Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Truth Waits for Eyes Unclouded by Longing

One of the first things that I learned in journalism school was that any account in a newspaper of any noteworthy event was never going to be told exactly as it happened. That truth, regardless of how objective a journalist might try to be, was apt to be as flexible as a stadium full of world-class gymnasts. Nature of the beast.

Having been in the field, and having been interviewed and having seen how many times a reporter flat got it wrong -- sometimes even with a bio I'd give them written in third-person to make sure they got it right -- I take most reportage with a barrel or two of salt.

That said, there is an interesting case being litigated in Portland now, a federal lawsuit involving a woman bicyclist and the local police department.

The woman, whose legal name is apparently "Freedom Child," contends that the police violated her civil rights. (With a name like hers, you might not be blamed for thinking she's a flake, but I'm not going too far down that road. Flake or not, she's a citizen and has rights -- it' s not a crime to have a strange name.)

The mostly-agreed facts of the case are these: Child was on her way home from work one evening, about five and a half years ago. She took the bus, then got off and rode most of the last three blocks on her bicycle.

The bike had lights, but she hadn't turned them on. As she drew near her house, a brown car (an unmarked police car) pulled up next to her, and the men in it started asking questions -- without identifying themselves. By this point, Child was off the bike and walking it. She kept going. The two men in the car kept talking, she kept going, and they stopped the car as she got home, alighted, and followed her onto her porch.

Now, these were cops, and in uniform, and once they stepped from the car, anybody with eyes could see that.

From here on the story diverges.

The police allow as how they then identified themselves and wanted to discuss her riding without lights. They say they had their car's roof rack flashing, though neighbors say they didn't -- and, it turns out, the unmarked unit didn't have roof lights.

Child alleges that they chased her to her house, grabbed her by the hair and hauled her off to jail. She likens them to Nazis.

The police admit to a "very quick tug" on her hair, to get her to comply.

Neighbors heard Child screaming and called 9/11, and were told it was being handled.

Child was charged with a bicycle light infraction and interfering with an officer in the performance of his duty. Not, apparently, resisting arrest. The interfering charge was dropped. But she was booked -- mug-shots and prints.

The woman is now fifty-seven, and not a fan of the police, which her name might tell you. For years, she tried to get somebody from the city to address this, and nothing was done. And technically, the police were probably in legal compliance, but ...

When you read a story like this, you might think, "Well, it was some loon of an old hippie got feisty with the local patrol and deserved what happened to her."

Or, you might wonder, "What the hell were these two cops thinking?"

I mean, first thing leaps to my mind is, Don't the police have anything better to do than arrest somebody for a bicycle light citation? They couldn't have given her a ticket once they saw her license? (Which they did, see her license, so they knew where she lived and who she was.)

In Portland, if you get caught smoking dope in the public square, you get a ticket. We hardly have room in the system for car thieves and crack dealers, but apparently hauling in a no-light-on-her-bike rider is cool?

The jury is still out deliberating last time I checked, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them rule in favor of the woman. Whatever the two LEO's did, it was a dumb call to bust the woman, and dumber still not to ID themselves first thing off the bat. Unmarked car, at night, a woman alone? This kind of stuff always has the potential to come back and haunt you. And who it will cost if the jury agrees with Freedom Child is the citizens of the city who will have to pay the bill.

Bad call by the local boys in blue. 

(This just in: The jury found in favor of the police. I do believe they dodged a bullet ...)


Nataraj Hauser said...

The LEO's behavior seems more like small town stuff. Years ago I was driving my pickup to the local shooting range (which happened to be in the basement of a Baptist church!), and so had my Colt M1911 unloaded and cased with me. I also had a headlight out, and knew it. It was daytime but I had my headlights on anyway - safety first. So I get to the road leading to the gun club and am less than 1/2 mile away when I get pulled over. LEO asks me if I know that I have a headlight out. I say yes, and I had just stopped to purchase a new headlight, see here it is with today's date on the receipt. Of course he is checking my license while this is going on, and he is getting progressively belligerent as the conversation continues. He eyeballs the gun case in the jump seats and inquires. I respond politely and accurately. We're coming up on 10 minutes of grilling here, and it is clear he really wants to get me for something, anything. Then he says my license requires corrective lenses. I reply that I have contacts in. He smirks and says he can't see them, take them out. I look in horror at my filthy hands and say I'd rather not. Hand on sidearm - I kid you not - he insists. I pop one out and display it to him on my raised middle finger.

