I heard a brief story on NPR this morning talking about an investigation underway into the DC police, to the effect that they’ve been arresting people for years for talking back to them. I’m not really sure of the legality of talking back to the po-po, but my immediate reaction was that everyone knows: if it wears a badge or a nametag, you treat it nicely. Or else.
I recognize: the police have a very difficult job to do and I’m generally sympathetic to them in the face of the criticism they face. That doesn’t keep me from leveling some of that criticism, though, and I will admit that I haven’t always behaved perfectly. I’m probably lucky to have kept a clean sheet.
About ten years ago, I was with my first firm out of law school. While there, I was lucky enough to work with a mentor and friend who was in his fourth or fifth year – “D” will remain anonymous here because, in stark contrast to myself, he’s achieved some measure of respectability over the intervening years.
One particular night, we scored firm tickets to go see the Wizards. We hit the game, after which we went to Fado, an Irish bar around the corner from the Verizon Center. Since we had work left to do, we each had one beer, then lit out to go back to the office.
Now understand: we were both young-ish lawyers, so we talked shop almost the entire time at the game and at the bar. It happened that just before and during our departure, we were talking about a DUI case D had defended, which devolved into a discussion of field sobriety tests.
For those that don’t know, one of the FSTs that police run is called the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test — it’s that one where they hold their finger up in front of you and watch as your eyes track that finger while they move it back and forth. Apparently, everyone’s eyes have some delay and the more impaired you are, the longer the lag in flicking on to what you’re trying to observe. I’d never had cause to hear of it before and, as D described it to me, I remarked that my eyes don’t have any delay in tracking at all.
I said this while we were walking out of the bar and onto the sidewalk.
“Everyone has some delay,” D said, not catching on immediately that I was being droll.
“No, really. I don’t,” I said, warming to the joke.
D didn’t believe me, and proceeded to administer the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test then and there. On the sidewalk. Right outside the bar. Brilliant idea, right?
“HEY!” came the voice you never want to hear. We looked around. Parked in the middle lane (of three) on F Street, a police cruiser had come to a stop and a blond guy who looked at least three or four years younger than me was leaning out the passenger window.
We tried to explain that we were talking about the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test. Blondie wasn’t buying.
“You guys been drinking, huh?” he barked. Traffic was backing up behind the cruiser, drivers reluctant to pass a cop in the middle lane on a Friday night. I remember feeling uncomfortable to be causing a traffic issue. I was also irritated at being made to feel responsible for the situation, even if that wasn’t the police’s intention.
We tried to explain that we’d had one beer at the game, and one beer in the bar. We’re just horsing around on the sidewalk because we were talking shop. We’re having this fruitless conversation with guys in a police cruiser 25 feet away, in the middle of a curious crowd with a pack of impatient drivers waiting for the situation to resolve itself. Or waiting for someone to get beaten down, because everyone knows that justifies a traffic delay.
“You guys have been pretty into it, right? Where are you parked?” Blondie yelled.
Sorry, I got really irritated. We weren’t parked or intending to drive, even if we weren’t able. This guy looked about 12 and he was wearing a light blue short-sleeved shirt, which didn’t look like a uniform to me, and I decided that the whole thing was bullshit.
“What, are you doing … a ridealong?” I yelled back.
Don’t ever, ever say that.
It turns out that the DC police have a light blue, short-sleeved alternate uniform shirt.
“I can smell alcohol on your breath!” he yelled back. From 25 feet away, some lizard corner of my brain noted, but that didn’t matter. Literally within seconds, D and I were surrounded by three cops. The really BIG dude was behind us, emphasizing the rest of the conversation with tough jabs from a nightstick. The crowd wasn’t even trying to pretend they weren’t glued to the next episode of COPS, and the motorists had all decided they’d found something more rewarding than getting home.
Subsequent negotiations revealed that Blondie was not only not doing a ridealong, but he was actually Head Cop of the trio. I was Head Hothead, apparently, but D’s diplomatic skills didn’t desert us. He chatted up Blondie long enough to point out that we were both attorneys and find out that the officer was taking night classes at George Mason Law, which gave him an opportunity to express sympathy for working fulltime while going to school, and impart some advice about how to go about getting a law career off the ground. I opened my mouth to contribute at some point, but D withered me with a glare that told me I’d already done enough.
In the end, Blondie let us go and D gave him a card, in case he ever needed counsel or wanted to talk about an summer intership with our firm. And ten years later, D and I found ourselves talking about grabbing a beer and catching up on old times.
“Don’t worry, D,” I wrote. “I’m in control of my tongue these days.”
“I won’t,” he responded. “I have a portable breathalyzer I use on my clients.”
Finally, he’s prepared to hang out with me.