Sunday, February 6, 2011

Your "rights" are only what a cop allows you to have

I'll have to wait before I comment on the Super Bowl, because real life goes on. Some people may not be aware of this fact, but a typical major metropolitan airport is generally open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. How do I know this? Because four days a week I set my cell phone alarm to 1AM, and listen to it go off every five minutes for an hour before I’m able to convince myself that I need to get my fundament moving. I don’t have a car, which is OK because now I don’t have to concern myself overmuch with “ethnically”-profiling police out on “fishing expeditions.” Once I’m prepared for the day, I have to walk 45 minutes to the nearest bus stop that will take me to the airport, where essentially I am on duty for 11 hours, Thursday through Sunday. If I get six hours of sleep between days, it’s better than 5, or 4. I’ve been following this routine for over 3 years.

This Sunday morning, there was a bit of a detour in the routine, courtesy of a Kent police officer. Every morning for three years I’ve walked down the same street here, cut across an empty parking lot there, ambled along the arterial road here, and staggered down the “avenue” there before reaching the bus stop. I’ve seen police cars every once in awhile; I should have been a familiar sight by now, and they should be aware of the fact that there is one bus route that makes two runs to airport before 4 AM. . There always has to be someone who isn’t “clear” about what you’re doing, but when their actions are based on prejudicial assumptions, that is another matter. I had barely started my morning journey when I observed a police K-9 van partially blocking the sidewalk I was walking on. These cops are not here to monitor traffic (there wasn’t any), they drive around looking for someone to harass. I asked myself “It’s 3AM, it’s dark outside, I’m short and I’m alone. What chance do I have of simply walking past him without being hassled?” The answer, of course, is not a chance. This guy was too obvious for a speed trap, and he wasn’t in search of a random victim. Perhaps some paranoid someone had called in a suspicious character, short and “ethnic,” who seemed to come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, practically every day. This was very suspicious.

I don’t know if that suspicious person was this cop himself; maybe he’d been staked out the night before, perhaps trying to napping, when he saw this little man dressed in the latest in burglar accessories—yellow rain jacket and pants, with reflective strips—and like your typical security guard, got all paranoid and discombobulated. People like us make suspicious people’s lives distressing, because they think that can’t go back to sleep unless we go away. It also true that some people don’t know how to mind their own business. If I was traversing the streets in said manner and some stranger approached me and demanded to know I was doing, I might inform him to piss-off and mind his own business. However, when you encounter a cop with a hair up, there seems little a person can do except express and opinion and stand there; even if you have done nothing unlawful and simply going about your daily (nightly) business, a cop can stick his or her nose in your business any time he or she wishes, and if you decide that you are perfectly within your rights to exercise your rights as a free person, and employ your legs to that purpose, the cop will remind you that your rights only have as much meaning as he or she allows you to have.

So no sooner was I 10 feet from the police van, what do you know but the cop exits the vehicle and demanded to know what I doing out this early in the morning. I told him that I work at the airport and need to keep going so I would not be late for the bus. He demanded to see my Port of Seattle badge (he actually knows what that is?); I showed him my badge. He seemed disappointed. He told me that some of the properties had been robbed lately, which I thought was BS. He said I can go. I walked down the street, and cut across the empty parking lot so I could save a few minutes. Next thing I noticed is that police van was humming down the street; the cop obviously had been keeping an eye on me. He turned the corner, and as I was exiting out the other side of the parking lot, he pulls in and blocks my way. The cop exited the van and informed me “Alright, now I can see your ID.” What? I ask. “You’re on private property, I can hold you now.” Private property? It’s a parking lot. “Let’s see your ID.” I showed you my ID. “I want to see your driver’s license.” I give it to him, but I demanded to know his name. “Warmington.” Well, I’m going to file a complaint. You are making me late for my bus. “You stay there.” I stand there while he went back to his van. He comes back a minute later and hands me back my license and tells me I can go. I tell him what I’m going to do. He gives me his name again. He’s probably smug about it because this is what cops do, and nobody cares.

So I’m finally allowed to finish my journey without further delay, but I’m running late and sore as hell. It is obvious what had transpired. Despite the fact that I had been making this trek for three years, and if anyone who was the least bit curious to know where I was going could have easily have taken the time to ascertain what I was doing without detaining me to find out. Or they could just take my word for it and leave me be. But someone, probably this cop, believed that I was up to no good. The problem is that walking on public streets is no excuse to detain anyone for anything unless there is a legitimate reason to. A cop only has the legal right to demand an ID card if he believes he has “reasonable” suspicion you have committed a crime, or are about to. The problem is that what a cop thinks is “reasonable” suspicion is entirely arbitrary and at his discretion, usually based on some prejudice. The U.S. Supreme Court has only said that you must “identify” yourself”—i.e. “tell” a cop your name—anytime he or she asks, but you are not required to show identification for no reason; racial profiling or “suspicion” based on nothing more than appearance is illegal. Allegedly in the state of Washington you do not even have to stop if you are innocent of a crime or otherwise have done nothing wrong (like walking on a sidewalk or waiting at a bus stop) even if a cop tells you to. Of course, this is not a good idea, or you might become permanently brain-damaged, like the man who just “won” a $10 million civil suit against King County. It is also true that another problem for the innocent pedestrian is that if a cop wants to, he can charge you with “contempt of cop”—which generally comes into play either if you have an “attitude” problem, or the cop desperately wants to detain you but doesn’t have a “reasonable” excuse at hand. This isn’t “Law and Order” where every male “suspect” is guilty until proven guilty, and whatever cops do is justified. The contempt “charge,” which is typically thrown out by morning, is also “handy” when a cop seriously injures a “suspect” who also has done nothing wrong or illegal.

In this particular case, the fact that I was out and about at an early might be “questionable”—if it was it was not apparent that I my actions were in themselves were not inherently suspicious; however, perfectly natural activities are frequently deemed “suspicious” if a person chooses to interpret them as such, based on their prejudices and stereotypes. As long as I wasn’t staggering around in a drunken stupor or sneaking around cars, the cop had no legitimate reason to stop me, and he knew it. Here I was walking in what was clearly a work uniform; I could be walking to or from work, and I was clearly going somewhere—I wasn’t acting “confused” or “shifty.” I made no effort to avoid him. I had provided him with a legitimate reason why I was out that time of day. But this cop had a premeditated plan to stop and “examine” me, and that’s exactly why he was waiting where he was, when he was. He didn’t want to “miss” me; I wasn’t a “random” target. But there was a problem: He still had no “reasonable” suspicion that I had or was about to commit a crime. His claim that there had been “break-ins” at nearby business was of doubtful credibility, since he wasn’t hidden anywhere to observe any “suspicious” activity; he was right out in the open—and after our encounters, I saw him driving off to downtown Kent. His glee upon being provided a rationale to harass me further proved that although he had been frustrated in his first attempt to harass me, he was eager for another go-round, regardless of its petty and absurd nature.

And to think that a year ago I was mugged out here by someone who was standing in the middle of the street for several minutes as I approached. Where were the cops them? Probably sleeping in the van.

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