Policing the Right Way: A Positive Personal Encounter with a Highway Patrolmanby Stephen Littau
Many of my detractors may assume that I am someone who encounters the police on a regular basis since I am very critical of bad cops. The truth is personal encounters with the police are very rare for me; it’s very rare that I get pulled over and I haven’t had the cops called on me since I was in my early 20’s.
Well, my streak of not getting pulled over came to an end last Thursday. I was driving to my mother-in-law’s house when I saw the dreaded flashing lights in my rearview mirror. As I pulled over having no idea why I was being stopped, I started thinking about the “10 Rules for Dealing with Police.”
With my window rolled down and my hands on the steering wheel (always a good idea to keep your hands where the police can see them) the highway patrolman asked why I thought he pulled me over. I shrugged and patiently waited to hear his response.
So why did I get pulled over? I didn’t have a license plate on my front bumper. The bracket for my front plate had broken off some months ago. When he told me his reason for pulling me over, I pointed to the plate that I had put just inside the front windshield. From there the patrolman explained that by Colorado law, the plate has to be attached to the front of the vehicle because sometimes the plate falls off in hit-and-run collisions (a plate left at the scene makes it very easy to identify the vehicle’s owner).
I have lived in three states, one of which does not even require a front plate at all (at least when I lived there). I wasn’t sure exactly what the Colorado law was so I took the gamble that placing the plate on the dash would be good enough. It wasn’t.
Of course there’s the old expression: “ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law.” The patrolman was well within his rights to write a citation but he chose to give me a verbal warning instead. A verbal warning and something else: a business card with his name and badge number.
The patrolman handed me the business card and said that I could call the number on the card to make a comment about the stop whether good or bad.
“When did they start doing this?” I wondered. I was taken aback. What kind of comments would I leave if I actually called the number?
As I reflected on this, on balance I thought the patrolman did his job well. Though he could have written the citation, he decided to inform me instead of punish me. For my part, I followed rule #1 (Always be calm and cool) and was very respectful (again, this may surprise my detractors that I wasn’t being snarky toward the patrolman. It probably helped that my wife answered the one question that annoyed me: “Where you folks headed?”). In following this first rule, I didn’t need to worry about the other nine.
But the thing that impressed me the most about this encounter with an officer of the law was the business card. Apparently the Colorado DPS actually cares about how well their patrolmen do their jobs! How refreshing! This in a time of police scandals, use of unnecessary force, and “professional courtesy” that has plagued the Denver Police Department and departments across the country.
What the business card policy (?) says to me is that yes, the police work for me. It’s a statement that recognizes that the job of the police it to serve and protect me: their customer, their boss, the person who pays his salary.
This is how the police should do their jobs and I hope this is something we will see more of more generally.