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A routine police encounter: Just the way he likes them

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To the Fort Wayne police officer who stopped me on Bluffton Road the Saturday before Christmas: A belated thank you. I wish I had thought to say it at the time.

It’s not that I was belligerent, the way some drivers are when they get pulled over. I wasn’t rude or impatient, nervous or defensive. I remained relatively calm and, if I may say so, perfectly polite.

And you were not obnoxious, the way some people with unquestionable authority can be. You didn’t bully or lecture me, treat me like a backward child or potential lunatic. You were informative in a reasonable, deliberate way, a consummate professional.

It was, in fact, an unremarkable encounter on an ordinary day. That alone was reason to be thankful, given that we were in the kind of situation we’ve always been told could have gone so wrong in so many ways.

But there was more. You provided me with a valuable service, a fact I didn’t fully appreciate till about half an hour later and several miles down the road. What happened then was that the sun came up, mocking me with its obvious arrival.

I have one of those cars with many automatic systems, which I guess makes it a smart car. It figures out when to do things so the driver doesn’t have to worry about them.

The windshield wipers stay still or move depending on the absence or presence of precipitation. The climate control system measures the outside temperature and knows whether to turn on the heater or air-conditioning.

And the lights have a life of their own as well, sensing daytime or nighttime and staying dormant or self-activating as the situation dictates.

Ah, but the driver still must be smarter than his car.

For the lights to work automatically, the selector switch must be set to automatic. If the driver bumps the switch or inadvertently moves it when he thinks he’s doing something else, then the car will be as stupid as the driver.

Which is why I was driving without lights in the pre-dawn Saturday.

There was enough ambient light that I didn’t even notice. But you did. You were right behind me and could see that my tail lights weren’t working, so you pulled me over. And set me straight, and sent me on my way, the car brightly announcing its path for all to behold.

Without your intervention, I would have been a moving target for that half-hour before dawn. I don’t want to sound dramatic and say you might have saved my life, but you certainly reduced the odds of my name appearing in an official crash report.

You did a little bit of serving and protecting by being smarter than both the car and its driver.

I know that the primary function of the police is to uphold the law. You monitor our behavior and take the appropriate measures if we cross the line. But there has been considerable discussion of late about the question of whether it is possible or appropriate for certain police activities to actually prevent crime rather than merely responding to it.

That’s too big a debate to tackle in this short space.

And I won’t push the point that your mere presence makes us safer, though I know it is so. You are a symbol of our commitment to set limits and to try to live by them. Trying to imagine your absence is to think we can have a civilization without respecting its mores and customs.

The point I want to make is narrower, on a smaller playing field where rules of the road are a microcosm of the law of the land. We accept the rules when we get on the road, and it’s your job to make us honor them.

You and your colleagues are frequently and justly praised for being first responders, the ones who get to emergencies before anyone else. But surely your most valuable service is that of pre-responder, taking actions that can prevent emergencies from happening at all.

So, thank you. And may all your traffic stops be unremarkable encounters on ordinary days.

 

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.

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