Wednesday, October 22, 2014

After getting pulled over

It's a little past sundown on an autumn evening, a number of years ago. I'm driving down Hollis Street past the high school, in an irritable mood. At this point in life, I'm working as a freelance graphic designer, and another day has not gone well.

Returning home after an inconsequential meeting, I'm no closer to scraping up next month's mortgage payment than I was the day before. Despite a dim awareness that discouragement and driving don't mix, I swing past the football field and, seeing no one in front or behind, I floor it. By the time I get down to the bottom of the hill by the Congregational Church, three blocks from home, there's no denying the flashing blue lights atop the vehicle behind me. I have found there is nothing like the chagrin you feel as you ease your once-speedy car to the curb after getting caught going too fast.

I don't recognize the officer who appears at my car door, but that's not surprising. It's dark by now, and I know few of the police by sight, in or out of uniform. I hand over my license and registration without bothering to whine, wheedle, argue, or make excuses. I know I've broken the law, and so does he, and he knows that I know. He gives me a ticket, not a warning. Before turning away from the window, he says, tersely, "Slow it down." It's not a suggestion.

What is it that we tell our children? That you can trust a police officer; if you're lost or in trouble, you can flag one down and get help. That a police officer's word is law – you are to do what they say. That the job of the Holliston police is to keep the town safe and make sure everybody plays by the rules. And these things are right and true. But we may also tell our children, as they grow and mature, to "question authority." And we may enjoy hearing stories of people putting one over on the police, getting away with breaking a silly little law about fireworks or booze, some stupid rule that was spoiling our fun.

So we seem at times ambivalent about the police. We maintain a respectful public attitude towards law and order, which may be quite different from how we feel in private, cutting a comer, claiming a false deduction, taking a swipe at a spouse. Pointed observations on the editorial pages and talk-radio about excessive police details, or the legendary weakness for doughnuts, speak to deeper misgivings about this presence of authority in our lives. News stories about more serious police issues (tragic wrongful arrests, the use of unnecessary force, evidence of racism) underscore the sense of uneasiness.

You might have good reason to distrust or fear the police. Maybe where you come from, the cops picked on you. If you ever attended a big political rally or participated in a protest march, you remember the hefty batons wielded by the blue-helmeted, big-city cops. We would not want to live without the police, for they constitute a deterrent to crime, but they make us edgy. They can choose to exercise power over us. Even arrest and jail us, right here in our town. If we spot a cruiser coming up behind us, we instantly check the speedometer, or glance to see if the inspection sticker has run out. A police car pulls into your driveway: is that good news or bad news?

The police are also angels of mercy, no doubt about it. Years ago, the Newton cops would see me hitchhiking on the empty streets after my late shift at the cab company, and give me a ride to the bus terminal in Watertown Square. More recently, using the greatest care and resourcefulness, two Holliston officers and three EMT's wrested me out of my house and into an ambulance after a nasty fall. I owe my life, in fact, to one Wellesley officer, who sped me to the hospital after a bike accident when I was 12. I could never thank them all enough, and I'm sure many of you have been helped in similar ways.

From time to time, a cruiser sits just off the intersection in front of our house, waiting for speeders to come zooming down the main road. It's a pretty safe bet. People speed on South Street all the time. I used to do it myself before I moved here. Living in a place puts you much more on the side of the law there.

The cruiser gleams in the twilight, polished and heavy, bristling with antennas, resplendent with colorful stripes and decals. It's in top condition, unlike the poor junker that soon comes barreling by with its radio thumping. Moments later, flashing its lights excitedly behind the stopped car, the cruiser wins on looks alone. The offending driver tries to make himself inconspicuous by slumping behind the wheel.

This, perhaps, is what often happens when we encounter the police in the performance of their work; we suffer a loss of dignity, however slight. Whether they're bawling us out for running a crosswalk, or gathering us up after an accident, the police can't help impinging on the dignity we like to shield ourselves with. We've stopped making the rules for a while, and now must obey theirs, without knowing when we'll be able to get the game back. We may feel irritated, ashamed, powerless, even enraged or resigned.

An officer need not even be present. Take that device the police use along busy streets, which calculates your speed as you approach and displays it to you in big numbers. Invariably, you're going too fast, and as you press the brake pedal, you can feel your unbridled freedom slide into the grip of ordinance.

The fact is that police are really on hand to protect the peace and uphold the law, not to make things all nice and cushy for you and me as individuals. We need to ask ourselves, then, how much we honestly respect the law, apart from the fallible men and women who enforce it.

Day after day, the police officer is directing heavy traffic at the busy intersection of Freedom and Law. Where our personal aspirations, everything that seems to make life worthwhile, meet the more-or-less unbending restrictions that we say we want to live by. And there is the officer, standing out in the middle of the road with one palm up: NOT SO FAST.

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