People who find themselves in front of my car's flashing lights don't find themselves driving away scott-free a couple of minutes later. No, these people always drive away the reluctant owner of a traffic ticket, signed simply, "Officer Hines."
I've been a policeman for many years, and I thought I had seen it all. I once pulled over a man with a pink floppy hat decorated with life size fruit replicas. Let me tell you, his bright yellow Jeep Wrangler helped his image along too. But floppy hat or no floppy hat, the man hadn't signaled when he changed lanes. I gave him a ticket.
Then there was the woman in the purple Cadillac Escalade pickup truck. She looked to be at least 100 years old, but according to her driver's license she was only 87. She must like purple a lot, because her lipstick, her hat, her shirt, and even the streaks in her hair were purple. As I wrote out her ticket for talking on her (purple) phone while driving, I apologized that we don't give purple ticket slips. She took that one in stride.
I have also heard every excuse in the book. "I didn't see the speed limit sign" just doesn't cut it for me. "Maybe you need glasses? I don't know if anyone has ever told you this, but driving is an activity which requires you to see. Everything." People always tell me that they need the bathroom desperately. I tell them that we can hurry the ticket process along so that they can get to the bathroom as soon as they can. But speeding to a bathroom is just not a good idea. You can get killed with a full bladder too, you know.
It's the personal tragedies that make me stand firmer than anything else. Some people get really angry at me. They think I don't understand. Sometimes I want to tell them that it's they who don't understand. That woman who was driving home from her mother's funeral shouldn't have been speeding. Yes, I know she was distraught, but so was I when I was driving home from my son's funeral. And I wouldn't have needed to bury my nine year old son if some other driver hadn't thought he had an excellent reason to speed.
After thirty one years on the job, it's uncommon for me to see a sight that I've never seen before. And it's even more uncommon for me to see a sight that makes me blink back tears. Today's traffic stop did both.
I was doing a routine patrol on one of my favorite roads. Hidden on the side of the road, behind a pole, I had a good view of the cars - before they got a view of me. It was about 5:15 pm when the car came careening down the road. As I put my car into gear, I wondered if the driver was drunk. I positioned myself behind the car, then turned on my lights. Business as usual, something I have done thousands of times before. The car in front of me, a dark blue Ford Focus, swerved a bit as it pulled over to the side.
I parked behind the car, and got out of my vehicle. I put my tough guy face on, and I went to face my latest law-breaker. When I arrived at the window, I saw that the woman inside had rolled it down, waiting expectantly for me. Her suit was neat, starched and pressed. Her hair was perfect, her makeup looked great. I cleared my throat and began. "Do you know what you were doing wrong?" The driver shook her head. "No. No sir, I don't." I glanced pointedly at her speedometer. "Do you know how fast you were going?" Once again, the woman shook her head. "No sir." "According to my radar, you were driving 48 miles per hour in a 30 zone." She looked shocked, but I continued. "And, worse than that, you were driving recklessly. People get killed every day by reckless drivers!" Wordlessly, I added, people like my son. My Jon. She looked horrified, as if she didn't know what to do with herself. I didn't wait for an explanation before I continued. "I'll need to see your license and registration please."
Suddenly, she snapped out of whatever reverie she'd been in. "Excuse me please officer, can I please explain?" I smiled at her in a way that could only be described as condescending. "Ma'am, I have been a traffic cop for over thirty years. Do you really think I haven't heard your story yet?" Her eyes became steely, determined, as she answered me. "Perhaps you have, but I ask you to listen to me anyway." There was something about her manner that bespoke urgency. I don't fully understand why I did it, but I nodded for her to go ahead.
"Sir, I was once like you. I had a successful job, a career that I loved. When I met my now-husband, I assumed I was about to live the dream life. We got married, and the two of us continued at our jobs. We were so happy. When I gave birth to twin girls, we were the happiest people on the planet. Our family was complete. My husband and I decided that I would stay at home and bring up our two little angels. It was about a year ago that my younger daughter was diagnosed with cancer. The medical bills began piling up, as our savings and energy were depleted. It was just a week before my daughter died that my husband's company downsized, and he was laid off. Suddenly we were left with no income, no Ally, and no hope. After searching unsuccessfully for a new job, we decided that I would look. I found a great job, and my husband started staying home with our one remaining princess."
She paused, took a deep breath, and continued. I was a little bored, I didn't know why I needed to hear her entire life story, but I didn't have the heart to interrupt her. "It was going really well at my job, even though it was so hard for me to work, when all I wanted to do was be with my Jen, my only daughter left. But we needed the money so badly, and I had no choice but to get up each morning and go to work. But today..."
She broke off and bit her lip. She blinked a few times before continuing. "Today my company announced their own downsizing. I was laid off too. And I haven't had the courage yet to tell my husband. In fact, you are the first person I am telling this to." With that, she burst into uncontrollable tears. It was an astonishing change from the put-together, professional looking woman I had pulled over. She sat and cried for a minute, perfectly applied mascara running down her cheeks, as I stood and waited uncertainly. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to react. I didn't have to. The woman continued. "Are you a father, officer?" It took me a minute to realize she was talking to me, then another moment to compose my thoughts. "Yes, I am. Why do you ask?" She wiped her eyes, reached for a tissue, then continued. "Imagine your child lying there in the hospital bed. The doctors, the medicines, the surgeries, the home-health care nurses. Would you not tell the doctor that you want no expense spared for your child's life?"
I did picture that. Jon lying in that bed, bandages and casts covering most of his body, tubes and wires protruding from the rest. The doctor came in to discuss an experimental surgery. "It very well might not work," he had said. "And it's very expensive." I shook my head violently. "No! Listen to me Dr. Vicelle, it doesn't matter how much it costs. This is my son's life!" I nodded at the woman. "Yes Ma'am." She started crying again. "But those surgeries cost money! I was supposed to make it, but now I can't! I let my husband down! I let my family down! I don't even know how I will face him." A fresh wave of tears accompanied the last line, and I had to wait a minute for the woman to continue again. "Be glad officer," she started. "Be glad that you have a job. Right now, if my only other daughter were to fall ill, I wouldn't have any way to pay for medical treatment for her."
In thirty years of being a cop, nobody had ever spoken to me quite so brazenly. And nobody had ever made quite such an impression on me. I have been so caught up in the tragedy of Jon's death, I forgot about all of the good in my life. My job. My wife. My daughter Stephanie. My lovely home. My friends...
"Listen carefully Ma'am, I am going to tell you something important. My son Jon died 18 years ago in a traffic accident. A reckless driver, speeding down the road, hit my son. The doctors fought for 2 weeks to save my son. Then they gave up. Ever since then, I have never stopped a car and let them off the hook. Until today. Have a good day Ma'am. Good luck with your husband, good luck finding a new job. Oh, and do me a favor, enjoy your other daughter."
As I walked back to my car, I watched the first car in 18 years drive away without a ticket. Then I smiled to myself, because I walked away with a lesson.