For over fifty years, I’ve listened to people telling me their tales of woe about tickets they didn’t deserve, cops who were rude and arrests that were unnecessary. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I side with the cop. After all, I was one and…in my opinion …the cops are usually right.
However, there are exceptions. When an officer is petty or uses bad judgement, even when he’s technically right, they set a poor example for all police officers and their departments.
This story is about Carol. (A pseudonym) Carol is a hard -working young woman of thirty, and a single mother of two kids who cleans houses for a living. She has a clean record, no tickets, no arrests, no drugs, a clean-living, tax-paying citizen struggling to get by to support her children.
Along comes Officer Prink (also a false name, but close) who rides a motorcycle, assigned to traffic enforcement. He spots her pick-up truck passing by with her window open and decides to pursue. She is confused because she does not speed and has broken no traffic laws, to her knowledge.
The officer pulls her over and sees that her seat belt is fastened – but, incorrectly. Carol has an annoying problem with the strap across her shoulder and often crosses it under her arm pit. She saw no reason to conceal it. The officer points out why it is improperly fastened and without further ado, proceeds to write her a citation which will cost her a mail-in fine of $119.
The officer may have been technically correct in his assessment. Not every driver knows the minutia of every minor regulation. My wife often crosses her seat belt the same way, so do others, totally unaware that it constitutes a violation, unaware that it causes any danger to anyone, unaware she would be subject to punishment by the government.
The officer did his job. But he also had an option which required two elements: A brain and a heart.
One officer recently stopped me while driving with a defective taillight, another technical violation. That officer could have cited me. Rather, he politely informed me of the problem and sent me on my way. The light was fixed henceforth. That’s good police work.
Not so with Officer Prink who apparently needed statistics for his daily worksheet, and it mattered not that he would suck $119 from Carol’s hard-earned income that is needed far more by her children than by the city coffers. To Carol, $119 is pure gold for which she sweats and toils every day. $119 is like a thousand dollars to you, me and Officer Prink. When the officer motored away, she sat alone in her car for five long minutes, weeping. Over what? A seat belt crossed under her arm pit.
There is such thing as discretion, with which police officers are empowered. Some use it, some abuse it.
I think about all the “warnings” I gave decent people for petty infractions who could barely afford the fines I had the power to impose. I think about the cop I knew who gave harsh warnings, (but no arrest) to a teen because he was caught with a marijuana cigarette. That kid became a police officer cop five years later, thanks to a clean “record.” I think about the zillions of drivers who fail to signal a turn or a lane change, where cops smile and merely remind them of the law.
Carol’s cop could have made the department look professional and caring if he had only weighed the trivial nature of the violation versus the effect it would have on her dire financial circumstances. Instead, he centered himself in rigid correctness, devoid of compassion and good judgment.
Carol asked if she should go to court and fight the charge. In truth, the officer would probably be deemed legally correct and she’d not only pay the $119, she’d risk having to pay court costs as well.
Mired with expenses, Carol could barely scrape the money together. Her kids would have to do without a movie or a new toy, or a special occasion at a restaurant so she could pay her fine.
More importantly to Officer Prink, he will have pleased his sergeant with a healthy list of tickets for that day. He was technically correct, but in terms of public relations he did far more damage than good by abusing, not using, good discretion.
This is not the kind of police work I remember. It’s the kind that embarrasses me and other good officers in their chosen profession.