I’m sure almost everyone has heard the story about a 20-year-old getting harrassed by a police officer in a commuter lot and being told he could be arrested and he could just make up any old story as an excuse. The story’s been all over Digg and even hit some national news sites, such as USA Today.
It happened in St. George, Missouri. It’s the next town over from me, an obstacle on my way to my favorite hobby shop, pizza place, and batting cage.In high school, teachers actually warned us about that town, since the shortest route to the nearest Interstate takes you right through there. When I was 17, I did some computer work for someone who lived in St. George, and she provided me with a map indicating the precise location of each stop sign and gave me a stern warning to stop for a full five seconds at each sign. She told me a cop would be watching me with a stopwatch.
I did what she said and didn’t have problems.
Usually when someone has a flat tire or other car trouble, if a police officer is nearby and sees it, the officer will pull up behind them, angle the car and flip the lights on to keep passing drivers away from the scene. And it’s not uncommon to see the officer actually help the driver change the tire.
Not in St. George. In St. George the cop just keeps zapping motorists with the radar gun. I’ve seen it more than once.
I’ve been pulled over four times in my life. The first was a combination of factors: I made a U-turn, it was late at night, and my skin was the wrong color to be turning into that particular neighborhood. I was driving a coworker home. The officer let me go with a verbal warning.
The second time I was pulled over, it was by a cop who was notorious for harrassing kids. I know he was lying about the speed I was going because I knew the area and I didn’t like driving it much faster than 35 miles per hour (the posted limit). He said I’d been doing 47, which would have been suicide on that stretch of road. That stretch of road doesn’t even exist anymore, and for good reason. After he ran my record and found absolutely nothing, he let me go, but he said he’d go tell my mother what I’d been doing. I might have been a bit worried, if I’d been doing something wrong.
The third time I was pulled over was near the Lake of the Ozarks. The speed limit is 55 most of the way, but a lot of towns drop it down to ridiculous lows. I didn’t slow down enough, and I got pulled over. I didn’t get a ticket but I got a written warning.
The fourth and last time I’ve been pulled over was in St. George. It was late on a Friday, I was coming home from a Bible study (yes, really), and I was watching my speed carefully because I knew exactly where I was. When I saw the flashing lights behind me, I had no idea why. I pulled over, half expecting him to zoom past me, but he pulled over too. He told me right away why: The light over my license plate was burned out.
Up until then it had never occurred to me that there was a light over your license plate, let alone that it was illegal to drive without one. I’d been rear-ended a couple of weeks before, and that probably was the reason the light was out. He took my license, went back to the car and ran my record (as far as I know, still two words long: “No record”), strolled back to my car, and gave me a second lecture about the light over my plate. I told him I didn’t know the light was out.
“Well you do now,” he bellowed, and threw my license back at me.
So I drove my menace-to-society car out of St. George and back home, wondering all the way how many people have managed to get pulled over there and not get a ticket. Probably not many.
In this local account, the St. George police chief denies being a speed trap. “It’s not true. My officers are told to enforce the law. I want quality, not quantity. I want the drugs, the impaired drivers. Those’re the things that make a difference.”
I’ll believe it when I see it. If there’s any drug trafficking going on, it’s along I-55, just outside the city limits. There’s a small bar a mile or two away at the corner of Mackenzie and Gravois, but it’s not very big. I don’t think it produces many drunk drivers since there’s only room for about five cars in its parking lot.
I think they’re more worried about burned-out headlights, people stopping for less than three seconds at stop signs, and people who look like they might be under 18 violating curfew. I think the latter is the reason Brett Darrow was pulled over and harrassed.
If St. George is indeed cleaning up its act, it’s going to take a long time for the reputation to change. Twenty years ago it had a reputation for being a place where they’d pull you over if you didn’t shave that morning, and reputations like that don’t develop overnight.
Maybe a little national attention will give the cleanup a little more sincerity.