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Sunday 13 June 2004

Dr. Gridlock and the Police State

I find the Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock asinine at best pretty much all of the time. The man is a tool; the column purports to be a resource for correcting some of the Washingtonia’s worst traffic annoyances, but the good Doctor’s advice is nearly always to Grin and Bear it. Usually he’ll talk to someone who has authority over a given problem, and he’ll report, without skepticism, that the authority said that they were totally unaware, say, that the department of public works were regularly flattening legally-parked cars along 16th street with a steam roller, and that people should call a certain phone number when they see the steamroller crew in action again. Sometimes the words he carries back from the mountaintop of bureaucracy make a little bit of sense; usually they involve transparent ass-covering.

One of today’s letters is a good example. A reader wrote in that for the last five years, she’d seen ‘tea-colored droplets’ falling from an overpass onto the Capital Beltway. She asked whether this might be sewage.

This was Dr. Gridlock’s response, in its entirety:

It’s rusty water, leaking from conduit lines beneath a manhole cover on Riggs Road. Maryland highway officials are working on it.

‘Highway officials are working on it’? Have they been working on it for five years? Or is the state totally unable to determine that water is leaking onto the road — slowly destroying the overpass and making conditions less safe underneath — for five years, and they’ve now begun to work on it after the immense weight of Dr. Gridlock was brought to bear?

Dr. Gridlock does not address this; he never does.

In the other letter in his column today, though, he really outdoes himself. A reader writes:

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I recently received a ticket from a District of Columbia police officer who failed to signal and cut me off as I drove eastbound on Constitution Avenue.

I tapped my horn once and hit my brakes, fortunate that I was not being tailgated. When I honked, the police car moved to the left lane, again without signaling, then moved behind me, again without signaling. He then turned on his flashing lights, and I pulled over.

After asking for my license and registration, he indignantly asked why I had honked my horn. I said that he had cut me off and hadn’t signaled. He curtly asked what the emergency was, since it is against the law in the District to use one’s horn in a non-emergency.

I said that not signaling and not providing ample room to merge in front of me could have caused an accident, and I felt at risk.

He continued, in a very confrontational manner, that it was against the law in Washington to use a horn in a non-emergency. I said I believed it was against the law to change lanes without signaling.

He said that he did signal. Both my passenger and I responded that he had not.

Then the officer said maybe the turn signal was broken. I said that I believed it was also illegal to drive with broken signals.

He went to his car and returned a few minutes later to give me my license, registration and a traffic ticket on which he wrote “Unnecessary Noise (non-emergency) Horn.”

I then said to the officer that, since he had suggested that maybe his turn signal was broken, I would like to see for myself, because I was going to challenge the ticket. He said he would not turn it on.

I feel unjustly charged and treated brusquely by the officer. In addition to finding sections on safe passing and the use of turn signals in the D.C. Municipal Code, I found a section that permits a driver to use a horn “when reasonably necessary to ensure safe operation.” However, another section states that “no vehicle shall be operated or used in such a manner as to cause unnecessary or disturbing noise.”

Does being cut off by another driver, who also failed to signal, justify the use of one’s horn?

I will be challenging this in court but will be forced to take time off work to defend myself against a charge that I believe shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

Am I missing something?

Jim Goldwater
Fairfax County

Dr. Gridlock responds:

Let’s look to the animal kingdom for guidance. I have a miniature pinscher (mini-pin) the size of a loaf of bread. She will charge huge dogs that get near her territory. Then, after realizing she is overmatched, she will roll over on her back in a submissive position. Nobody gets hurt.

In this case, the police officer is the big dog. He’s got a badge, a gun and a ticket book. By tooting at him, questioning his driving and asking to see his turn signals, you were challenging him.

If you had rolled over and agreed with him (even if you didn’t really agree), you might have avoided a ticket and a court date. Are you really going to win an argument with an officer who has already cut you off, then pulled you over and whipped out a ticket book because you had tooted at him?

I don’t get stopped often, but this is what I do: Address the officer with yes sir, no sir. When he says what you did wrong, agree completely and say you knew better than that. If you treat the officer respectfully and roll over, there is no need for him to ticket you to win an argument. Most times, I’ve gotten off with a warning.

Let me know what happens to you in court, Mr. Goldwater. Good luck, sir.

So. Dr. Gridlock recommends that, when stopped by a police officer, you agree to whatever he says. Note that if you really haven’t done anything wrong, your statement of agreement at the scene will generally result in your conviction in court, no matter what other evidence you drag in.

In this particular case, Dr. G. might have a point; arguing with a cop over whether he’s driving badly is pointless. He’s a cop, which means that he almost certainly was driving with complete disregard for the traffic laws; this is S.O.P. for police in most places. There’s no way that the driver is going to get anything out of winning this argument.

But in the larger view, this is a spectacularly bad idea.

I don’t like police. There’s nothing wrong with the people who become police officers, but the institution of the police in the United States seems to have got out of control.

