by Thomas Donoghue
“Put this on,” he asserted with a grumble through his thick southern accent.
“Do I really need this? I don’t intend on being shot.” Bulletproof vests are a little heavier than I thought.
“Nobody ever does. Follow me.” I fumbled between the vest, my notepad and cell phone as I tried to follow him quickly through to the back of the precinct, through a pair of gray doors, down a narrow set of stairs, through another narrow gray hallway and into a room with the label “Daywatch” hanging loosely from the gray door.
I wasn’t sure if I put this thing on with the label “Atlanta Police” on my back or on my front, but as casually as I could, with cues from several hours of watching The Wire, I threw the thing on with the label on the front. “Wrong way,” the Lieutenant said from across the room at his desk. “You’ve got it backwards.” I looked down at the label and began to fumble. “Here, lemme help,” he said.
I never thought I would sign up for a ride-along. It never really crossed my mind, to be honest, but in light of the past weeks and months, I thought it was fitting. We all wade through the political muck of our social contracts, but I needed to make sure I had an aligned perspective about who, in my mind, is the good guy and who is the bad guy.
“Here is your guy.” With a motion of his head to the door and sinking back into his chair. The officer walked further into the room. He wasn’t a tall man, probably only 5 foot 7 inches, about my height.
“Yeah, hi… I remember you. You pulled me over the other day,” I said with a smile as I reached out my hand. He’d given me a break and not given me a ticket for blowing a—for what I argue—was a yellow light.
“Probably so. Good to meet you. You ready?”
“All set. Lieutenant, I need anything else?” He shook his head “no” without ever looking up from his computer. “I guess I’m good.” We walked back through the gray cavernous corridors to a door that the officer seemed to almost kick open, forcing sunlight to drench the hallway.
The Atlanta Police Department’s new patrol vehicles, the Ford Taurus, were not as roomy as their predecessors, the Ford Crown Victoria—or Crown Vic, for short. I wedged myself in the seat between the door and the onboard Toughbook laptop and we were off.
The conversation was a bit awkward at first, particularly with the officer preoccupied with typing into the laptop every license plate, or as they call it in the South, “tag,” that he saw. One could consider this to be proactive policing. The officer gave it a more colorful name. “I am nothing more than a cash machine for the City of Atlanta. Make no mistake about it. My job is to produce money out of thin air so this City can increase its general fund and so police and fire can stay employed.”
He continued typing with his right hand while he drove with his left, then a “ping” would sound. This ping was the computer’s way of announcing that the tag number that had been processed had a violation attached to it. No insurance or an expired registration. After the ping the officer would then query the registered driver’s license for any further violations. In this particular case, the driver in the white Toyota Tercel in front of us has a bench warrant placed on his license. This guy in the Toyota was about to have a very bad Monday morning.
“You see this guy right here, this guy probably doesn’t know there is a warrant out for his arrest, but we know everything about him before we pull him over. We know that we are going to arrest him, so we need to be ready for a cool customer. Most people go calmly, but every once in a while you get one that wants to fight. I’ll tell you what; the last thing you want to do is get in a fight. Nothing is worse.”
“People actually start punching you?” I asked like a kid asking his father if Santa Claus is real. The officer just looked at me.
The blue lights reflected off the white paint on the Toyota in the parking lot of a blighted, industrial parcel of some kind. The adjacent building may have been active in the 70s, back in the old South, but today in Atlanta, it was just another run-down building in the ghetto. I stayed in the car. Not to say I’m scared or anything, but I’m not interested in being on the receiving end of a cool customer.
The officer gets out of the car. Conversation is exchanged between the driver and the officer. It’s not too long after that the driver reluctantly gets out of the car, turns around and the officer issues the handcuffs. The driver starts crying. It’s not pretty and the driver is soon shuffled and placed in the back seat of the car. The officer heads back to the Toyota to check for contraband, so to speak.
“I was just sayin’ how I have never seen the back of a police car,” the man said from behind me.
“Well, you have now…” I didn’t mean to be a jerk, it just came out of my mouth. To be honest, I meant to make it sound like it was no sweat and that being in the back of a cop car isn’t all that bad.
“Oh!…” He sobbed harder. I was a jerk.
“This will be all over in a few hours. To tell you the truth, I’ve been in jail too. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck, but it doesn’t last long for this kind of thing.” The officer jumped back in the car and we took the sobbing fellow downtown to the city jail. My misguided attempt at comforting didn’t seem to help anything and I once again reminded myself, as I have done so many times in my life, to shut-the-fuck-up more often than not.
