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Can't You Just Give Me a Warning?

No good deed ever goes unpunished is a phrase that I first heard as a newbie while working with the time-worn, cynical, midnight shift sergeant one night when my FTO called off. "How uncaring," I thought in my naïveté.

Currently, I am on the street now with great frequency working as a trainer. Since I'm a certified officer, I usually provide cover or assistance as needed when I ride. However, it has been a couple of years since I was in my own uniform, working solo as a patrol officer. The words of my crusty old sergeant have often been too close for comfort.

"Could you just give me a warning, officer?" is a question that is often presented by an errant driver in the hope of avoiding a traffic citation. The vehicle registration may have expired. The insurance has lapsed. There is a warrant from Detroit for an unpaid traffic ticket (they never pickup anyway, I think to myself).

The driver has a list of excuses that almost sounds rehearsed:

  • I am trying to get my life back in order.
  • I have been out of work and cannot afford to: 1) pay the ticket; 2) renew the tags; 3) pay the insurance.
  • I just got a job and plan to start squaring things up with my first paycheck.
  • I have got kids/a family at home that I'm trying to feed.

The driver has an apologetic attitude and pleasant demeanor which pull at my sympathy strings. I ponder what the right thing is for me to do each time.

Some guys - especially those of you in traffic - do not give breaks (so it's rumored). Ever. "If I stop my car or get off my bike, I am writing a ticket. Period." So goes the mantra.

Wise or otherwise, I'm not that rigid. Statistics show that nationally, 41% of traffic stops result in a warning, i.e. no ticket. Remember: that's a statistical average.

MY EXPERIENCE

I pulled over a car for speeding: 55 in a 40. The driver asked if I could give him a break. He couldn't afford the cost of a 15 over speeding ticket. He just didn't have the cash. He seemed sincere. Instead, I wrote him a ticket for no seatbelt. No points on his record and a very small fine. It seemed the charitable thing to do.

He promptly went to the station and made a complaint: According to the driver, I had stopped him because he was black. The fact that black people comprise about 90% of the community population seemed to be lost on him. My sergeant threw the guy out the front door.

On another day, at roll call, the sergeant said that there had been complaints from merchants at our largest strip-type shopping center. Cars were parked in fire lanes. Handicap spaces were be used improperly. So he told me to give it special attention because it was in my area. With a shrug, I headed out on to my appointed duties.

The shopping center has brick pillars spaces about twenty feet apart that support a roof over the sidewalk. There were some 15-20 of them along the entire expanse. On each post is a large sign with red print, NO PARKING, STOPPING OR STANDINIG. FIRE LANE

I was in a fully-marked patrol car. I pulled up behind an unoccupied vehicle parked right under such a sign, turned on my overhead lights, ran the tag, and exited my vehicle. After confirming that there was no one in the subject vehicle, I returned to my car to write a ticket.

Just then, the owner emerged from a nearby store, realizing that she was about to get written recognition for her parking acumen. She approached, I emerged from my car. She said, "Officer, can you just give me a warning?" My response: "There are some 15-20 warnings here. Each post has a sign on it that warned you not to leave your car here. You ignored those warnings. I'm not going to give you another," I concluded.

She continued to plead her case that she could not afford the $200 fine for parking in a fire lane, being a single parent. I took pity on her and wrote a simple parking ticket. The fine was probably $20, which was a substantial break. I felt good about helping her out, hoping that she had learned her lesson.

Within a few minutes, my cell phone rang. It was my sergeant. It seems that my benevolence had earned me a citizen complaint for being rude.

No good deed goes unpunished. Harrrumphhh!

MY FRIEND MATT

My friend Matt is reasonably new to police work. He works in a very large, crime-ridden city, where the department has been plagued with bad management and corruption. Going to work is a challenge, to say the least. But, Matt is following his heart.

Recently, he made a traffic stop. A juvenile was at the wheel. He was a kid with no license to drive.

By the book, Matt would have hooked the car and taken the kid to the juvenile detention center.

Matt took pity, listening to the pleas of this youthful offender. He gave the kid a lecture. He tried to set him on the right path. He offered to take the kid home and deliver him to his parents, in the hope that the parents of this offender could set him straight.

The parents gratefully accepted their wayward child, in lieu of an arrest. However, Matt's sense of accomplishment was short-lived.

The mother of said youth made a citizen complaint against Matt because Matt had casually, off-handedly referred to her son as a, "knucklehead." Likely, the young thug deserved a label that was much more severe, more graphic, and less professional. Truth be told, he deserved to be arrested.

No good deed goes unpunished. Harrrumphhh!

MASON SAMBORSKI

Samborski had four years on in the Oak Park, MI Department of Public Safety. Oak Park is a suburban community that shares its southern border with Detroit along Eight Mile Road. It is an old suburb with most of the crime problems associated with an aging community that is closely attached to a major crime center like Detroit.

