeding ticket, and the first time I thought I was about to get shot. At 18, I thought I was invincible behind the wheel of a car, and took late-night drives through the hilly backroads between Worthington and Linworth, and just went nuts, flying around curves, pedal pegged. During one of these outings, a cop passed me going the other way. For some reason, I assumed he wouldn't even try to turn around and catch up to me. About a mile and a half later, I was proven wrong when I saw his lights in my rear-view mirror.

I pulled over, and I knew that I would be asked for my registration, which was in the glove box... you can see where this is going, can't you? As the officer approached my window, he saw me rooting around in the glove box, and barked out a sharp "HANDS ON THE WHEEL!". I complied immediately. He followed this by questions about my drinking (none, by the way, I didn't start drinking until my late 30s), how he'd like nothing more than to haul me away to jail, but a moving violation wasn't enough cause, and he left me with a ticket, and went on his way.

A lot of that was basic "scared straight" material, which I saw for what it was, but I reflected a lot on how he seemed ready to draw on me when he saw me in the glove box, and I decided to stop driving like a maniac. In hindsight, this probably saved my life, as I was less likely to wreck in an infrequently traveled backroad in the middle of the night.

8. At 19, my cousin Glenn and I were driving back from a city east of Winston Salem, NC (possibly Raleigh, but I can't remember for sure) where we were helping to open a new "Shoe Show" store. I was a passenger, and Glenn was trying to make good time on the way back. A state trooper pulled him over for speeding, and asked him to step out of the car.

As it turns out, this wasn't a bad thing, the officer just wanted to scold Glenn in private rather than embarrass him in front of me (southern politeness - I was still sort of a kid, making Glenn, about 10 years my senior, an authority figure by default. It would demean that authority to get publicly scolded. This probably sounds confusing to you Yankees, but that type of thing is a standard tenet of our culture). Glenn was completely "yes, sir" and "no, sir" to the officer, who let him off with a warning.

9. At 19, I was a passenger in a car with my friend Steve, who suffers from sleep apnea. We were both beat after coming home from either a party or a concert, and he swerved a little, and was pulled over. After the officer assessed that we were both just tired and not drunk, he told Steve to be careful and try to get off the road soon and find a bed.

10. At 20, I would typically close the pizza store I worked at, and then head off to a 24 hour gym to work out before I went home. On one particular night, I went flying through a speed trap, and was pulled over. The officer asked me where I was going in such a hurry. "World's Gym," I replied.

As luck would have it, that was the gym that a lot of police officers worked out at. I was let go with a warning (possibly from the serendipitousness of my destination), and also informed that one of my brake lights was out.

11. At the tail-end of my reckless youth, I liked to play on playgrounds in the middle of the night with friends. On one particular night, my friend Lisa and I stopped by Colonial Hills Elementary at about midnight after picking up some Jolly Pirate donuts. We sat on top of the school's jungle gym, ate our donuts, and chatted.

After a while, a cruiser pulled up and shone its lights at us. The officer asked what we were doing, and I flashed him the Jolly Pirate bag I was holding. "Just eating some donuts". He then asked our ages (18 for her, 20 for me), and then told us simply to "stay out of trouble". He left, without even demanding we leave the school.

12. At 21, the pizza store I worked for had run out of an ingredient, and I was sent to another store to borrow some. Trying to hurry back, I ended up read-ending someone who stopped suddenly. The police arrived to take a report, where I admitted I was at fault and was cited for unassured clear distance.

13. Also at about 21, I was pulled over for speeding on the West Virginia turnpike. The state trooper invited me back to his patrol car, where I sat in the front as he filled out my ticket. He was very chatty, and was listening to classic rock in his car. I think maybe he was just lonely and wanted someone to talk to. Nice guy, if you don't count that he gave me a $60 ticket.

14. At 22, I was an assistant manager at a pizza store, and had a free night with nothing to do at 12:30am. I decided to play a prank on that night's closing manager, so I parked in the empty lot next to our store and snuck over, then quickly unlocked the back door and jumped in to the suprise of the people doing closing cleaning and paperwork.

