Monday, January 5, 2015

To Serve And Protect

Since it is a little too cold to fish, and too late to hunt, I would like to write about something that many newspaper editors probably do not want to see. I know there are those who will say this has nothing to do with the outdoors and shouldn’t be part of my column. But there are hundreds of little people out there who have been victims, and never get to tell their story and I would like to speak for them because I am, and have always been, one of them. It is time newspapers began to give a voice to people who are bullied and victimized by the very people who are suppose to be on their side, and it almost never happens. 

In my life I have seen the best of law enforcement in the Ozarks, from highway patrolmen to local small town policemen to sheriff’s deputies. I have indeed seen heroic acts and compassionate acts, which go above and beyond the call of duty. I can tell you plenty of stories about times I saw law enforcement people do things that lifted my faith in them and made me proud to call them friends. I have had several relatives in law enforcement, and I know the difficulties they face. So many of them do a job I could never handle, and do it well. It is fine to talk about our police, our game wardens, our deputies in glowing terms. I would bet that a majority of them are fine people who definitely are out to ‘serve and protect’. The trouble is, we have come to a point where the bad ones seem to be increasing, and cannot be held accountable, and they know it. They just aren’t responsible to anyone, and that kind of power is awful when it is in the hands of the wrong people.

It wasn’t long ago I sat for an hour in the office of the local police chief and listened to him talk about that problem and the need for better training. He is an intelligent man, and I am convinced he is honest and truthful. But all he talked about was the need for better training. He never once talked about the need for BETTER PEOPLE… for the things training doesn’t ever touch, like compassion and common sense and conscience. I wonder if he knows that there are some people who do not deserve to be in that position. I was there to talk to him about one.

I was apprehended by one of his department’s finest, as they are often called, as I was coming out of an eye appointment in Walmart at the very front of the store before dozens of people. Now I have often been told that city policemen do not come to the Walmart parking lot for fender benders. If you call and tell them someone has banged up your car, they will tell you to exchange license numbers and insurance and work it out on your own. It has happened to me! The chief says they will come to a private parking lot… “only in case of injury”. 

The policeman that day changed the rule on his own. He took me to my car, back by the automotive entrance, and showed me the scuffmarks on my bumper and told me he was writing me a citation for hitting a poor lady’s car, which had obviously been rear-ended. Trouble is, the damage to her SUV was about a foot above my car bumper. As she stood by, shedding tears, he wrote the citation without listening to my objections at all, and wanted me to sign it. 

About that time the automotive department manager came out and said they had a tape showing my car and hers as they pulled into the area where I had supposedly rear-ended her if he would like to see it. The officer put the citation in his pocket and headed for his patrol car. He didn’t want to see it; he wanted to get the heck out of there. I stopped him and called the police station asking for his superior officer. Another policeman came, telling me he was a 25-year veteran. 

I told him I wanted the lady charged with making a false report, attempting to commit insurance fraud. He told me they couldn’t do that, that I would have to file charges myself, which I have since found out is not true. So I went to the police chief, and found out I was wasting my time. That’s when he talked about better training, and more money needed.  

I wrote about the event in one of my magazines, and shortly after received a five-second threatening call at my home telling me I would pay for what I had written. Since then I have been harassed by the police department in this small town, recently give a ticket for driving 29 in a 20-mile speed zone. There was nothing factual about it. I had been caught on radar in a 30 mile-per-hour zone approaching the lower speed limit. 

It wasn’t long ago I talked to the city prosecutor about going to court with some of this stuff and she told me that if I would just pay the fine she would reduce it, but if I went to court she would add the charge of “defective equipment” and that the fine would be increased substantially.  

And you are right, there is no way to fight back, nothing you or I can do if this kind of targeting takes place. Our justice system here in the Ozarks is a mess. You are always guilty until proven innocent, and if you have the money to pay a lawyer. If you are driving 90 miles an hour in a 55-mile-per-hour zone, you can pay a lawyer a big sum of money greater than the fine and it will be erased from you record!! No problem for you. Without money to pay a lawyer hundreds of dollars, you are not going to be listened to in court and it all goes on your record. But the guy who was going 90 had money so he deserves a better grade of justice than you. What is right about that? Why do the people who make our laws allow such a thing, which is so blatantly wrong? Do you realize you could get ten tickets in a month and if you pay a lawyer some big money to rig the paperwork, you don’t even get one point on your driver’s license?

The thing that bothers me the most is that the policeman who was trying to aid in insurance fraud cannot be fired for doing it. He wasn’t even disciplined for his violation of my constitutional rights, for actually violating the law. It happens to others who have no voice, no money to hire a lawyer, no hope of receiving justice. There isn’t space here to discuss some of the things I have seen happening in my years of travel as a free-lance writer, but I will write about some of those events in the spring issue of my “Journal of the Ozarks” magazine, and I urge you to read it. 

While they are talking about body cameras for policemen, I am looking for a way to put a camera behind me in my vehicle, which focuses on the speedometer. I would give ANYTHING if I could just show, on film, the things I have seen over the last forty years. I suggest that all of us begin thinking of such a camera, because if a policeman says you were going 29 miles an hour, endangering the lives of others which such a reckless speed, there isn’t much you can do to prove they were lying.

Next week, better news… I will write about a pair of Missouri game wardens who makes me have hope. They went out of their way to help some hunters whom they could have made victims if they had wanted.

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