I find that police officers don’t know how to admit when they are wrong. Part of it is because we are taught not to; take a position and stand your ground. In the words of Cmdr. Peter Quincy Taggart, “Never give up, never surrender.” But we all know that is one of the things that least endears us to the members of our community. And we all know that we have been wrong.
Besides the incidents of pulling people over for expired registration, just to realize that the sticker on their car is not six years old, but is actually next year’s color, or thinking we were on a 25 MPH street and then looking up at the sign and realizing that we had crossed into a 35 MPH zone, or even when what I thought was headphones was actually a hearing aid, there was one time that I was truly and embarrassingly wrong.
I saw a student driving around with a car with dealer plates. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I began to notice it every day. This seemed odd to me that he would constantly have dealer plates on his car, so I researched the code that governed dealer plates. It seems that only the owner of the dealership or employees of the dealership could drive around with dealer plates on their cars. I decided to investigate this heinous crime of dealer plate fraud.
The student’s father owned the dealership to which the plates had been issued, so it appeared that he was skirting the law by allowing his son to drive around with dealer plates so that he didn’t have to pay registration fees. Unless he was paying his son as an employee. The next time I saw the student, I pulled him over and spoke to him. I asked him if he was an employee of the dealership. He said that he was not. I asked him about the purpose of the dealer plates. He became very scared and said that he could not talk to me without talking with his father first.
At this time, because he refused to talk to me any further, which in my mind was an indicator of guilt, I wrote him a criminal citation. But what I mistook as an indicator of guilt was actually just fear that he was somehow getting his father in trouble, because he didn’t know the answers to my questions. And then he refused to sign the citation. Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t sign a citation, we take them into custody and book them into jail. As I put handcuffs on him, his eyes were literally bugging out of his head.
I took him to the police station to process him when he agreed to sign the citation. That’s better, now I don’t have to take him to jail. I cited him and off he went, leaving behind his dealer plates in my custody as evidence.
About two hours later, I was called into my Lieutenant’s office. The Lieutenant told me that he had just gotten off the phone with the kid’s father, the owner of the dealership, and the father was very, very, very, very angry. I thought, well, then don’t commit fraud. But it seems that the father had actually gotten in trouble once before for this very same thing, so he…
Did everyone catch the question that I did not ask the young man?
…made his wife and children all partners in the dealership. They were all owners. It was completely legal for the young man to drive around with the dealer plates, he just didn’t know why, so he couldn’t tell me. I had actually falsely arrested someone when no crime had been committed. I was wrong.
While the department attorneys discussed an appropriate settlement amount, I wrote a two page apology letter to the young man and another one page apology letter to father. For the son, I specifically ended it with the fact that I hoped that the clearly negative impression that I left on him would not reflect on the other many fine police officers that had not made the same mistake I had and that he wouldn’t be afraid to seek help from the police in the future.
The following week, the Lieutenant called me in, again. I was expecting a Letter of Reprimand, minimum, and possibly a suspension. The Lieutenant told me that both the father and son had stopped by and had accepted my apology, that they understood my explanation of events and that no further action was necessary. Bullet dodged.
But I never made a mistake like that again.