Meanwhile, a patrol noticed my car in an empty parking lot, and ran my plates. By some means, they put two and two together and phoned the store and asked if I was inside... then asked me to come outside. I did, and the two officers spread out around me until they formed an equilateral triangle with me as the third point. They were clearly on edge and expecting trouble.

It turned out that I had never paid my ticket from number 13. Combine that with my car being in a vacant parking lot, and they thought maybe I was a criminal robbing the store. A few minutes of conversation assured them otherwise, and they ended up not citing me with anything, but taking my car's license plates (!) until the matter with the West Virginia tickets was resolved.

I'm not sure if taking my plates was legal or warranted, and it did come close to causing me to lose my job (managers have to be able to drive). I managed to get the ticket cleared up in a few days, and got my plates returned to me, so there wasn't any long-term consequence.

15. Also as 22, shortly before stepping down from pizza management to the less stressful and equal paying job of delivery boy, an officer came into my store to pick up a pizza. This happened a lot, and I haven't listed the score or so times I've handed an officer a pie and told him to have a nice day. In this instance, however, a young man, college age, who was in the store prior to the officer's arrival stiffened and was visibly nervous. His order came up first, so I handed it to him. He said an abrupt "thanks", and quickly left the store.

After he left, I mentally played back the conversation he had with Dave, my inside closing help that night, and didn't remember him ringing the man up. "Did he pay?" I called to Dave. He replied "I thought you rung him up."

Without speaking to us, the officer (Shicks, I think, from the Westerville police) got on his shirt-mounted CB and called for a car to come pull the guy over as he drove away. Being a trained observer, he knew the make, model, and color of the car, the road the car left on and which direction he went.

About 10 seconds later a police car with lights flashing came flying past the store. About 5 minutes after that, the ghost-white, shaking man came back in, stammered out "I'm so sorry," and paid for his food. Our running theory is that he was holding, and thought he was about to get busted. To my knowledge, the officers didn't pursue that angle. Scaring the crap out of a college boy is more fun than a nickle-bag bust, I imagine, plus the amount of paperwork to show probable cause for a search was probably insane back in the pre-9/11 days.

16. At 23, an SUV rear-ended my Ford Escort, smashing my back window and cleaning my clock pretty badly. An officer ticketed the man who hit me, made sure I was ok and didn't need a doctor, and called a tow-truck for me.

17. Also at 23, I was booking back to the pizza store at 1:45am after making my final delivery one Saturday night, and went a little left of center on the final left-turn onto the road the store was on. An officer pulled me over, and sat there until backup arrived. Then both officers exited their cars, one approached my driver's-side window, the other took a vantage point behind my car and to the right.

So basically I'm sitting there with my store driver's hat on, the empty pizza bags beside me, and about a block from the store. Despite that, I was at first unable to convince the officers that I was working and on my way to the store, rather than going home from a bar or a party. "How much have you had to drink tonight?" came up more than once. I blew a 0.0 on their portable breathalyzer, naturally, and they then accepted my story, and let me go without a ticket. Possibly that was their way of apologizing for the wrong assumption.

18. Again at 23, near the time I stopped working pizza, I was asked to give one of the teenage counter-girls a ride home since her ride fell through. I combined this with a delivery going the other direction, so I sped a little so I could finish the delivery, drop her off, and get back to the store quicker, as we were short-staffed on drivers that night. I was pulled over for speeding, however, making my efforts at timesaving moot.

It was near Christmas, and the young lady riding with me, fit and lovely, was wearing a snug sweater that the officer was visibly distracted by. He casually and quickly gave the standard warning speach "Hey, it's close to the holidays, and kids are out going wild, be careful on the streets... man, that's a nice sweater!" I was let off with a warning, which I attribute to Tracy's charm and the young officer's libido.

19. At 24, I had quit pizza, started working at CompuServe, and moved my girlfriend in with me. She would later become my wife, and later still would become my ex-wife. I received a phone call one evening when she and I were watching television. The call was from a police officer who introduced himself politely, asked if I was Gayle's son, and said that she and her friend needed a lift home.

