Thursday, May 31, 2007

Citizen Observer

Recently I was invited by a Houston police officer to ride with him as a citizen observer on his 3 – 11 p.m. shift. His patrol zone is in the area bordered by Beltway 8, Little York, I-610 and I-10. Here’s what I saw:

Twenty minutes into our shift the officer pulled over a car with no front plates and a cracked windshield (this often signifies a stolen car). The driver had no driver’s license, insurance, or registration. She had an identification card issued by the Mexican consulate and was clearly an illegal immigrant. The tow truck arrived within minutes (they listen to the police radio) and the tow truck driver translated.

Here were the choices the officer faced: 1) Let her go with a warning to get a driver’s license and insurance and register her car, which she can’t do without legal documentation, so this would be a charade; 2) write her a citation but release her, and tow the car. 3) Arrest her and tow the car. He chose the middle option, neither fully lenient nor fully punitive. He told me she would probably pay to get the car out of storage and continue to take her chances. If he had arrested her, the amount of time expended to take her to the station, process the arrest, and then show up in court the next day would have been excessive. It was a decision based on the wisest use of his resources (time patrolling in his zone) and a dollop of mercy.

As she walked away from the scene, talking on her cell phone, I couldn’t help but wonder: was she a mother with children to feed, needing the car to get to a daily job? How much ripple in Houston’s social-labor pool did this little encounter create? I asked the officer, “Could you basically spend your whole evening making these kind of stops (illegal immigrants driving illegally)?” “Oh yes,” he said. “I could do this all night.” Immigration will be a big issue in the 2008 presidential elections. It’s a huge mess, with no easy answers. Compassion vies for primacy with the rule of law. I appreciated seeing it from a police officer’s perspective and experiencing his frustration with the futility of the situation at street level.

But we had other work to do… like responding to idiotic calls from citizens. Folks, 9-1-1 is for “life-threatening emergencies.” Not to report children riding their bikes in traffic, or teenagers swimming in an apartment complex pool without living there, or a man denting a neighbor’s front fender with his rear trailer hitch in their apartment parking lot, all of which we “investigated.” Officers have to respond to ALL these calls. The officer made an interesting observation: He said these days peoples’ first reflex is to call the police to resolve petty disputes that people used to resolve themselves. Hmmm.

My officer really wanted me to experience some more “action,” but it was a pretty routine evening, which was fine with me. I read the newspaper daily. I know how broken and desperate the world is. Seeing it from the inside of a police car simply brought it home more clearly, and helped me appreciate the work of law enforcement officers all the more.


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