Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Solution? Or the Problem?

One of the seminal events that led to the creation of this blog was a rather tragic and easily avoidable accident a couple of years back here in Bowie. A young man, in his 20s, was struck and killed by a car officially reported as driving at twice the posted 25 mph speed limit on lovely, bucolic Belair Drive. The wrinkle? This young man wanted to go into law enforcement. The car that struck him? A Prince George's County marked police car, driven by an off-duty officer! The galling result? Dead 20 something year old, at the hands of someone whom we count on not only to NOT drive this way, but to protect us from those who do, who has NEVER and will NEVER face trial for even accidentally taking this young man's life! All the officer got was a citation for speeding!

I mention this in the aftermath of the incident I reported in my last blog, because, sadly, it demonstrates that not only do we have no expectation of enforcement on our roads, but, in a jurisdiction in which one of the perks of being an officer -- and don't get me wrong, I am a HUGE supporter of the local police, especially now that Bowie has their own force! -- is to be able to use your police car, at taxpayer expense, when you are not on duty, we have little expectation that our county law enforcement agents (because Bowie's finest seem far less prone to these failings -- at least, to date) can even be appropriate role models!

When OVG was doing school traffic, I met several of our county's uniformed officers, as they would drive their kids to school -- almost always in the cruiser, very rarely in uniform. Most were exactly what you would want them to be -- kind, polite, patient role models of proper behavior for their own kids and all of us. There were a couple, however, who used that vehicle almost as a weapon -- thinking that it gave them privileges that others did not enjoy, such as being able to park where others could not in order to walk their children inside the school.

Even on the rare occasion that their presence was of value, there was a catch. I recall the morning that a 17 or 18 year old kid was driving his younger sibling to school, and was pulled over in the traffic flow on school property by one of these officer/parents, who had observed him excessively speeding on residential streets. This officer read this new driver the riot act -- to the point where I was shocked the kid neither broke into tears nor peed his pants! And then? LET HIM OFF WITH A WARNING!!

I observed this whole transaction from a position roughly 10 feet from the car, as I had repositioned myself to guide traffic around them. When it was over, I took the liberty of asking my fellow parent why he hadn't finished drumming the lesson in by hitting the kid in the only place that matters to most teens -- the wallet? Expecting a well-reasoned law enforcement angle I hadn't considered, instead, here is what I was told: there were two practical reasons. First, the officer was 2 weeks away from retirement, and didn't want to be dragged into court to testify after he was done. And second, he hadn't carried his citation book for about 10 years!

Let me be clear -- this was one of the "good" cop/parents! This was a guy who recognized the importance of what was going on enough to respect me and to act when he saw this kid driving dangerously. And, I have no idea what his exact responsibilities were that he had gotten away with not carrying a citation book for 10 years.

But I walked away shaking my head -- because I realized that even if he wasn't two weeks from retirement, and HAD his citation book, he probably STILL would have done the same thing, again to avoid having to spend a tedious half-day in court instead of on the streets! And, isn't THIS a huge part of the problem! That county officers are taught, probably by experience, to think and act this way, and that their superiors, either by benign or deliberate neglect, or worse, by existing procedure, condone and foster such behavior!

Between this reality, and the equally appalling truth that it is a regular occurence to see PG County marked cars being driven by drivers in civvies among those driving at excessive speeds and otherwise ignoring the laws and courtesies of the road, I am driven to make the following radical suggestion. WE CITIZENS OF THE COUNTY SHOULD DEMAND THAT OUR TAX DOLLARS NO LONGER BE WASTED BY ALLOWING OFFICERS THE USE OF THEIR CARS ON THEIR OWN TIME!!! Unless or until someone can credibly show me both that a) working this way IS cheaper for the county government than making them drive to and from work in their own cars, as the rest of us do, and as so many other jurisdictions do, and b) that there are rules for their usage outside of work hours that add value for us, the taxpaying citizens, I have no choice but to see this as a waste of our tax dollars, and a boondoggle that weakens police credibility in general.

I do NOT suggest this to be punitive -- I do so to be fiscally responsible, and out of a desire to improve the opinion of the average Joe like me that County police, in particular, actually do their jobs. When we see them not doing what we expect, because they are legitimately off duty, we cannot tell whether they are on or off duty, which will lower our opinion of the good job that most of them do. When they drive, without sirens or flashers, at excessive speed, our first reaction is to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are on duty -- even when they are in civvies. So, to see one of them get cut off by a reckless driver, and NOT respond at all, becomes not an act of kindness in recognizion that this older woman, who ended up driving to the Senior Center, probably is getting close to the point where she shouldn't even have a license anymore, but just another example of failure to protect us all!

Am I the only one who sees that the Emperor is both naked and oblivious to his state? I hope not! But sometimes I wonder!

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