I got the address, and my girlfriend and I went to pick them up. On arrival, the officer gave me the full story. He pulled them over for drunk driving, and was more interested to see that they got home safely than to cite anyone (my mom and her friends were pretty entertaining and likeable back in her party days, which probably helped). I said thanks, my girlfriend and I each drove a car, and no one got ticketed or sent to the drunk tank.

20. At 25, I let my tags expire. Life with a new baby was sort of hectic, which I rationalized as an excuse to keep procrastinating. I stopped by the bank on my morning commute one day, and wanted to finish my business and get to work as soon as possible. The side road the bank was on intersected a major road (Sawmill) and a block down the main road to the left was a stoplight. The light had just changed to green, sending traffic my way, and I had the opportunity to beat the traffic, provided I blew a stop sign. I scanned for pedestrians or other obstructions, and punched it, pulling in just ahead of the first car.

I pulled into the left turn lane (for Snouffer), and got caught at the light. Mozying up behind me came the first car from the previous light, a Columbus police officer. And he sat there and waited. And I spent the next 90 seconds thinking about all the opportunities I had to renew my tags but decided not to. The light changed, his lights came on, and I took my lumps (figuratively). I think the ticket for the stop sign and driving on expired tags was a little north of $100.

21. At 27, my wife and I took a vacation to North Carolina with our toddler daughter, and decided to stop at a hotel in West Virginia when little Stacey started getting fussy. While driving down a service road to the hotel, a police car coming the other way stopped and turned his emergency lights on and approached us on foot, cautiously.

"Where you guys heading?" asked the officer "Yon hotel," I said, pointing. I probably didn't say "yon hotel".

He looked us up and down, shone his flashlight inside our car, and explained that we were driving the same make and model of a car they were looking for. He didn't say what the guy in the car was wanted for, but after assuring himself that no one was hiding in our floorboards, he tipped his hat, bid us good day, and ambled back to his car. He probably didn't bid us good day.

22. At 30, my first wife and I had split up, and I was for a few months dating a woman in Kirkersville when I was living in Dublin. A few times a week, I would trek the 40 miles to her house, play with her kids, go out to dinner, and trek back home. She was great, her kids were great, and despite our good relationship, we just sort of stopped calling each other. My assumption has always been that Tia looked up my court records and saw that my divorce wasn't actually finalized like I told her it was. I felt like an asshole for a long time after we stopped seeing each other, especially for how her 8 year old would feel abandoned by me. Thinking about little Merica being sad was the main reason I didn't date anyone else for the following 7 years.

Anyway, police, right... During that time, I drove this little Saturn whose previous owner drove the hell out of it. Shortly after I bought the car, a host of things started to go wrong with it faster than I could afford to get them repaired. During one of my 40 mile treks back from Kirkersville, my headlights went out. My parking lights still worked, and so did my brights. It was about 11pm on a weekday when I was heading back, so there wasn't much traffic. I alternated between driving with my brights on, and switching to just parking lights when a car came from the opposite direction, so as not to blind them.

I made it almost all the way home, and then about half a mile from the freeway exit back to my neighborhood, a cop pulled me over to see what was going on. I explained the situation, and promised to get the car to a shop come daylight. He advised me just to leave my brights on and not worry about blinding people, and let me go.

23. At 32, I was at the apex of a horrible undiagnosed sinus infection that would probably eventually have killed me had I not found a good ENT to perform a septoplatsy. For about 6 months, I kept going to my family doctor complaining of headaches that put pressure on my eyes and teeth, but for whatever reason the idea that I might have a sinus problem never crossed his mind. He would load me up on vicodin under the assumption that I had cluster headaches. After finding that they didn't fully alleviate the pain, but wanted to take them anyway, I threw them away to avoid becoming an addict, and switched to ibuprofen and benadryl, which combined to make life tolerable.

During the next famliy get-together in North Carolina, I had an attack, and on the way back took a dose of my mother's benadryl, which was, in hindsight, a much stronger dose than my body was used to taking. I was driving her and 7 year old Stacey back to Ohio, and progressively getting more drowsy.

After passing Wytheville, Virginia, we came to the Big Walker Mountain Tunnel, a quiet, dark oasis from the noisy, bright freeway. After passing through it's 4/5ths of a mile, I was lulled nearly to sleep, and my foot kept getting heavier on the accelerator. I exited the tunnel going about 70 (55 is the speed limit from about 1/4 mile before to 1/4 mile after the tunnel), to the waiting speed trap on the other side.

Seeing my speedometer be nowhere near where I thought it was, combined with the flashing lights, I got a jolt of adrenalin, counteracting the diphenhydramine-induced coma I was heading towards. I uneventfully signed for my ticket, drove the remainder of the trip fully awake, and wrote my speeding users-fee check a few days later.

24. At 37, I fell victim to a stop sign trap at the corner of College ave. and Nicole in Westerville. When I first moved to Westerville, the stop sign was one street to the west, at the corner of College ave. and College ct., where it was immediately adjacent to the Middle School. A local petition was circulated for a ballot initiative to move the stop sign to Nicole, which has more houses on it. With the sign moved, the kids can immediately cross College from Nicole, then walk a block to their school, instead of walking down College for a block, then crossing immediately to their school. This is another reason why the rest of the world shakes their head at us and the obsession we have with our first-world problems.

Anyway, I drive past that stop-sign on the way to the freeway in the morning about an hour after the Middle School classes start, and until then I had just slowed down and looked for oncoming cars or kids late for school, and coasted through the stop sign at a slow crawl. Westerville posted a crusier down Nicole far enough to not be recognized as a threat by folks like myself who coasted through the stop sign, and I'm assuming pulled over about 20 people that day, netting the city an easy $2 grand.

After being pulled over, the officer asked me "Do you know why I pulled you over?". "Yes," I replied, and then bit my tongue to avoid blurting out any smartass comments about it being the end of the month and time for local police to "pay the rent", or my being more concerned with where pedestrians were than hidden patrol cars.

My ticket was over $100, due a week later. I hate the suburbs.

25. At 38, a friend and I drove up to Cleveland to see a band whose bassist we went to High School with. On the way back, my friend had to pee, so we pulled over on the freeway and he started to head to the bushes. A state trooper pulled over then, and asked us if everything was alright. "I'm sorry, officer, I just really need to pee," says my friend. The officer replies "alright, then, just making sure your car wasn't broken down."

I'm pretty sure it's a violation of some sort to stop on the freeway to pee in the bushes, but the trooper was less concerned about that than the possibility that someone might need help.

26. At 40, again with the expired tags. This time I was just heading to the grocery store with my pregnant wife, and driving "safely" - in my opinion, I always drive safely; this time I just wasn't breaking any traffic laws. The officer who pulled me over let me off with a warning in return for a promise to renew the tags soon.

So what can we make of all this? How could I have had all these encounters with cops and not been victimized, arrested, pepper-sprayed, cuffed, been threatened with dogs, or subjected to searches without probable cause? Well, being a white male probably skews things in my favor, I'll admit, but 26 times all ending without incident? Something else is at play.

Maybe the way I behave matters. I give cops respect and cooperation as a rule, and knowing that they quickly divide people into the "might kill me" and "probably won't kill me" categories, I try an awful lot to look like the latter, especially after my wakeup call when I was 18 and not thinking about how rooting around in a glove box might look. They do have jobs that put them in harm's way, obviously, and getting home without injury is going to weigh on them stronger than what I think my constitutional rights are. A pragmatic rule of thumb is cooperate on the street, object in the courtroom. In my case, doing much of the former has meant I needed to do none of the latter. Your mileage may vary.

I think what matters most, though, is that the negative stories you hear about corrupt police, OWS protestors getting smacked around, and adrenaline junkies with badges are mainly the exceptions to the rule. Most of the police are the good guys. If that weren't the case, I think I'd definitely have a different story to tell.

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