As a newlywed, I was full of helpful advice. I had, for example, read a magazine article on body language and territorial defense that suggested if a driver were to get out of his car when stopped by a police officer and meet the cop halfway, things would go better. I shared this advice with my husband as he was being pulled over for speeding. My husband obliged.
The cop slammed him against the car, spread-eagled, and patted him down.
Clearly, I had given him bad advice.
This didn’t mean the police officer was doing anything wrong. He had no way of knowing if my husband was armed or dangerous. The officer was following a prescribed procedure to protect his own safety.
How was he to know my husband was harmless? It would be tempting to blame the cop for my husband’s humiliation, but really it was my advice that was at fault.
I’ve since learned the best thing to do when stopped by an officer is to sit patiently in the driver’s seat with my hands visible on the wheel.
I thought of this long-ago incident as I read the words spoken this month at an Altamont Board of Trustees meeting by a driver who was outraged at the way village police had treated her. It was clear she felt humiliated, as most anyone would in her situation, especially since she had her 4-year-old son in the car when she was stopped.
Because she was late paying her car insurance, her policy had lapsed for 13 days. Although the policy had been restored, she hadn’t responded to the suspension from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles by either surrendering the plates or paying the required penalty.
So a license-plate reader signaled the problem to an Altamont Police officer who stopped her very near her home. The driver had no proof of insurance in her car, so the standard procedure for uninsured cars was followed. Her car was towed and she was driven to the police station. She was allowed to call someone to watch her child before she was taken to the nearby station.
We regularly run news of arrests in our paper for motorists who are driving despite suspension — a misdemeanor charge. Sometimes they are unaware of it; sometimes it is willful. The courtroom is the place for pleas to be worked out, for justice to be served.
The police officer is not wrong for making the arrest. The state law is in place for good reason: If someone without insurance is in an accident, the injured parties are left without the recourse they deserve.
The driver in this case, along with her husband, tied their complaints over the arrest with the need to abolish the village police. The issues are separate and distinct. Their view is that a village officer should know the driver involved and make an exception. Village police arrests on this matter should be no different than town, county, or state police arrests.
The couple also makes the point that, since Altamont is covered by Guilderland Police, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Police, no further coverage is needed. We’ve editorialized on that very subject in years past, and we agree. Maybe now, as the recession lingers on, the time is right to examine the matter once again.
Before the recession, in 2004, a committee polled Altamont businesses and residents and found overwhelming support to keep a police department, but to restructure it, cutting down on the large number of part-time officers.
According to the 2012-13 village budget, salaries for the Chief and several part-time officers total $136,477, independent of maintenance and other operational expenses.
In May 2009, The Enterprise looked at New York’s criminal justice statistics and found, except for 2007 when larceny bumped the reported crime total up to 10, Altamont’s level of crime had remained essentially flat over the five previous years, fluctuating between three and five crimes a year.
Half of Altamont’s police activity is for traffic stops. The Enterprise did an in-depth analysis of two years of dispatch data — over 1,300 dispatch calls were assigned to the department in 2007 and over 1,100 in 2008 — and found the next most frequent activity was answering complaints, followed by property checks for absent homeowners, and arriving at the scene when an ambulance is called.
The fact that half of Altamont’s police activity is for traffic stops may not bode well for its financial future. Governor Andrew Cuomo this month proposed limiting plea deals for motorists caught speeding and expanding the state surcharges on traffic tickets to cover parking violations that speeders currently plead down to, bringing the state $16 million the first year and $25 million annually after that. While the state would gain revenues this way, local municipal courts, like Altamont’s, may well lose revenue without the fees that come with the pleas to lesser offenses.
If Altamont does decide to examine the value of having a police force, it should not be because the police have made an arrest that was warranted. “What is the role of the Altamont Police Department?” the distraught, arrested motorist asked the village board. “Shouldn’t they be taking an active role to get to know and help the 1,700 law-abiding members of this community?”
Our answer to her question is a simple one: Like any other police, the role of Altamont Police should be to enforce the law.
The question for Altamont is: Is there enough law-breaking in the village to warrant a police force?
— Melissa Hale-Spencer