Law & the Courts

Masters and Servants

A recent traffic stop in Suffolk County, N.Y. (Screenshot: Suffolk County Police Dept./Facebook)
A Christmas gift from the state: ritual humiliation

Officer Pedro Alexander of the Youngsville, La., police department likes publicity, so allow me to give him a little right here: He ought to be fired, along with a few of his colleagues and supervisors.

Officer Alexander is one of the many policemen around the country who, having decided that the daily ritual humiliations Americans endure at the hands of their government (at the airport, at the motor-vehicles office, getting a passport renewed) should be even more extensive — and, by God, jollier! — are going around conducting illegal police stops as part of a Christmas-themed public-relations campaign. Our friends at Reason have been following these shenanigans for a while, and they are widespread, perpetrated by police from Louisiana to Pennsylvania to Oklahoma.

What happens is this: Police cruisers pull up behind some unsuspecting citizen who is minding his own business and following the law. The police put on their flashing lights and pull over the unsuspecting citizen who is minding his own business and following the law. Then, they videotape the subsequent encounter between the police and the unsuspecting citizen who is minding his own business and following the law, who breathes a sigh of relief when police say: “Congratulations! You weren’t doing anything wrong! Merry Christmas!” And then sometimes the police give that unsuspecting citizen who is minding his own business and following the law a Red Lobster gift certificate.

Some of these videos are hilarious. But do you know why they are hilarious? Because that unsuspecting citizen who is minding his own business and following the law is terrified.

That’s part of the mechanics of humor, which works by subverting our expectations (as in a pun or a double-entendre) and by providing a channel for the spasmodic relief of tension. And if you want to create tension, conducting a police stop — illegally — is a great way to do that. Police officers are armed agents of the state who enjoy a wide license when it comes to performing acts of violence on citizens, which is why traffic stops and other police encounters are so stressful even for those who have done nothing wrong.

What is particularly maddening about this is that we are constantly reminded by our occasionally sanctimonious and self-regarding friends in law enforcement that traffic stops are extraordinarily dangerous for police, who are therefore justified in treating them as though each broken-taillight encounter were potentially a standoff with Billy the Kid. Here’s our friend Jack Dunphy, a California police official and regular contributor in these pages:

The traffic stop . . . presents some of the greatest dangers a police officer can encounter. Bear in mind that the officer who pulls you over for a minor traffic violation has no idea that you are ordinarily a law-abiding citizen who happens to be in a hurry to get somewhere.

Unless, of course, he does know for a fact that you are an unsuspecting citizen who is minding his own business and following the law and has targeted you for that very reason. Maybe we should take police claims of the fraught nature of traffic stops with a grain of salt or three: They don’t seem to believe their own bull***t, so why should we?

It is occasionally necessary to remind the people we employ to do necessary violence on our behalf that they are servants and not masters.

We should give some brief consideration to the legal and practical questions here: These are illegal stops, but they could very well uncover (other) illegal activity: If Officer Friendly ends up pulling over Jack the Ripper and discovers a severed head in the passenger seat of his minivan, that’s still an illegal stop, which taints evidence uncovered by it — a fact that will occur to Jack’s lawyer. And instead of pulling over to the side of the road to whimper and call you “Sir,” that nice young lady might instead lead you on a high-speed chase and drive her Volvo into a school bus.

But what is particularly galling here is the unspoken set of political assumptions behind all this, i.e., that we citizens exist at the sufferance of the state and for the use and amusement of its agents.

It is occasionally necessary to remind the people we employ to do necessary violence on our behalf that they are servants and not masters. Police officers are servants, like gardeners and housekeepers, and they work for us. They are handsomely paid and splendidly pensioned, treated with great courtesy and extended an extraordinary (sometimes excessive) degree of respect. But they are not entitled to waste our time, to interfere with us, or to use us as props in their public-relations campaigns. We are subjects, not objects.

The proper “reward” for following the rules of the road and for not being a thief or a homicidal maniac is not a ho-ho-ho humorous holiday encounter with the police and a candy cane. It is being left alone.

#related#Police officers conducting illegal traffic stops should face consequences. The senior police officials who conceive of these programs and sign off on them should lose their jobs. And we, as citizens, should attempt to rekindle enough self-respect that we insist on being treated by our police officers with at least the same degree of respect and consideration we demand from the people who cut our grass or sell us lattes.

They work for us, and we should treat them accordingly. And that means telling Officer Pedro Alexander of Youngsville, La., to mind his own business and do his damned job.

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