I did not grow up in the United States. When I was a child in Eastern Europe, my parents had a brief but firm conversation with me about the police. It went something like this: “We are Christians and the government and the police do not like us, so do not, do not, antagonize them. Remember they have guns and you do not. Do not come close to them and do not try to be funny when they are around. If they ask you to stop, you stop and try to answer them in the politest way that you can.” And so, for the first 15 years of my life, I stayed as far as I could from the police even though our village only had two police officers and we knew them by name. They patrolled out streets by night and day, stopped by our school and talked to our class, and rode their motorcycles. Wherever they went, their guns were very visible. When we spent 16 months in the refugee camps of Italy, I knew that the Italian police (called carabinieri in Italian) were a friendly bunch. They often stopped to talk with the children, but I remembered what my parents had told me and kept my distance.
My encounters with police officers have been mostly because I am European and because I like to drive fast. From the time that I received my driver’s license until now, I have received a number of tickets for speeding. According to my wife, I keep our insurance rate high. I recognize that in a family of six drivers, I am the worst of the bunch. Oddly enough, I did not receive any tickets in Detroit where my family lived until 1976. However, driving in other Midwest states made up for my lack of speeding tickets in Michigan.
The First Wedding Ticket – My college roommate got married in Wisconsin. My girlfriend flew to O’Hare Airport, and I went to pick her up. The rehearsal ran late and, by the time I left, she was already waiting at the airport. There were no other cars on the roads surrounded by farmland, so I decided to speed up. On a road where the speed limit was 50, I drove somewhere around 70 mph. A police officer stopped me and told me to follow him to the police station, where I had to pay $50 or be placed in jail. I was glad that I had $50 in my wallet in Paris, (not the one in France!) Wisconsin, where I paid my fine and arrived 3 hours late to pick up my girlfriend.
The Caravan Wedding Ticket – Ethnic churches travel in caravans for various events. One time, a group of Romanian young people traveled from Detroit to Cleveland. Most of us had to work on Saturday morning so, immediately after work, we drove in three cars to a 4:00 wedding. We were speeding, and an Ohio police officer stopped us and ticketed every car $100. We thanked him for not taking us into town to visit the police station, and proceeded cautiously to Cleveland. We thought we would be late for the wedding but, to our surprise, the bride was two hours late. For that wedding, we arrived early, $300 poorer, and pretty miffed at the bride.
The USA Bicentennial Ticket – In 1976, my parents left Detroit and moved to California. They asked me to come home in the spring and move my books to Boston, where I was studying. As somebody living in Detroit, I went through Canada frequently because it was a shorter route to the East Coast. I had never been stopped or had my car inspected. This time it was different because I was carrying about 500 books in my car. The Canadian border officers thought that I was smuggling drugs. They took my car to a nearby garage, took all the books out of the car, and spent two hours checking all the possible places smugglers could hide drugs. The officers made me wait for two more hours before thanking me for my patience and telling me I could go. I do not think that I thanked them for their thorough job, but I did learn that drugs were being smuggled across the border.
The Brazen Ticket – I was pulled over a second time driving to O’Hare Airport in Chicago. This young police officer came up to my car and asked me for my documentation. Then he asked me for $300. He told me that he was being watched by his supervisors and if I gave him the money, he would just give me a citation. I knew that some Chicago police officers did this type of bribery, but it had never happened to me before. I told him that I do not carry cash (which is true in most cases). I tried to be brave and told him that even if I had the money, I would not go for his bribe. He got upset and wrote me a pretty exorbitant ticket.
The Rainy Day Ticket – I was lecturing for a colleague in his sociology class. The class was held from 8:00 – 9:30 AM, a time when most students would prefer to be asleep rather than learning about religion in a sociology class. I am used to highly engaged classes in my seminary classes, and I left pretty discouraged. I walked outside into one of the worst rainstorms that I have ever seen. While peering through my windshield wipers, I exited the parking lot through the entrance. No sooner did I pull onto the main road than a cop flashed her lights. She came to my window and told me that I had exited on the wrong side of the parking lot. She inspected my car thoroughly, and gave me three special tickets so that I will never again come out of the parking lot on the entry side!
The I Am Lost Ticket – This time, I traveled up north in New Jersey and it was raining again. I got lost and knew I was scheduled to start my lecture in just a few minutes. I was at an intersection with a car behind me and a police officer in his car to my left. It seemed like an answered prayer since the officer could direct me to my destination. I rolled the window down and motioned to the officer that I would proceed across the intersection, so I would not block the person behind me from turning. There were just the three cars there—the police officer, myself, and the car behind me. The officer had the green light and I had the red light, but I counted on his willingness to let me go across and pull into a driveway. I pulled in and so did he. As the officer walked toward my car, he started shouting at me. He told me I could have caused multiple accidents, and asked who taught me to drive, and who I thought I was to cross the intersection while the light was red. I tried to explain to him that had I motioned to him to go ahead, but the more I tried to speak, the more agitated he became. He was yelling, I was shaking, and he gave me a ticket. This police officer was not in a conversational mood. I finally figured out my way, and arrived about 30 minutes late to give my lecture.
The “What is a Seminary?” Ticket – I was driving early in the morning between the NJ Turnpike and the PA Turnpike. I had exited to the highway, but accidentally kept the same speed that I had on the turnpike. A young police officer pulled me over and told me that I was driving 15 miles over the speed limit. He said that it was good he stopped me on the NJ side because I would have gotten a worse ticket on the PA side! It was around 6:30 AM and he asked me why I was in such a hurry so early in the morning. I explained to him that I was teaching at 9:00 AM, and I needed to prepare for the class. I was wearing my ID with my name, photo, and the name of the seminary where I teach. He asked me what a seminary was, if I was a priest, and if I had received any other speeding tickets lately. Then he started to circle my car and I remembered my Canada experience. I thought, “Oh no, he believes that I have drugs!” He leaned into my car and told me that he would write me a ticket for a mirror obstruction instead of a speeding ticket, since my daughters’ Sandy Hook Beach Pass was hanging from my mirror. The ticket for the obstruction was about one-sixth of the cost of a speeding ticket.
Favorite Encounter with the Police – One summer day, I was in a meeting from 8:30 AM to 3:00 PM. It was an exhausting meeting. I started to drive home on I-95, when suddenly I saw this police officer flash his lights. He drove up next to my window and shouted, “Sir can you double your speed? You are driving 30 mph in a 55-mph zone!” Let it be known that there are times when I drive according to the speed posted and sometimes, I even drive below it.
When I am stopped by police officers, I am very polite, I place my hands on the steering wheel, and I wait for the officer to tell me what to do. I do not have clergy stickers on my car or a clergy collar to seek favors; when I am pulled over, I am a regular sinner. I recognize that they are right for stopping me and I hope that they are kind to me and honest with me. The officers who think that they can shout at you, threaten you, or ask for a bribe bring shame and dishonor to the badge they carry. My encounters showed me that most police officers are honest and ethical while working a dangerous job.