Wednesday, January 10, 2007

California to Ohio, Part III

...Continued from California to Ohio, Part II.
Read the whole story in California to Ohio (Unabridged).

* * * * *

Friday, December 15, 2006 (continued)
At about 7:00 or 7:30 PM, I was finally on my way out of Palm Springs, California, heading toward Quartzsite, Arizona. Rudy and I immediately struck up some serious conversation. We talked so much that it took well over an hour for me to find a moment to call my pal Otis in Quartzsite to let him know I was on my way there. I guess that’s just what happens when you get two extremely friendly people together in a small space with an engine.

A current resident of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, Rudy told me he used to be a California Highway Patrol officer. That surprised me a little bit because he didn’t really seem like a cop. So I said, “Oh, yeah? An ex-cop, eh,” at which point he told me he is not very fond of the term ‘cop.’

His response made me think back to about third grade, when my teacher told the class that we shouldn’t refer to cops as ‘cops’ because people tend to use the word ‘cop’ in a derogatory manner. For some reason, her remark stuck with me all these years, even though I really don’t agree that people mean to imply anything derogatory when using the term ‘cop.’ Maybe when they say “fucking cop” or one of the many variations of “fucking cop,” but not when they simply use the word ‘cop’ in normal conversation.

I apologized and told Rudy I didn’t mean anything negative when I said it. He told me not to worry about it, then he elaborated on why he doesn’t like the word ‘cop.’ His explanation surprised me.

Rudy said that unlike my third-grade teacher, he doesn’t think of ‘cop’ as an inherently derogatory word. Rather, he dislikes the word ‘cop’ because his experience as a California Highway Patrol officer has shown him that many officers of the law are driven by some kind of destructive force—a power trip, perhaps. That’s the kind of person he thinks of when he hears the word ‘cop,’ and he just doesn’t like for people to assume he operated on their level. (Keep in mind, these are my words, based only on my memory of what Rudy told me, so please do not go judging Rudy for what may be my failure to adequately communicate his thoughts.)

He said he never really fit in well with fellow officers because he approached his job as if he was a public servant—you know, what a cop is really supposed to be—while so many other “peace officers” choose the Eric Cartman approach: “You must respect my authoritah!” (Now, if the bulk of cops didn’t actually behave that way, Cartman’s caricature simply would not be funny because no one would get it. But it is funny, precisely because it’s an accurate portrayal of the typical law enforcement officer.)

Instead of just writing tickets and fucking with people nonstop, Rudy did what he thought would benefit society as a whole. He had no need to feed his ego, like the “Cartman cops” love to do. If he saw someone driving unsafely, for example, he might approach the car and follow closely for a couple minutes, just to give the driver a chance to think: “Oh shit, there’s a cop on my ass. I’d better get my shit together.” If that didn’t correct the problem, he might turn on the lights and pull the car over, but not necessarily to write a ticket. Y’see, there are lots of ways to make California’s highways safer, and the process doesn’t have to involve pissing people off for the fun of it.

So let’s now imagine that Rudy is about to pull over a driver who was swerving, veering, and otherwise not giving it his best effort. Before pulling over the driver, Rudy also notices that the dangerous driver is talking on the phone. Rudy naturally suspects the phone call may be contributing to the driver’s erratic behavior. It might simply be that the distraction of talking on the phone is causing the driver’s poor control, but it could also be that the driver is having an intense argument with his wife. Either way, this guy needs to be off the road ASAP, at least to regain his composure. But does he need a citation as well? Will a citation really make the highway safer?

(Remember, this is a hypothetical situation, based solely on my limited understanding of another man's personality.)

Once the driver stops, Rudy approaches the vehicle and asks the driver if he knows why he’s been pulled over. The driver essentially has two response options: 1) Be a dick; or 2) Don’t be a dick.

This particular driver says, “I’m sorry, officer. I know I was driving a little crazy back there. The dean at the high school just called me to tell me he suspended my kid for three days for wearing a plain red hat to class. Frankly, I’m a little pissed off about it because, well, he’s trying to kick my kid out of school for three days for wearing a hat!?! I mean…[sigh, puzzled look].”

Rudy says, “I understand why you’re so upset, Mr. Motorist, but we really can’t have you driving around so distracted.”

“I’m sorry, officer. Really, I never drive like that, and I understand why you pulled me over.”

“Well, do you think you can put your emotions on hold for a while and stay focused on your driving for the rest of your trip, Mr. Motorist?”

“Yes. Certainly.”

“Good. Then I’m going to let you go on home now, OK. I think you should probably sit here for a couple minutes and take some deep breaths before you get back into traffic, all right. Just make sure you’ve calmed down before you start driving again, so you can keep it safe for everyone else sharing the road with you.”

“Thank you, officer. I really appreciate your understanding.”

“Don’t mention it. Just keep it safe out there, OK.”

“All right. Thanks.”

Now, if the driver had been all belligerent and stuff, I imagine Rudy probably would have cited him. Not to demonstrate his power over the crazy driver or anything like that, but to teach the guy something about the consequences of being a dangerous, law-breaking asshole. Sometimes people just need to learn things the hard way.

I can really identify with Rudy’s vision of what a cop should be because I left the teaching “profession” for very similar reasons. Unlike most teachers, I wasn’t in it for the glory of being considered a “professional;” I was in it to be a public servant. My ideal classroom wasn’t full of privileged white kids from middle class suburban homes who actually enjoy being at school. No, I wanted to teach in the ghetto, where countless disadvantaged, poor, malnourished, school-hating human children of all colors could really use someone like me—someone who cares. But that’s a topic for some other day.

To continue, read California to Ohio, Part IV.

* * * * *

Or read the whole story in California to Ohio (Unabridged).