This column was written by Jeff Stein, editor of the Ithaca Voice, who went for a police ride-along Monday night as part of the Ithaca Police Department’s “Citizens’ Police Academy.” 

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Ithaca, N.Y. — Compared with the last two, this one seemed like a walk in the park.

It was Monday night and Ithaca police Officer Jolene Betts and I had just responded to two 911 calls: The first for a domestic disturbance and possibly suicidal subject, the second for a report of shots fired on the West Village.

This third incident, though, sounded simpler: A traffic violation for lacking adequate lighting on a vehicle. A university logo on the back of the driver’s car lowered my sense of danger even further.

Officer Betts pulled the driver over, wrote up the ticket and politely explained why she had to do so: The poor lighting was a risk to other drivers on a major public road.

No big deal, I thought, beginning to wonder if I would even get the chance to see anything exciting on my police ride-along.

Then I heard a loud outburst. My head turned as if on a swivel. Little did I know that the screaming was just starting.

“How could you?,” the female driver cried at Officer Betts, tears running down her face. “You’ve ruined my life!”

A man in the passenger seat tried calming the driver down. Officer Betts emphasized to the driver that this was a simple traffic violation — not a felony or a misdemeanor that would end up on a record — and that she would have a chance to contest the ticket in court.

Neither approach seemed to work. The woman’s hands shook violently. A ticket issuance suddenly seemed like it could escalate into something much more serious.

“How can you live with yourself?!,” the woman shrieked at the officer. Officer Betts, to her credit, simply reacted with calm — and humor. “I don’t know, ma’am,” she said.

Then the woman did something that further defied my expectations: She reached out of the car and put her hands on Officer Betts. (I wondered if her aggressiveness with the police would lead to another charge; it didn’t.)

“You might want to calm down,” Betts said. “This could get a whole lot worse.”

The woman did eventually stop yelling. Still livid, she seemed most to accept her fate when told that the ticket had already been issued. A few minutes later, and — her lights fixed — the driver was back on her way.

I drew one obvious lesson from this strange little episode, and though perhaps it’s cliche I think it bears repeating: Any police incident, no matter how seemingly small, can turn with lightning speed into a potential major case. No matter how minor the initial traffic violation, the second the female driver touched the officer the situation had taken on a dramatic new importance. That, of course, can happen to officers at anytime.

And there’s another, perhaps less obvious lesson. I have little doubt that, in her day to day life, the female driver is a good person: She probably gives to charity, and cares for her mother, and does all the things in life that we use to consider ourselves good people.

I’d even bet that, if pressed, the female driver would recognize the rudeness of her response — and bet that, under normal circumstances, she knows it would be wrong to unleash a tirade against an officer merely trying to do her job. But, by the very nature of their jobs, police are forced to deal with with people who are under great duress — and, therefore, most likely to show their worst traits.

We all want to be judged, and thought of, as who we are when we are most rational, most understanding, most empathetic. The police have no choice but to deal with the ugliest sides of our character.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.