too much typing—since 2003


Fun World

After a late dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, Rose and I are driving home when all of a sudden a car whips by us on our right, in the parking lane. Almost instinctively, I hit the horn. At the next light, there's the car that passed us. I look over at the driver - Rose has been writing down the car's plate number - and notice with a start that it's a cop, in an unmarked car. (He hadn't used his lights or siren when he passed us.) Well, having already given him a dirty look (although nothing too provocative: no digits involved), I figured no harm was done in not looking particularly abashed at conveying with a glance my general impression of, hey, what the hell are you doing driving like an idiot? So anyway, he's parked at the light in the right-turn lane. The light turns green, we proceed through the intersection...and sure enough, our new buddy is following us, illegally going straight through the intersection, from that right-turn lane. Our route home leads us to a left turn a block or so beyond that intersection, so of course I'm very carefully driving the speed limit, signalling all turns, etc. A block beyond the left turn, the cop turns on his lights to pull us over. Oh great, I'm thinking - although honestly, I'm wondering what he could possibly charge us with. (We'd been driving the speed limit when he illegally passed us.)

So, after the usual wait (designed, I've always assumed, to make the driver nervous: they train them on this, right?), the officer arrives at our driver side door. Now I know better than to put on attitude with cops, so when he gets to the door in a not very convincing impersonation of politeness, I'm entirely cooperative: "good evening, officer," with a zero degree of sarcasm. All this time, by the way, Rose has been writing down details, and is getting more and more pissed off. So the officer asks me if there was anything I wanted to say to him, since I'd been looking at him at the intersection. Polite as can be, I observed that I hadn't known he was a police officer until we stopped at the intersection next to him, and I was wondering why he'd rushed past us on the right like that, and, for future reference, what we as motorists should be aware of when police officers need to pass vehicles like that, and under what circumstances they're not supposed to use their siren or lights. He replied that he was on an "urgent" call, and that because there was enough room to pass in the parking lane, he didn't need to turn on his lights or siren. (This, by the way, proved to be an outright lie: we called the district office when we got home, and the officer on duty informed us that the only time cops can blatantly violate traffic laws is in emergencies, and when they do so, they must have siren or lights on unless stealth is of the essence.) He then informed us that, because he noticed Rose writing all this stuff down (he actually said that), he was going to issue us a citation for illegal use of the horn.

So he returns to his vehicle, for the second stage of intended anxiety production, and after a short while returns my drivers license to me with a few questions about whose vehicle it is (ours) and our address and phone number. I asked him for his name. After giving it to us, he then returns to his car and drives off, without having issued the citation he'd threatened us with.

We get home, and decide we need to call the police station to get our version of things on record before his version. Rose makes the call, and after a couple of transfers encounters a very smooth-voiced PR-type person, who assures us that no citation would be issued and that he was certain the officer's urgent mission must have required both stealth and speed, and that we shouldn't allow our being upset at this incident to color our general impression of the fine services and demeanor typical of the Milwaukee Police Department.

Although Officer Smooth was only doing his job, I've gotta say: nice try, but I'm not buying it. If stealth was required, and that was why he didn't use his lights or siren when he passed us in the parking lane, where did that need for stealth go when he used his lights to pull us over two blocks later? And if he was being called to an "urgent" situation, where was that "urgency" when he was parked at the light half a block after passing us - and under what conditions is pulling over a motorist for "illegal" use of the horn more urgent? No: what we've got here is Officer Impatient, deciding that he needed to get to wherever he was going faster than we were driving, so he whips past us in the parking lane - because he can. And when we visually confronted him on driving like an asshole - before we knew he was a cop - he didn't like that, and pulling us over and threatening us with a bogus citation was obviously a power play.

Good thing I'm not a black or brown man, in this city notorious for police racial discrimination, or that Rose wasn't a woman alone in a more secluded neighborhood: I certainly wouldn't trust a guy who'd pull asshole stunts like these not to do worse given the chance. I worked in a civilian capacity in a police station about twenty years ago, and a macho, us-against-them, highly judgmental mentality is all-pervasive among cops. In that environment, macho one-upmanship at the expense of suspects and prisoners, extending in extreme cases to violence, even torture (the brother of a woman who lived at the co-op I lived in in Madison "committed suicide" under highly suspicious circumstances while in police custody), is a nearly inevitable result. Am I surprised in the least at the abuse at Abu Ghraib, or the reports of abuse and torture of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other holding cells for the victims of the pathetically misnamed "Patriot" Act? Not in the least: ideology, indoctrination, and the desire to prove oneself harder than the next guy ensure the assumption of guilt until proven innocent, and training that promotes violence as the primary and ultimate solution to most problems all but guarantees that the "guilty" will be punished with brutality. And for some - mostly the "some" whose skin tone, ethnicity, or ideology doesn't fit those of the jailers - there's no possible proof that will persuade the jailers of innocence.

Obviously, my situation doesn't come close to those of the U.S.'s prisoners of war or ideology left to rot in their holding pens, stripped of all rights and dignity - but I think the psychology that underlies the wardens and ideologues that create those prisons is similar to that motivating the arrogant cop we encountered this evening. It is an attitude that assumes right, power, and privilege are all on one side, and that those who challenge that assumption constitute a clear danger or threat, unless they're merely contemptible and deserving only of abuse. Let's put it this way: if the officer tonight truly were on an urgent call, he wouldn't have stopped us. And if, imagining a best-case scenario, he had been on such a call but heard that another officer was responding to it immediately after he passed us, the only possible reason to pull us over would have apologize for driving like a jerk and explaining that at the time he had reason to do so. But the notion of apology is, of course, alien to the sort of perspective I'm describing. Because you're on the right side, you can never be wrong. Apology is betrayal. You're either with us, or...well, you fill in the blank.

No comments: