If he ever runs for public office, the cop knows they’re going to bring it up. Police brutality. How harsh this sounds! He checks his image in the mirror. Tall, slender, gray, a mild man, a gentle man. Brutal? Moi?
It starts with a simple radar stop. This is something cops do. Sit at the bottom of the hill and zap unsuspecting motorists with the trusty radar gun. Sir, you were 12 miles over the limit. Sir is baffled. I was only doing 30 miles an hour. Thirty-two, the cop corrects. Sir can hardly believe it. A 20-mile limit? Out here? You have got to be kidding!
This time Sir is driving, oh, let’s say an ’88 Mercury Cougar. All black. Quick little car. The radar shines him up at 40. That doubles the limit. A ticket the cop can write with a clear conscience.
This time Sir is a dark-haired little man in his mid-30s, wears a suit and tie, tinted aviator glasses, tries to come on like a man who is busy. “What’s wrong?” he says impatiently. Ah hah, the cop thinks. This guy ain’t gonna be no fun at all.
The cop has this little speech he uses. It goes like this:
Sir. You were clocked at 40 miles an hour in a 20-mile-an-hour zone. I am going to have to write you a citation. Your court date will be such and such and so and so. Do you have a bond card or would you like to post your driver’s license as bond?
That’s the way you write lots of radar tickets: know what you are going to say and get it out before you go soft. Give one driver a break, next thing you know you’re giving them all a break. Next thing you know you’re coming back into the station empty-handed. Next thing you know the lieutenant is giving you that funny look.
Sir listens to the cop’s presentation with an expression of undisguised disgust. “You mean you’re going to give me a ticket?”
“That’s what I said,” the cop says, a bit too quickly, a bit too much snap in his voice.
And Sir picks right up on it. He was already unfriendly. Now he’s downright hostile.
“I don’t believe this,” Sir says.
“You’d better believe it,” the cop says.
“I don’t believe it,” Sir says.
This goes on for a while, take my word for it. And the longer it goes on, the less the cop finds himself liking this particular sir. Just as he is starting to think, even hope, that Sir doesn’t have a license, the gentleman does produce one, a nice clean DL unmarred by a single staple. “I don’t believe this,” Sir says for about the 12th time.
Then he makes his big mistake. “Why aren’t you out chasing criminals?”
The cop grits his teeth. He can feel the adrenaline fill his chest. “Just doing my job.”
“Some job,” Sir sneers. “Well, hurry up and write your little ticket. I’m a busy man.”
Police brutality? No, no, we never had any such thing in mind. But since Sir was being–how to put this delicately–such an asshole, why not bust his balls? Just a little?
The cop takes Sir’s license into the squad and radios the dispatcher. “I’d like a 27-29 by name and d.o.b.” For those of you who have never fallen afoul of the law, a 27-29 is a computer check of the subject (you) that will reveal the current status of your driver’s license and the existence of any possible warrants for your arrest. All the cop needs is your correct name and the date of your birth. The computer will do the rest. And you thought George Orwell was making that stuff up.
Actually, in the case of Sir, with his suit and tie and pristine driver’s license, a radio check hardly promises to be worth the trouble. There is, in fact, only one reason for running this 27-29.
With a little luck the dispatcher will be slow today. With a little luck the computer will have a glitch. With a little luck Sir will have to wait an extra five, ten, fifteen minutes before he gets his ticket.
This is what is meant by busting balls.
So it’s a pleasant day, it really is, and the birds are going tweety-tweet and motorists are slowing down for a better look, and poor Sir is drumming his fingers on the hood of his car.
And here comes the dispatcher’s voice. Car 16, she says. Do you have that subject in custody?
When the cop hears this his heart takes a little leap.This subject is about to come up hot! With his suit and tie, his aviator glasses, with his neat black Mercury, Sir is coming up hot! Someone, somewhere, has a warrant out on his precious ass. The operator is being careful how she sends this information out, she doesn’t like to come right out and say, “Your man is wanted.” You never know what some of these sirs might do if they heard that coming over the radio. A good operator can sometimes save a cop some lumps. But there are occasions, and this is one of them, when all this caution gets to be a pain in the ass.