I used to have no opinion one way or the other about cops, but one incident really changed my mind.

It was in 1992 or 1993, and I was driving home from a nighttime literature class, of all things. I lived about two miles from campus, all but the last couple hundred feet on main roads.

mapimageAs it happens, much of it also involves going down a big hill, and so when I reached the major intersection in the rough center of the map — Clayton and Big Bend, for those of you familiar with the territory — I was going a bit faster than the speed limit. The speed limit there was 35 mph, and I was going about 45. At night, through a well-lit, signalled intersection of two four-lane roads with turn lanes, sidewalks, crosswalks, no street parking and no traffic.

I was stopped by a sergeant with the Richmond Heights, Missouri, police department. When he turned on the lights, I had no idea what I’d done wrong. I hadn’t been going particularly fast, I just hadn’t had my foot on the brake. By this time, I’d already turned off Big Bend onto a side street, and was going about 20 mph, so I was able to immediately pull over.

I rolled down my window, turned off the engine, and sat to wait. A few seconds later, the cop is screaming at me to get out of the car. I look back and see him crouched behind the open door of the police car, pointing his pistol at me. I got out of the car and followed his bellowed directions to put my hands on top of the car, etc.

I concluded that a car like mine must have recently been stolen somewhere in the vicinity. I used to have a scanner, and I listened to the police radio in the background when I had nothing better to do; I knew that when the police stopped a car they suspected was stolen, they tended to be pretty defensive from the get-go. I figured this would all be happily resolved in short order, and I’d have a good story to tell. I had the car’s registration with me, and I lived about a block away from where I was standing.

The cop approached me and stuck his pistol into the small of my back. He jerked it around a few times and told me that he felt that he should kill me, then and there. He actually said this: “I ought to take you out right now.” This was an older guy, as I said a sergeant, so it’s unlikely that he was just acting out some macho power fantasy from some movie he’d recently seen. He’d been a cop too long for that. Nevertheless, he was of the distinct opinion that I deserved to die, then and there. The town of Richmond Heights — a wealthy suburb of St. Louis — had supplied this man with a weapon for that purpose.

He eventually got some sort of control of himself, holstered his weapon, and patted me down, in the process grabbing my testicles with some force and ramming them upward into my body. He then tossed the car, and when he’d finished with that he took me back to the police car and told me to get in the front. This is when I knew something was wrong; generally when a cop feels that someone should be subject to extra-judicial execution, and when he feels strongly enough about this to say as much out loud, usually the person in question is at least going to get arrested; people who are under arrest are seldom invited to sit in the front seat of the police car without handcuffs on.

When I got in the car, the cop asked me whether I knew why he’d stopped me, and I said I didn’t. By this time, I was entirely baffled. I hadn’t done anything obvious, and, if you’re white and middle-class in the United States at least, when the police are pressing gun barrels into your back, it’s not for something you’ve subtly got a bit wrong.

Anyway, to keep a long story from becoming entirely too long, the cop told me that he’d stopped me for speeding, and that he knew where I lived, and that he’d noticed my car.

That’s right: the son of a bitch lived down the street from me and he was treating me like this. This wasn’t a case of mistaken identity; he knew all along that he was threatening to kill one of his neighbors. I lived in the 1300 block of Highland Terrace, and he lived in the 1200 block.

He asked me where my parents lived, and what they did for a living. At this point, I was in full Doctor-Gridlock compliance mode — the man was clearly deranged and had already made one explicit and credible threat to kill me — so rather than telling him to shove his questions up his ass, I told him. This happy and unconstitutional conversation went on for a little while longer before he let me go without so much as writing me a speeding ticket. Of course he wouldn’t write me a ticket; then all this might come up in court.

I looked into complaining about the guy, but I never did. I had to live down the street from him, after all, and I lived in the middle of a town policed by his comrades. He’d simply have denied the entire episode, and I have little doubt that he would have seen to it that I was punished for having a problem with the police threatening to kill me.

This guy was obviously an aberration, but my previous and subsequent experiences with the police would seem to indicate that it’s the extent of his hatred for humanity, and not the character of it, that separated him from the mass of cops.

I am a pretty law-abiding guy; I don’t steal things, I don’t beat people up, I don’t sell or use drugs, and I don’t get drunk. Nevertheless I have regularly been threatened by police.

In Washington D.C., a cop threatened to arrest me once because I didn’t have a front license plate on my car. The car in question was on private property, and the cop was there refusing to take a report of the car having been broken into. It wasn’t a big enough deal for him to worry about; but that missing license plate — well, I suppose I’m lucky he didn’t decide to kill me right there.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, a cop once threatened to arrest me for drinking a beer on private property because I was outdoors and could be seen from the road if someone stopped their car, got out, and peered through the bushes, which were about a hundred feet away. I was over 21 and legally occupying the property, but he made me pour our my beer and promised to come back later to make sure that I wasn’t committing any other heinous crimes, like looking at people funny.

In St. Louis, Missouri, I was once almost hit by a car full of (presumably) drunk teenagers who were driving the wrong way down one-way streets, running red lights, etc. I got their license number; I called the cops. When they showed up, they threatened to arrest me. I never did figure out what they might have been thinking of charging me with.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, I was once the victim of a hit-and-run accident. I called the police, and when they finally showed up, I described what had happened. I was trying to turn left (from Josephine St. onto Prytania St.), and someone had illegally parked a truck on the corner. I edged out bit by bit to see whether anything was coming, and saw a black Chevy Corsica coming my way. I stopped; the Corsica slowed down, then sped up again and hit me. He backed up and took off. I didn’t get the license plate, but I needed a police report number anyway in case I needed to make an insurance claim.

By now you know what happened. The cop threatened to arrest me for not observing the stop sign. I had stopped, of course; my car was hit on the side, and it was plain from the damage on the front corner that I hadn’t been moving when I was hit. I don’t contest that I was in the intersection, trying to peer around the illegally-parked truck, when I was hit. But the fact that I’d stayed behind and called the police, and the other guy had left the scene, apparently counted for nothing in the cop’s eyes. And, the last time I checked, running a stop sign isn’t exactly an arrestable offense. Nevertheless, that’s what I got for being the victim of a hit-and-run: threatened with arrest.

I later got threatened with arrest because I didn’t repair the fog light that was broken in the collision. You don’t have to have fog lights on your car, and I never turned mine on, but the law says that if you do have fog lights they have to be in good condition. And apparently the fact that my fog light lens was cracked was enough of a threat to the community that I could be arrested if I didn’t fix it.

And so on. I’m pretty sure that for some reason I draw more police hostility than the average middle-class white guy, but nearly everyone I know has some story about the police giving them a hard time.

And here we have Dr. Gridlock recommending that people just shut up, avert their eyes, and stay out of the way of these bullies with badges. His advice might be good in microcosm: but if everyone follows it, if everyone submits to misapplied authority, we’ll wind up in a police state.

We already see disturbing evidence of this trend in moves toward more use of ‘tactical’ police uniforms — which basically amount to all-black BDUs. The differences between American police and an occupying army are diminishing.

To be fair, I can see how a cop might develop some hostility toward the general population; most of the people he comes into contact with in his everyday work are going to be criminals. They’re so confrontational in part because most of their encounters with the public either start out as or turn into confrontations. In places where the police spend more time interacting with people as people and not as perps, they are noticeably different. The police where I live now are actually friendly and helpful; something that’s rare in a city or in the suburbs.

But none of this means that the police should be given a pass on their hostility. They’re part of society, and they need to be socialized. Let them get away with it and things will only get worse.

Posted by tino at 20:46 13.06.04
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I can tell you why the DC police office wanted to ticket you rather than take your report. By writing you a ticket he generates revenue for the City whereas if he takes a report on the break-in not only does it take his time but it also contributes to the crime statistics and makes DC look that much worse.

Posted by: Paul Johnson at June 13, 2004 09:55 PM

That’s always been my assumption regarding the disinterest in taking a report, but that crap about the license plate was totally unwarranted. Why make law-abiding, prosperous citizens hate you? Doesn’t that make your job that much harder?

The police still make me incredibly nervous, even when I have no reason to fear them. I’ve never believed in Officer Friendly. Ever.

Posted by: Nicole at June 15, 2004 10:49 AM

My uncle lives in Rappahannock County (VA). There is a much low population density, and there is one Sheriff, and four Deputies, and they seem to adequately police the county. There is a check and balance here, because the head law enforcement person has to be re-elected every four years or so. Something like this would never happen there, because word would get around that Sheriff so-and-so is a fascist thug, and ought to be put down, and the Sheriff would be recalled, or just voted out next election. This is how-things-should-be in a proper democratically elected republic.

Compare this to “Ward 9” (D.C. metro area inside joke). The Sheriff department is reduced to transporting prisoners, serving warrants, and is under the constant thumb of the county government by threatening to de-fund the department. The real business of keeping a community “safe” is done by an unelected, appointed, Chief-of-police. This is common in almost all metro areas and is where you will get the ninja-raid-plant-the-pot so-we-can-seize-because-it’s-cheaper-than-eminent-domain crap.

Just don’t get me started on the “grand jury” police investigation tool perversion of a basic check and balance. Or a Judge who wants to be appointed to a higher court so he will toe the line and not deliver judgments on plain-as-day 1st,2nd, 4th, or 10th Amendment issues. Or the squelching of “fully informed juries”. Didn’t the Supreme Court just weasel its way out of a carefully crafted test case? What are we paying them to do, look stately in black robes?

Posted by: steel at June 15, 2004 01:00 PM

This story is why you need to listen to Dr. Gridlock’s advice.

Posted by: Paul Johnson at June 22, 2004 11:53 PM