By Jack Baruth
Wednesday, Dec 21st, 2011 @ 1:00 pm
 
Last week, we learned that police in Prosper, Texas, are doing "safe driving stops" to congratulate people for driving safely in a school zone. Is this a positive step to repairing relationships with a battered and bruised motoring populace, or simply another invasion of privacy?

It's an unfortunate fact that most citizens will rarely or never have a "good" interaction with a police officer. Most middle-class Americans only talk to a cop when they're getting a ticket or finding out just how little effort will be taken towards obtaining the return or repair of their stolen or damaged property. This isn't an age-old phenomenon: In fact, it can be traced almost precisely to the moment when most police departments stopped so-called "community policing" by beat cops and started wrapping their officers up in full-sized citadels of armored steel, complete with sirens and lights.

A cop walking on the street is a welcome sight to the law-abiding and a deterrent to the criminal; a cop idling in the median of a freeway or empty parking lot is simply an expensive enemy, waiting to pick someone moving out of the flow of traffic and tax them for easy revenue. He (or she) is a mirror-shaded thug who can detain you, confiscate your property, retrieve the personal information from your cellphone, and - in some cases - force you to surrender a sample of your blood. Small wonder, then, that contempt for police is on the rise even among people who have never knowingly committed a non-vehicular offense in their lives.

At first glance, the Prosper program appears to be an effective counterattack to the above stereotype. The cops pull people over, thank them for protecting the lives of children in school zones (a goal concerning which even the most speed-obsessed should be able to muster up some sympathy) and then hand them a gift card. All of a sudden, that cop isn't just a ticket-writer in a funny hat: He's an ally in the goal of preserving neighborhood safety. Great idea...

...or is it? After all, we are still talking about a traffic stop here. That means that you, and your vehicle, will be scrutinized for everything from medicinal marijuana to a missing front license plate. It means that each person pulled over will experience the anxiety of a police stop (which, to be fair, this program is meant to alleviate). It also wastes the time of parents. Ask any parent, your humble author included: Time is in short supply, and we work in five-minute increments.

Let's assume for a moment that the Prosper cops are on the up and up. Will every police department which adopts this approach do so with a similar goal in mind? That's unlikely. For some municipalities, this will serve the same function as the so-called "DUI checkpoints" which would be more effectively called "front tag, expired tag, expired license, equipment violation, and random reason checkpoints." The money will flow, the citizenry will wait, and the machine will continue to spin.

How else could Prosper, and other police departments, accomplish this goal? Here's one simple suggestion: Get a cop out of his car and have him stand near the road making eye contact with drivers as they pass. Give the good ones a thumbs-up. Give the borderline ones a cautionary "slow down" motion. Be a real person to these motorists. Respect will be returned. And if that works, just imagine what could happen if more cops got out of their cars and started talking to people. It just might change the way people look at the police" but since it won't help the cash flow, don't look for it to happen any time soon.