Some comments about the “police state” put forth in print yesterday got me thinking about my experiences as an agent of said state…
One morning, fairly early in my career, I was ordered to skip our start-of-shift roll call and report directly to the scene of a traffic fatality, to relieve another officer. An SUV had been in a roll-over crash on a local highway. Two occupants had been thrown from the vehicle, landing in the middle of the roadway. They were not wearing seatbelts – had they been, they almost certainly would have survived. It was one of those accidents where there was no possibility of rendering aid, you simply pulled a sheet over the remains and waited for the funeral home to arrive.
My job was mostly to direct the curious onlookers from morning rush hour around the accident, and make certain that the dignity of the victims was protected as they were removed from the scene.
Filled with the youthful exuberance of a young cop, I doubt I could have even articulated the thought process that preceded the actions I took following that wreck. I can only say that I was certain, at that time, that I could make a difference in the world. And so my very next call was a traffic stop on a woman who was not wearing her seatbelt, on that same highway.
Unsurprisingly, she did not appreciate my efforts to make the community a safer place, or to save her from herself. When I returned to her window to have her sign the citation, she snapped, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. Is this what you do all day, drive around harassing folks just because they forgot to put on their seatbelt?”
This is the moment, by the way, where so many cops get in trouble. They work some awful accident or other tragedy, such as a homicide or child molestation and, with no time to decompress or process their emotions, go directly back to work. Then an understandably irate citizen says something cruel or smart, and the next thing you know someone’s rights are being violated or the officer says something they will almost certainly be explaining the next day to Internal Affairs. (I am not excusing these actions, mind you, just setting the scene.)
Fortunately for me, I am neither possessed of a controlling temper nor inclined to curse. I was, however, so taken aback that I still blurted out the first thing that popped into my head, which was, “No ma’am, but I just finished putting the last two people who weren’t wearing their seatbelts in body bags. Please drive safe.”
I don’t recall if I even remembered to collect the signed citation from her. But I definitely recall her open-mouthed stare as I turned and walked away.
In the ten years that I have been an officer, no supervisor has ever told me to write more tickets, or given me instructions that in any way resembled meeting a “quota.” Granted, I’ve been a Detective for seven of those ten years, and I’m a supervisor myself now, so I haven’t been heavily involved in writing tickets. But in the times that I have, I’ve found that there are plenty of people driving in a manner that so completely disregards public safety that I have no need to go looking for “revenue.”
The circumstances by which most people have contact with police officers are rarely good. In many cases, it may be the most difficult day of a person’s life. So I’ve learned to let the anger and frustration people level at me in these moments roll off my shoulders, as long as it doesn’t affect my safety. Likewise, the epithet “jack-booted thug,” common in Internet-debate, merely causes me to raise an eyebrow and wonder how I, a rather benign mother of two, with an extremely sheltered childhood and an intense desire to believe in the innate goodness of humanity, came to be associated with so ugly an image.
The only things I have control over are my own attitude and actions. So the only thing that I can do in response to such accusations is to make certain that I always act with honesty and integrity, and be the best example of a police officer that I can, in hopes that I can counteract the impression made by those poor examples that always show up in the news…or in Internet commentary.
As another blogger stated recently, “Ethics matter.”