“See here’s the thing, he’s going to be in there for a few days longer than he thinks.” The officer mentioned casually. I felt even more horrible now that I mentioned that he’d only be there for a few hours, though I didn’t tell the officer that. “He was all cryin’ and shit and I didn’t want him to go into full on freak-out, but he has a warrant for his arrest in Henry County. That means that Henry County has to come to get him. Now, they don’t come up too often throughout the week. So he’s going to have to sit in there until Henry County gets their butts up here, then he’ll sit in their jail for a while until they process him, then he can post bail. Poor guy doesn’t know what kind of dull ride he’s in for. My experience tells me that he’s a good guy. He probably just procrastinated with taking care of his car situation.”
The day went on. We ate lunch. We pulled over more people. I began to notice the trend: we consistently pull over a larger proportion of the seemingly poor population, or working class. The officer, by no means, chose to pull over the poor or the working, but those groups are seen as more dependable to incur the most infractions. Stopped at each traffic light, waiting for the red light to turn green, the officer processes through the on-board Toughbook each license plate of those around us. “Is it the beat-up vehicles that are in some ways illegal more than the others?” I ask to confirm or disconfirm my thoughts of a classist police.
“It’s not that a beat-up vehicle is doing any more wrong than a $90,000 Mercedes, because there are criminals driving Mercedes too, trust me on that. It’s the beat-up vehicle that, through my experience, that pings an infraction. They usually can’t afford to keep their insurance or registration up-to-date. Now this is important: I am nothing more than a money making machine for the City of Atlanta, make no mistake about it. I’m an ATM that the City uses for cash. If it happens to be that this vehicle can bring the City of Atlanta money, it’s my duty to pull it over. It’s not good and it’s not what I signed up for. The whole thing is a damn shame to be honest. We don’t police—we fund government.” The officer, I feel, is just going through the motions until his retirement—whenever that would be.
“Ok, but this all sound like the City has been rewired to prey upon the poor, right? What I mean is we hit them with fees, which they can’t pay, so they continue to drive in even more of an illegal position than they started, just to pull them over again, incarcerate them, then hit them with more fines. This repetition is what I feel like the day has been, in dealing with the average working stiff.” All of this dawns on my like some big epiphany from a Monday morning quarterback armchair liberal.
“Well, you could say all that,” the officer said. “But then again, they don’t have to drive if they can’t afford it. Driving is a privilege. I don’t want to get into a philosophical policy conversation about all this, but sometimes it just is what it is.” The officer knew that I was right, but he also knew he had a job. There have been times in my life when I didn’t want to admit my place in the world to myself. Perhaps I’m giving him too much credit though. Perhaps he’s just burned out a bit from the bureaucracy, the favoritism in the department, the “covering your ass” politics that he has to play in the office and on the street.
“What other choice does the working stiff have? The City of Atlanta or MARTA aren’t truly providing good transit. These folks can’t walk anywhere because there aren’t any sidewalks. They can’t bike because the speed limit is…” I glance out of the car for a sign and see—”55mph! I’d be scared to walk on this stretch of road with trucks and drag racers.” The officer shrugged in affirmation. What else could he do? There was nothing. Even if he wanted to change the world, it would be a long hard road of assumed demotion, forced early retirement, and/or trumped-up charges of some kind. Some great reward. No, these problems are systemic.
There is an urban problem that we have here in Atlanta. The poor are fleeing to the suburbs because the City doesn’t want them anymore. The suburbs now hold 88 percent of Atlanta’s poverty. That’s an increase of 159 percent from 2001 to 2011. How’s that for irony, or is it real-time demographic data visualization as evidence that the middle class has more in common with the poor than with the rich? Perhaps the working middle class doesn’t want to accept the fact that, at times, they may be one paycheck away from getting pulled over during a weekend saunter into the City to show the kid the a game, take in the sites, or go for a walk on the BeltLine. Maybe the working middle class may have forgotten to fulfill the necessary emissions requirements to renew the registration. Maybe the working middle class gets pulled over by the officer and receives a couple of tickets equalling two months worth of grocery costs. The spiral takes effect from that point on.
Then again, the suburban working middle class will most likely vote for that next politician that promises a tax break, because tomorrow is a “maybe” too. Maybe tomorrow that tax break will make them all millionaires—some nice pie in the sky to look forward to. But behind you at that red light, the City’s got your number. And now you’ve got theirs.