So the cop lies a little. Subject is in custody, he says, eyeing Sir, who, unaware that he is about to start a journey he did not plan this morning, stands by his car looking oh so disgusted and put-upon.
Then, as always seems to happen on these occasions, the radio goes bad. Static, whistling, feedback. The dispatcher seems to be saying something about “sexual.” Yes, yes, the cop thinks. Very possible. This is an area known for that type of sexual activity which so annoys Jesse Helms. One sees many single men patiently parked beneath the trees, quiet peace-loving men who, so far as the cop can tell, are absolutely harmless. But then every group has its bad apples.
The cop sizes up Sir, one man to another. Got him by 30 pounds or so, but then some of these little guys like to work out in gyms; you can’t be too careful.
Step over by this squad, the cop orders. If you speak firmly, with authority and confidence, people will obey. At least that’s what they tell you at the police academy. You learn some amazing things at the police academy. What other school offers classes in handcuffing?
The cop remembers his introduction to this remarkable tool. The cop remembers instructor Cannon with his wide nasty grin. “Ya never never never want to hit a guy with these. That’s brutality!”
Then Cannon proceeded to hook up the cop, just so the other recruits could see how it was done.
The thing about handcuffing–and you will never forget it if it has been done to you–is how much it hurts. The steel in handcuffs seems to be of a special extra-hard variety, it bruises the skin on contact. For this reason no one, not even members of your own family, will let you practice on them. A shame too, because if you don’t learn to do it properly at the academy, you will have to learn the hard way on the street.
The cop uses the surefire method of handcuffing taught by instructor Cannon at the academy, but not yet perfected on the street; get your man against the squad, hook up the right hand, yank it into a hammer lock and ask him to bring up the other to meet it. Very few offenders will refuse this request.
Sir is shocked and outraged that a mere minion would handle him so. Ow, ow! he cries. You broke my fucken arm!
Broken arm? The cop feels his blood run cold. Did I fuck up again? Lawyers, lawsuits, judgments, a life savings wasted on legal fees–could this possibly happen to poor moi?
I’m going to sue you for everything you got! You’ll hear from my lawyer!
Go ahead, the cop says. Mere bravado. Anxiously, he inspects Sir’s wrist. Doesn’t look broken. Does it?
A second squad pulls up. It’s Officer Emmer, a good friend. Everything OK? Emmer heard the stop go down on his radio.
He broke my wrist! Sir cries. Take these things off of me.
They got a warrant on him, the cop explains. Some kind of a sex crime.
Sex crime! I’m going to sue, sue, sue, sue, I’m going to call my lawyer and sue, sue, sue. No, no, no. Sir has never in his life broken a law and his wrist has been broken and he is going to sue, sue, sue! Police brutality!
Inwardly, the cop cringes.
If only the radio would start working again. Neither the cop nor Officer Emmer can rightly figure what the dispatcher is actually saying. Screech, squeal, scratch, pop. Sounds sexual to me, Emmer agrees.
A third officer pulls up, a young black woman from another department. I heard you on the air, she says. Is everything OK?
He broke my wrist! Sir bellows. He beat me! I’m going to sue, sue, sue!
Screech, scratch, squeal, goes the radio. Sounds sexual to me, the third officer says.
After much discussion it is decided that Officer Emmer will transport Sir, who has fixated his hatred upon our gentle cop, to the Parkland police station, Parkland being the department holding the warrant on Sir.
I never was in that goddamn town, Sir howls. I’m going to sue, sue, sue.
It’s a 15-minute drive. The cop follows Emmer’s squad, pulling up close at the stop-and-go’s. Sir, his arms pinned behind him in the backseat, is giving Emmer an earful. Broken wrist, that’s what he’s saying. Maybe we should have taken him to the hospital.
