Thursday, December 4, 2014

US Police: Not A Friendly Force

U.S. President Barack Obama is asking Congress to approve $263 million to reform police practices, ensure against militarized culture within law enforcement, and restore trust in policing. The funds should also pay for some 50,000 lapel-worn cameras for police officers. 

 In his announcement Monday, the president referred to "differences between the police and communities of color" and to negative "experiences" some young people - clearly he meant black males - have had with law enforcement.

I am white of European descent and regrettably no longer qualify as young.  But I would like the president to know that my experience with the U.S. law enforcement has been dreadful too.  I shudder at the thought that it could be worse if I were a person "of color."

U.S. Park Police
My first encounter with law enforcement in this country occurred soon after I moved to D.C. from Connecticut. One afternoon I drove to Virginia on I-66 and noticed that other drivers were giving me strange looks. It took a while to realize that I was a single person driving during the HOV-3 hours, which meant I needed two more people in the car. This is something they did not teach me in Connecticut where I got my drivers' license. 

 As soon as I understood what was wrong I got off the highway as did several cars before me.  A hulking policeman awaiting at the exit ramp waved his arms in the air and yelled at the top pf his lungs for all of us sinners to line up just so and await our fate. I was scared witless and wondered how could this small mistake provoke such ire on his part. What if we had done something really bad? We were going to be slapped with exorbitant fines and arrive late to our destinations - wasn't that enough punishment?

Since then, I have obtained a D.C. license and learned the area traffic rules the hard way, i.e. paying huge sums of money for even the minutest errors in judgement.  I have learned that before getting a ticket I routinely have to suffer indignities such as having to sit in the car for interminable lengths of time and suffer the harsh flash lights from the police car reflecting from my rear view mirrors into my eyes, often not knowing why I am stopped.  Only one female officer once explained to me that I cannot get out of my car to stretch because I could have a gun and pose a danger to her.  I said, "if I had a gun and wanted to use it, I could do that from the car as well as from outside." 

I have not learned, and probably never will, to distinguish all the different branches of law enforcement operating in D.C.  To me, any uniformed and armed person who has a right to stop me in the street is a cop, does not matter what branch.

One of the worst experiences I had with cops in D.C. took place a few years ago in the early hours of Christmas. My son was on a visit from the university and together with some of his former school mates we attended the midnight mass at St. Anselm's Abbey church, next to St. Anselm's Abbey School which the boys had attended. It was a reunion with other former class mates and their high-school teachers. I made my son change his jacket to look more presentable for the holiday. After the mass, the boys dropped me off at home and my son continued on to drive his friends home.  About 3:00 AM one of those boys called to say: "Mrs. Hoke, I'm afraid I have some bad news. " My heart stopped.  I thought my son had been in an accident and could have been dying or already dead.  So hearing that he was arrested and detained at a park police station sounded like good news - until I learned that he was arrested for driving without a license -- the  license that had been left in the jacket I had made him take off before going to church.

I had driven without a license many times after leaving home with a wrong purse in hand and never dreamed I could be arrested.  So I was incredulous to learn that this was the reason for my son's arrest.  I was ready to do battle with the entire police unit that kept him detained.  I retrieved my son after paying a surprisingly small fine of $20, considering how high these penalties usually are.  But I was livid when they finally dragged him before me, handcuffed!!!!  And I learned that he was kept in a detention cell until I came;
this neat college boy, face still sprinkled with adolescent acne.  He was lucky I was there soon enough. 

D.C. Police love blocking busy streets to make bad traffic worse
I have a huge list of other complaints against D.C. law enforcement, but a shooting death of Miriam Carey, the woman killed by the police outside the Capitol building last year, finally brought home the frightening reality that it could have been me. 

A few years ago in their infinite wisdom D.C. authorities organized a huge fair in the middle of Constitution Avenue, 
near the National Gallery of Art.  The avenue is one of the busiest in Washington, it is one of the main routes out of the city and it is the street I live on. A flow of unsuspecting traffic ran into a blockade of tents, beer stands and other obstacles forcing drivers to seek alternative routes.  The only one available was 4th street going south toward Independence Avenue. It became so clogged that the traffic barely moved, and at one point I found myself trapped in the middle of a small intersection between two red lights.  As soon as the car ahead of me moved, I followed to clear the intersection. The moment I did, a police siren went off as if I had triggered a hidden alarm. Naturally, the police officer who came after me was as aggressive as they come; he slapped me with a $250 fine and held me in that quagmire of traffic as long as he could, adding to the chaos created by the ill-conceived fair. He would not listen to reason and acknowledge that my choices were to move or to block the crossing traffic, that I had to cross a red light whether I moved back or forth.

When I was finally allowed to leave, miserable and angry, he howled after me again.  I failed to stop instantly because I could not imagine that the howling was for me, so another police car joined in the chase.  For a while there I was chased by two howling police cars like a criminal in a scene from a cheap movie thriller. It turned out that the first officer chased after me because 
in the excitement of "catching" me in flagrantehe forgot to return my driver's license and registration card.  So the story of poor Miriam, a confused or perhaps mentally ill woman, running out of her car and leaving her child behind, reminded me of my own experience.  Like Miriam,  I wanted to get away from a terrorizing police force.  What would have happened if I had stepped out of my car and started running? I'll never know. 

But what we all do know is that a guy jumped over the White House fence and ran all the way into the president's official residence without a single shot being fired.  He is alive and Miriam is not.  
Police officers very often get killed too and they have a right to defend themselves.  But is killing a person, even a criminal, the only possible defense? I hope that Mr. Obama's call for a new set of best police practices will lead to curbing the use of deadly weapons by the police. But  this particular discussion will take time and is outside the scope of this blog. 

Here and now, I want to continue ranting against the D.C. law enforcement to get at least some of the long-accumulated list of grudges off my chest. 
I have come to the point where if I see a police car behind me I turn into a side street and wait for it to pass so I can continue in peace.  The trick does not always work because I live on Capitol Hill, which is besieged by police, an army of officers with not much to do except block exits from residential areas, create unexpected road barriers, issue parking tickets and generally make the residents' lives miserable.

When living in Europe and Africa, I considered the police to be my friends, people who were there to help and protect, people you hailed and asked for directions when you got lost.  I never had to pay a traffic or parking penalty, and never had an unpleasant encounter with law enforcement.

So at least initially, I believed that the D.C. law enforcement had a friendly side too. Those vague hopes were slowly but surely erased after my car was repeatedly vandalized and police officers just shrugged their shoulders about it and barely bothered to write a report.  The worst disappointment came when a "contractor" stole credit cards from me and my neighbors and used them repeatedly until the credit card companies got the wind of it.  The neighbors and I made our reports to the local police and urged them to act swiftly while the thief was still in the neighborhood and could be found. The detective in charge said that personality theft was too common and that he did not have have enough personnel to take care of our case.  Not enough with all the policemen cruising idly around Capitol Hill?

Recently, I got a card in the mail asking for my opinion about the city services.  I responded expressing my dissatisfaction with the police.  A few days later an e-mail signed by the D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier arrived asking me to indicate a convenient time when an officer could contact me and discuss my complaints.  I responded full of hope that the winds of change were coming, but the conversation never took place. I was told that the police woman assigned to speak with me was busy at the appointed time.  She never called back to reschedule.  
Cathy Lanier, D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief

So what are the lessons learned?  For me the following:

1. Law enforcement officers operating in D.C. are not your friends, so don't count on their protection.

2. The police want your money and so they go after law-abiding and hard-working citizens who can and will pay the insanely high traffic and parking fines. Catching thieves does not pay.

3. Stay away from the police cars as much as possible, even if it means taking a longer route to your destination.

4. Be prepared to deal with bullies - like those you met at school, the cops in D.C. intimidate the weak and hurt the vulnerable.

As you see, I don't trust my local law enforcement services, but they don't trust me either. The only difference is that I admit to my sentiment while they may not even be aware of theirs.

To hear more about Mr. Obama's police reform plan please click on the link below:

In response to this blog, I received a message from Cathy Lanier rebuking me for "inaccurate" reporting, which she suggested helps incite hostility and nationwide street protests against the police. The inaccuracy, she explained was in my failure to identify the police forces I had dealings with.  To set the record straight - I have made some corrections in the text and stressed that I have no idea what branch a specific policeman was. When I am stopped by an aggressive armed man I am too upset to worry about his denomination and it makes no difference in the final outcome for me.  I have great respect for Ms. Lanier and her tough job. I know I could never do it.  But I think she completely missed my point: her police  force as well as the other law enforcement branches operating in D.C. focus too much on penalizing drivers - ordinary citizens who make occasional, unintentional mistakes - and then complain they have not enough personnel to deal with serious crime.  Also, in my opinion, the officers' aggressive stance and excessive penalties are what creates hostility towards them - not news reports and blogs.

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