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July 29, 2009

What won't be said at the Gates/Crowley/Obama beer.

By Chaz Valenza

Wonder how much discretionary power the police have over you? Plenty. They expect deferential treatment and unless you're among the elite, you best be nice.

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I know a cop in Jersey. This particular police officer was dating a woman who was in the employ of my common law wife. Let's call him Jerry, and since I'm about to spill the beans, that's not his real name. He's on the force of a small nearby municipality. There are over 560 such police forces in geographically tiny New Jersey.

One night he gave me the straight poop on dealing with officers of the law. In fact, since I was nice enough to buy him and his girlfriend dinner and beers, I was later rewarded with a New Jersey State Policeman's Benevolent Association (PBA) card as a birthday present. Yes, the infamous "get out of jail free card" that Professor Gates obviously lacked, at least momentarily. And I was told exactly how to use it.

According to Professor Harvey A. Silvergate, Gates' Unconstitutional Arrest (Forbes.com 7/28/09) "There's a First Amendment right to be rude to a cop." To that I reply, yes and no. Professor Silvergate lays out the legal case expertly. You have an indisputably right to dis a cop but, no you don't. It will just end badly and it's never been tested in court. Professor Gates missed his and our opportunity to establish a court precedent when the clever district attorney dropped the charges.

As I chatted with Officer Jerry, one thing became very clear. If there was anything he wanted in his dealings with the common citizenry it was R-E-S-P-E-C-T! To him this should be signified in various ways. To exude fear is good. Using the title Officer is good. Asking permission to do things, like take your wallet out of you glove box, is good. Telling the truth is good. Being a good little boy or girl is good. That means no lip, no questioning authority.

In another recent commentary America the Great " Police State , (Truthdig.com 7/28/09) Gore Vidal makes the salient argument that the Gates affair had nothing to do with race. That it was, like most run-ins with the authorities at this juncture, about class and power. In this case, I agree, but DWB - Driving While being Black - and other racially motivated police actions are well-documented phenomenon not to be dismissed. I will not make the case here that the police are out-of-control. Mr. Vidal does that nicely.

Instead, let me illustrate the fallacy of thinking "you've got nothing to worry about as long as you are on the right side of the law." Here's a story I recounted for Jerry to challenge this notion.

I was given a summons for Obstructing Traffic, which is a vehicular violation. But, in fact, I was on foot. What I did was cross Main Street in Asbury Park, NJ on my way to catch the New York City train at six o'clock on a September 2001 morning, in the intersection crosswalk with the green light. A car, signaling to make a left turn, waved me to cross as I waited for him to clear the intersection. And, in New Jersey, pedestrians always have the right-of-way in a crosswalk. The full story can be read at Crossing Main, originally published in the Tri-City News on September 6, 2001.

Jerry dismissed this slight injustice that cost me $44 and made me jump through hoops to avoid an increase in my auto insurance. Could I have fought it? Sure, but I didn't and still don't have the time or money for such skirmishes with the law, few of us do.

"Yeah, it sounds like he had a bad day," was Jerry's only retort. Gee, I was hoping for "he had to make his quota." Jerry told me that there are no quotas per se, but the system is designed to "make you a ticket writer."

When I got the PBA card on my birthday I was told exactly how to use it. If I was pulled over I was to hand the police person my drivers license, registration, insurance card and the PBA card in a stack. The PBA card was not to be on top. When the officer asked where I got the card I was to say, "A good friend of mine, Jerry [lastname] who is a [rank] on the [name of town] police department gave it to me."

Why is this legal? I don't really know, but on the back of the card, where you sign it, you agree to drive safely, obey the traffic laws, etc. I don't believe it should be legal. I believe it's a form of corruption pure and simple. But, hey, who's going to sue the cops? Who wants to be on the wrong side of the law? That said - Yes, I did use the card. Over a year later, the card already expired; I got pulled over for an expired registration. I did the PBA card script with the police officer. He took the card away and gave me a ticket, but he could have impounded my truck as well.

That same night, on the way home, I was pulled over again by the New Jersey State Police, again for expired registration.

I was having a bad day. At that point, I couldn't even find my wallet and driver's license. It had fallen between the door and the passenger seat. I showed the State Trooper the sealed envelop that had the original ticket and a check for the fine, all addressed and stamped and ready to be mailed. He had me open it and show it to him. Then, he took pity on me and let me go.

That's right, no PBA card necessary, I just followed the police encounter "be a good boy" script the cop I know in Jersey told me about.

Read the comments to any blog on the Gates incident and those who take Officer Crowley's side basically say the same thing: Professor Gates was "stupid" for not following the police encounter script and that alone made him a criminal.

It's no crime to not follow "the script" but it could get you arrested. And, if you aren't a national figure, or in the top 10% of wage earners, at minimum it will be a big hassle.

"So, bottom line, how does one avoid getting a ticket?" I asked.

Officer Jerry had a simple reply, "It's easy. Don't get stopped."

Amen to that and good luck to us all.

I wonder if Officer Crowley will be as candid with Professor Gates and President Obama?



Submitters Bio:

Chaz Valenza is writer and small business owner in New Jersey. He earned his MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business. His current feature film project is "Single Point Failure" an insider's account of how the Reagan Administration caused the greatest tragedy of the space age based on Richard C. Cook's book "Challenger Revealed." He is a former Director of Public Information for Planned Parenthood of NYC. His website is: www.WordsWillNever.com

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