Better that police err on the side of skepticism

March 10, 1996

As a police officer the past five years, I have been routinely amazed at the number of people with no experience in law enforcement who feel certain they know better how to perform a job. Your March 1 editorial, ''An unnecessary arrest,'' is a case in point.

You called the arrest of John J. Oliver Jr., publisher of the Afro-American newspaper, ''unconscionable." Then you expressed concern that "other officers inexplicably arrived at the scene." Believe it or not, it is common practice to arrest drivers for doing just as Mr. Oliver did that night, drive with a suspended license.

True, the officer has discretion to issue a citation instead. However, one of the facts taken into account when deciding which enforcement action to take is that individual's past history of failure to respond to court summonses.

As Mr. Oliver claims that he forgot to pay a prior seat-belt ticket, he should have received a summons from district court for a trial date on that charge. Apparently, Mr. Oliver did not show up in court, which is why his license was suspended.

This shows up on a Motor Vehicles Administration record check as "failure to appear," which leads a police officer to suspect that the individual might have a lack of respect for the authority of the court and also might ignore a citation for driving with a suspended license. The officer made a valid enforcement decision with the information available at the time.

As for other officers arriving on the scene, perhaps you aren't aware of the number of police officers who are seriously injured or killed while making what appeared to be routine traffic stops. Officers back up fellow officers on traffic stops regularly, without any request for back-up from the officer making the stop.

Most of the time, the driver we stop is polite and cooperative, if less than happy to see us. But each one of us is aware of the possibility that the next traffic stop could turn violent. It is not uncommon for a driver to become insulted by the appearance of additional officers at the scene of their traffic stop, inferring that the police must think that he or she is a criminal and a threat.

This reaction is due to an understandable ignorance of police work.

Mr. Oliver says he was handcuffed after his arrest, then taken to a filthy cell where he spent a frightening eight hours waiting for his bail to be set. Of course he was handcuffed, as are all prisoners, regardless of age, sex or nature of the crime with which they are charged.

Of course, jail is frightening to a man like Mr. Oliver. It would be to anyone who had never been arrested before. But we don't have separate facilities for housing offenders based on their economic status, personality, personal hygiene, etc.

Now, it may be true that Mr. Oliver forgot about his ticket and perhaps his court summons and his letter of suspension from the MVA were not received. Most likely, he is a fine gentleman, basically law-abiding and responsible. But unless a police officer knows an individual personally, he or she will err on the side of skepticism more often than not. It's an occupational hazard.

Wayne C. Keyser


Pub Date: 3/10/96

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