I then sit through a 45 minute vehicle inspection.

At the end he writes me a ticket for the burned out headlight. What a prick. It's been 20 years, and I still think he was a complete asshole spoiling for a fight. It is one of my three personal defining opinions of LEO's, and none of them is favorable. It's what I think of whenever I hear one of my nationalist-leaning coworkers mutter something like, If you're not doing anything wrong you don't have anything to worry about.

Steve Perry said...

I used to be a private eye, and I learned very quickly when I was approached by a cop checking to see why I was sitting in my parked car in a nice neighborhood to see how many times I could use the word "Sir" in a thirty-second span.

The man (or men) to whom I was talking when I said that had a holstered gun and a proclivity to pull it. If I wasn't around to argue the point, there was a good chance he could get away with shooting me if I decided to get lippy.

Once I flashed my own badge and ID, things usually went fine -- cops watched Rockford or 77 Sunset Strip and figured I was on their side, sort of, but I never forgot the power equation in those situations.

It wasn't right, but that's how it was.

Anonymous said...

Many (most?) people who think they are vicims of 'police harrasment' or 'excessive force' are really vicitms of their own rudeness/poor judgement/ attitudes.

Sure, we can say that it's not right, police should be held to a higher standard, yada yada yada. Let's be real, cops are people and react like people (usually).

Note for Nataraj Hauser, this isn't directed at you; sounds like you got either an asshole or somebody having a bad day.
This is directed at Freedom Child. Her version only makes sense in the context of bad choices on her part.

Also, being in the Portland metro area, I tend to think cops should spend more time talking to people about bike lights. Sure, there's lots of responsible riders out there but PDX has far too many people who think the laws shouldn't apply to them. F-ing road hazards. A little natural selection could go along way...

Steve Perry said...

Sure, a mad bicyclist threading the lanes is dangerous and apt to get run over in Portland.

But you got a ways to go to convince me that a middle-aged woman pushing a bike along the sidewalk at ten in the evening is a threat to public safety. Especially when, if somebody steals your car and you call the police, they don't send anybody out to take a report any more, they do it over the phone' and if they happento come across the vehicle during a traffic stop, they'll grab the thief, who will be out before the sun comes up because there isn't room in the jail for such riff-raff.

Something wrong with this picture.

No, they might have been legally in bounds, but it was not using time wisely. Protect and serve -- and who got protected in this case? Not me.

Anonymous said...

I stand by the position that Freedom Child is to blame for her own arrest. "I don't like police" and running into her house after they identified themselves? What did she think was going to happen?

This exactly why I didn't address my comments to Nataraj. If his story read the exact same but ended with 'then I was pulled from my car and arrested' I'd be thinking 'hmmm, how did you react to the cop? Did you cop an attitude about it all?' (pun intended). Given that he was sent off with just the ticket for the headlight (which I agree was an asinine thing for the cop to do) I'm inclined to think he probably dealt with the officer at least somewhat politely. Again, people who make bad choices like to blame others.

Ironically just after writing my earlier post I was driving in the inner East Side and had to hit the brakes when some rocket surgeon decided to run the red light on his bike. Who gets protected and served when the cops enforce traffic laws? All of us. Portland has a bike community that, in general, likes to be vehicles...when it suits them, pedestrians...when it suits them, and some special law exempt paragon of the new world anarchy...when it suits them.

I spent most of a year bike commuting before, following the traffic laws isn't that freaking hard and the extra minute to wait for the light isn't going to kill anyone. Running it just might. It's too much trouble to wait for the light but they expect drivers to brake for them. Morons.

Steve Perry said...

Yep, and I've done commuting by bike and car and have nearly run down a loon on a bike several times, which is why I pretended I was an invisible car when I was on two wheels, too.

But my comment stands, too. A woman pushing her bicycle along the sidewalk is not a threat to public safety. If we have to parse resources because money is tight, that one is down at the bottom and they -- and you -- know it.

Day before yesterday, a car thief smashed into several cars whilst on the run from the cops, put a couple people into the hospital in critical condition. When they finally caught him, he had a rap sheet as long as the Jolly Green Giant's arm. That's where I want to see my tax money spent, keeping guys like him off the street, not old hippies who don't like police.

Everybody knows the law is applied selectively, and the beat cop and patrol guys pick and choose when they hand out tickets or bust somebody. They don't build good will and support for namby-pamby shit like this. I respect the thin blue line, but when they step stupid, they need somebody to point it out.