The cop would feel a lot better if he knew for sure what that warrant was all about. He hopes it turns out to be rape. No one will give a damn if he accidentally busted a rapist’s wrist. They’ll give him a medal, that’s what. But then, if Sir were wanted for rape, would he really give a cop his right name and date of birth? It’s one of those situations you just know will go bad.
The cops at Parkland are surprised to see two strange officers bringing Sir into their station. Warrant? they say. Do we have a warrant on this guy?
While they fumble through their files, the cop removes his cuffs from Sir’s wrists. The right wrist does seem a bit swollen. See that! Sir cries, pointing. I’m going to sue, sue, sue, sue, sue . . .
Please let it be rape, the cop prays. Please, God, let it be rape.
But God has other ideas. The Parkland cop brings a manila file to the desk. Here it is, he says. This guy owes us $532 in parking fines.
Parking! All this for a handful of parking tickets? Not even a jailable offense? What started out as a good bust is turning into an aw shit!
Sir directs his wrath at Parkland. You’re crazy! I never once parked in your lousy town. I’m going to sue, sue, sue, sue.
OK. If that’s the way he wants it. The cop sits down and writes out the speeding ticket that started this whole thing, hands it to Sir with a flourish, keeping his driver’s license as bond. With the greatest pleasure he will later staple Sir’s photograph right through the eyes.
And now, please, flash forward two entire months. Months spent chasing wand wavers through the woods, harassing teen beer parties, untangling traffic accidents and standing by while ambulances carry off the casualties, drinking White Hen coffee, and writing dozens of tickets for dozens more heavy-footed sirs. The law moves slowly–but at last we’re in court with Sir.
For the second time, in fact. The first time Sir stormed the bench and demanded the cop be immediately stripped of his rank. Police brutality! Look at my wrist!
His Honor played it safe, continued the case. If you have a complaint against this officer, he said, see the state’s attorney.
A word about His Honor. We will call him Judge Shifty, such are his eyes. For reasons that will become clear several federal investigations later, Judge Shifty is notoriously inclined to favor the defense. Minor matters such as driving on the wrong side of the road are routinely dismissed with a wave of his hand.
Sir steps up wearing his aviator glasses, pomade glistening in his dark hair. “Police brutality!” he cries.
Judge Shifty squints, a bit near-sighted. “You were here last month?”
“He broke my wrist!” Sir bawls. “I want this man punished!”
This speeding ticket, the cop knows, is something Judge Shifty would gladly dismiss, just as the last 35 speeding tickets were dismissed. But Sir fails to see the opportunity. Police brutality! He won’t give it up.
His Honor is annoyed. Sir is complicating the court call. “I told you to see the state’s attorney,” he says, miraculously reaching back into his memory.
“I haven’t time for that,” Sir snarls.
The story is now repeated, how the cop stopped Sir for driving a mere ten miles an hour over the limit, how the cop viciously handcuffed Sir and dragged him away, simply because of a few unpaid parking tickets.
“You don’t pay your parking tickets?” Judge Shifty asks.
“Lots of people don’t pay their parking tickets,” Sir sneers. “I know of judges who don’t pay theirs.”
His Honor’s face hardens. The cop exchanges poker faces with Officer Emmer, who is standing by ready to testify.
“You do?” the judge says.
“I do,” Sir replies.
“One hundred dollars fine,” the judge says.
Sir’s jaw drops. “One hundred! Are you nuts?”
“Two hundred,” says the judge.
Sir is momentarily speechless. Then, unwisely, he regains his voice. “Police . . . bruta . . .”
The cop, Officer Emmer, the state’s attorney, the Bar Association lawyer, the public defender, the court reporter, the clerk, and every single citizen waiting for his or her moment before the law dare not breathe. Sir’s mouth is silently working.
“You have something more to say?” the judge asks.
Sir’s mouth keeps working. At last he whispers, “No, sir.”
“Next case,” the judge says.
The cop watches Sir stagger over to the clerk’s table to pay his fine. Crisp $50 bills. The clerk hands him back his driver’s license and he inspects it dumbly, runs his finger over the fresh staple holes.
Police brutality. The cop permits himself a quick smile. You bet. Right through the eyes!
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.