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Sara McManamy-Johnson's Column: Seeing the other side of law enforcement
Dec 21, 2012 4:00 pm
There’s something about seeing those blue lights behind you as you’re cruising down the road. Reflexively, you check the speedometer to see if you were speeding and if so, how bad. You glance around to see if just maybe those lights are for someone else. Nope. This is generally when a curse word of some variety is inserted, for those so inclined. Next comes the frantic mental checklist – Are my tags up to date? Is my insurance current? Where did I put my registration??
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that a whole lot of people reading this column have been pulled over at some point in their driving career (maybe even some beforehand). I’ll confess that I have. And I’d rather face the dentist’s drill without the Novocaine.
For many people, the only interaction they have with the police is when they get pulled over, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the warm fuzzies when you see that police shield. As a reporter who frequently covers the police beat, I’ve had the chance to get to know several cops. They tell me about people they arrested and why – my understanding of law enforcement has increased exponentially since I became a reporter.
But there’s only so much you can learn from hearing about it after the fact.
Last week, I wrote a few articles about the Wilson county Sheriff’s office’s efforts to curb the number of people driving while impaired on drugs and/or alcohol. While I was working on those stories, I thought readers would be interested in hearing a first-hand account of a DUI saturation – a patrol focused on finding drivers who shouldn’t be on the roads – so I asked Crpl. Ray Justice, the administrator of the Sheriff’s office’s DUI grant, if I could ride along on the next saturation.
Sheriff Robert Bryan was kind enough to give his permission, so we made arrangements for me to ride with Justice on Friday night into Saturday morning.
Justice picked me up in his patrol car at about 11:45 p.m. and we headed out, roaming the streets through the early morning hours.
I had no idea what to expect; with every car that passed, I expected Justice to turn on those blue lights. Instead, he just kept driving and the lights of Lebanon quickly faded out of sight as we headed out of town.
As we neared a popular bar outside of town, Justice slowed and turned in. Cars filled nearly every available parking space in the bar’s parking lot. Justice rolled down his window as he slowed the car. About five patrons looked at the patrol car in confusion as they walked through the lot toward the bar’s entrance.
“Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble,” he said to the patrons, laughing.
“What are you doing here?” asked one of the patrons.
“Just making sure everything’s alright,” said Justice.
I could see the patrons relax as he laughed and joked with them. As he let off the brake to continue through, he waved and wished them a good night.
No interrogations. No arrests. Just keeping a lookout and making sure that Sheriff’s office seal was seen.
The next little while was pretty uneventful as we made our way to the edge out the county line along the north, south and east.
Eventually, we see a car that seems to be weaving in the lane in front of us.
“That guy has spent more time on the wrong side of the road than on the right side,” said Justice.
Justice trailed his patrol car a short distance behind the older-model Honda, watching and seemingly counting the number of times the Honda drifted into the wrong lane. After traveling about 3 miles down the two-lane road near the Smith County line, Justice flipped the switch and blue lights flared.
Justice eventually determined that the Honda’s driver was not driving impaired from drugs or alcohol. He was, however, driving on a suspended license without insurance.
“I’m not taking you to jail tonight,” said Justice. “I’m writing you two citations – one for driving without insurance and one for driving on a suspended license.”
The driver sagged with relief, thanking Justice profusely.
After telling the driver – who said he was eligible to have his license reinstated – that the charges could be dismissed if he got his license and insurance before the February court date, Justice cautioned the driver.
“This is your third offense,” said Justice. “If you don’t do what you’ve got to do to get right with the law, they could get you as a habitual offender and make it a felony…I don’t think you want to go there.”
“No, sir,” said the driver.
If someone had described this scenario to me a few years ago – OK, maybe a few days ago – I would have figured it would be “Go straight to jail; do not pass Go; do not collect $200.” By this point, though, I was beginning to realize that my perceptions may have been a bit skewed.
I’ll spare my readers the bullet-point rundown of the evening’s events, but suffice it to say that I was left with a new perspective of law enforcement in general and Wilson county cops specifically.
They don’t hop into those patrol cars at the start of each shift saying, “Hmm, whose day can I mess with today.” In the words of at least one cop, they’re trying “to catch bad people doing bad things.”
And if you’re reading this column, he’s obviously not talking about you.