"Cruise Control" Not a Proper Police Function
by Ari Armstrong, June 28, 2001 (posted)
Several patrol cars flashed their lights down the street. Rows of flares redirected traffic. "It must be an accident," my wife said.
We crept along 92nd Street at a snail's pace, merging with other lanes into a single line of cars. As we approached, there were no emergency vehicles: no firetrucks or ambulances. No crashed cars.
What was the purpose of this massive show of police force? Was it to save lives? Respond to a medical emergency? Track down a dangerous criminal? No, it was to "cut down on cruising," Officer Wright told me. The police were only following the request of the Westminster City Council, he said.
Wright asked me where I was going. Both my wife and I were tired, as it had been a long day. It was Friday, May 18, about 11:30 at night. We were at the intersection of Harlan. I told Wright I was going home.
"What's your address?" Wright demanded. Irked that I was being interrogated for no reason, I asked the officer if he had probable cause to suspect me of committing some crime. He said, "I need to know your address, so I can tell you where to go" -- as if I don't know the way to my own home!
Officer Goodwin spoke up and said he would magnanimously "allow" me to turn left, down to 88th Street, so I could turn around and head back north on Wadsworth. In all, it was a ridiculous waste of time.
I understand the desire of local residents to cut down on "cruising," the social ritual in which teenagers drive cars around in circles on weekend nights. But I have to wonder: is getting rid of a little extra noise and traffic really worth the cost?
All of those police officers, along with their patrol cars, flares, and other equipment, use up tax dollars. Is that really the type of activity we're paying our officers to perform?
But the real cost is the loss of liberty. We're supposed to be able to drive home -- even at night -- without being needlessly detained, questioned, and redirected by the police. America is not supposed to be the place where the police can stop you for doing nothing more than driving home.
The proper role of the police is to protect individual rights, not reduce traffic noise. Why do men and women get into police work? Hopefully, it's for the idealistic reason to protect the rest of us from violent thugs. In terms of traffic, the police are supposed to go after people driving dangerously. If I were an officer, I'd feel a little foolish being reduced to "cruise control." (Maybe that's why Officer Wright seemed to be in a bad mood.)
Ironically, my wife and I had been driving home from the opening night of the Colorado Libertarian Convention. There we had joined conversations about the importance of freedom and the significance of the Bill of Rights. To return home to be stopped by the police for a silly reason was anti-climactic, to say the least.
At the convention, one person dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, torch held high. The French sculptor of that statue named his work, "Liberty Enlightening the World." The great men and women of our history said passionate words like, "Give me Liberty or give me death!" Today, many seem content to utter a tepid, "Give me a little less traffic noise."
One of the costs of living in a free society is that others have the freedom to do some things which I find personally annoying. People get to smoke cigarettes, which I consider a nasty habit. People get to say silly, even dangerous things in public. People get to produce and trade goods and services I may not like. And yes, some people drive around in circles for no apparent reason.
A free society is necessarily one without many controls. A free society is dynamic, and things don't always go the way one might personally prefer. The advantages of a free society are many: peaceable people are secure in their persons and property and each of us is able to assume personal responsibility to live life as he or she believes is best.
I would rather live in a society in which the police cannot pull me over and question me for driving home. Even if that means I have to live with more traffic. Many times over, liberty is worth the price.
Postscript: One Westminster City Council member said the following to me in e-mail: "People's safety and welfare was being threatened continually" in the course of the cruising. I replied, "[I]if some of the 'cruisers' are committing property damage or driving in a dangerous manner, then the proper response is to target THOSE PERSONS, not me and other honest citizens. If the offenders were given tickets and/or arrested, they would quickly learn to knock it off. When you target everybody, the offenders learn only that their harmful actions will result in the violation of the rights of innocent third parties."