Shortly after midnight on Sunday, December 28, 2008, Samborski stopped a dark colored Jeep in his city. The driver was sixteen year old Jonathan Belton, who did not have a license to drive.

As one might expect, Belton likely asked for a break. He claimed that he had adult family living in the nearby Rue Versailles apartments. The family would take responsibility for him, Belton assured Samborski.

At this point, details become uncertain. Equally, there is an ongoing investigation underway. I will only share that which has already been put in the public domain through official OPDPS announcements and the media in order to protect all parties.

Samborski decided that making an arrest was not his preferred action. Rather, he would deliver this youth to his family. Samborski did not notify dispatch of his decision, nor of his planned course of action.

What Samborski did not know: his young charge was not the innocent person that he otherwise may have appeared. Belton had been convicted two years previously of assault on a Police Officer - a School Resource Officer, to be specific. Samborski could not know because our system protected the juvenile at the cost of the life of a 28 year old cop, father, husband and son. Juvenile records are sealed so that not even the cops know when they face a threat to their own lives and wellbeing.

According to ear witnesses, they heard Samborski and Belton in the narrow, dark hallway of the apartment building. They heard a scuffle - a fight - erupt in the space right outside their doors.

Then, there was a single gunshot and the struggle stopped. The only thing heard was, "Please don't leave me... please don't leave me here."

A citizen dialed 911 and within moments cops from around the region swarmed the scene. As it should have been. A close friend of mine was the first officer to respond from another city. Words will never describe the scene. Profoundly horrific, gut-wrenching, overwhelming and others words are not adequate. We can all imagine the scene and hope that we will never see such a sight in person.

Samborski tried to give a break to a seemingly worthy individual.

Those left behind now pay a price bought with Samborski's blood. His infant child will never know her father. His wife is now a widow. With strength from God above, Samborski's dad gave a eulogy at the funeral that was beyond moving, coupled with an expression of gratitude for the love poured out by his son's brothers/sisters in blue. He never knew what The Brotherhood meant. He does now.

No good deed goes unpunished. Harrrumphhh!

THE LEARING

When a person asks for a break, as they often do, we must develop some intuitive responses geared to ensuring our safety.

  • Keep your guard high. You might even want to raise it above your normal level of suspicion and awareness.
  • Stay professional. You have not suddenly become buddies with the subject.
  • Stay positive in your approach. Provide encouragement. If the subject says they are trying to clean up or change their lives, learn how. You might offer ideas on other steps or support that are available.
  • Thugs like Belton are street savvy. They grew up there. They know how to manipulate the good people to get what they want.
  • Because of their past encounters with authority and their successful attempts to circumvent it, they are practiced. They are emboldened by their successes.
  • They often have "puppy dog eyes," knowing that their facial expressions, hand gestures, and other non-verbal signs will play directly on your emotions.
  • Like a good salesman, they have a response to any and every approach that is in your playbook. They are good at making it look like this is their first time, when in reality, they have played this game all of their lives.

When you are asked for a break, you are called upon to immediately raise your sensory awareness. You have only moments to discern if you are dealing with a good person who has made a mistake OR a dirtbag who will do and say whatever they need in order to escape your grasp.

Sometimes you will be right. Sometimes you will be wrong.

Do not let your mistakes shake your core values.

I believe that most people want to do the right thing. I said MOST PEOPLE, realizing that we seldom come in contact with the law-abiding, church-going, citizens that respect others, respect property, and respect authority. Still, by default, I expect good intentions from everyone until they give me a reason to believe otherwise.

Whatever your core beliefs, hold on to them. It has taken a lifetime for you to develop those beliefs and you should not let a few scum-bags steal them from you.

EPILOGUE

Samborski's was the first cop funeral my pal, Matt, had ever attended. We talked about it afterward. He said he could never have anticipated the ache that the funeral service would cause in his heart and mind.

He attended Samborski's funeral with thousands of other cops in uniform. He was seated in the front row at the church. As Samborski's dad delivered the eulogy, he saw his brothers choking as tears ran down their faces - a sight previously unimaginable. Matt put his head into his hands. He found his own way to deal with the immense grief while remembering that he had faced an identical situation only days before. "It could have been me," Matt said.

"Yes, it could. Life is fragile. Always remember," was my only response.

Mason Samborski's name will be added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. in May. His name will be read one last time at the Final Roll Call of officers at the Candlelight Vigil on Wednesday, May 13, 2009.

His parents and likely many of his co-workers will be there out of respect.

I encourage you to be there to support them and others who have experienced a similar tragedy in 2008.

I will be there and I will be hoping to see you.



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