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Springville Journal editorial: Who is policing the police?

SPRINGVILLE — Via the Facebook page “Hey look!! Another police officer driving while talking on his cellphone,” miffed citizens can share stories about troopers’ misuse of vehicle and traffic laws.

I support those who are calling foul on police officers who do not obey the laws that they are called to enforce, but it is difficult to hold police personnel to traffic laws, when these individuals are the very ones charged with holding themselves in check.

Last weekend, a New York State Police officer, talking on his cell phone, passed my car on Route 219. His emergency lights were not on and his driving speed indicated that he was, most likely, not on his way to an emergency.

A day later, I was heading down the same stretch of highway, driving roughly the speed limit, when another state police vehicle, emergency lights off, sped by my car, leaving me in the dust.

With respect to the men and women who police our streets, putting on that uniform does not turn the wearer into Superman or Wonder Woman. Becoming a police officer does not automatically make an individual a superior driver or give him or her superhuman reaction times.

The Web is, not surprisingly, rather mum about what laws police officers are subject to. Because they must always have each other’s backs, the members of this blue band of brothers tend to be tight-lipped and light-handed, when it comes to policing each other.

Senator Patrick Gallivan, a former sheriff, introduced Senate bill S99-2013 on Jan. 9. His legislation, which is currently in committee, would amend the vehicle and traffic law, “in relation to exempting authorized emergency vehicles from obedience to traffic laws, when involved in an emergency operation.”

If this bill becomes law, drivers of authorized emergency vehicles which are engaged in emergency operations could essentially disregard all traffic and vehicle laws, except those prohibiting alcohol and drug usage.

The bill does limit this amendment, to qualifying drivers who have “activated the lights and sirens equipped on the vehicle.”

Until the bill is passed, police officers should not be speeding at all, unless they are on their way to an emergency situation, according to Springville Police Chief John Fox. “There are situations that require them to get there fast,” he said. “Normally, they will have their lights or sirens on, unless they are on their way to a burglary in progress.”

The police chief reiterated that, unless they are headed to intervene in an dangerous situation, officers must abide by posted speed limit signs, whether they are driving their personal or professional vehicles. “While they are patrolling, they should not be speeding at all,” he said. “They need to abide by laws, just like everyone else.”

That means no joy rides through the Boston hills and no zipping down Springville’s Main Street, to grab a box of Dunkin’. But who is going to question the validity of a speeding police vehicle? And, as evidenced by history, what police officer will risk alienating him or herself, by ticketing a coworker?

Gallivan’s bill is not without restriction. “A driver of an emergency vehicle is, by no means, relieved of all duty to act,” it said, adding that even emergency responders “cannot exhibit reckless disregard for the safety of others.”

Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent crackdown on cell phone use by drivers, police personnel are exempt from the handheld ban, when they are driving an emergency vehicle, according to Fox.“People contact them, all the time,” he said. “They are exempt from the law, when it’s police-related work that they are doing. When they are using their cell phones, it should be for police-related business. They should not be on the phone with their wife, for example.”

But, as Fox also pointed out, there is no way to know what a police officer is discussing, on his or her cell phone. “Who is to justify who the guy’s talking to?” Fox said.

When police men and women are in their personal vehicle, all bets are off. Exceptions are granted to only those who are located inside an authorized emergency conveyance.

Although the law seems very clear, we have all heard about “police family member cards” being used, by civilians who are related to or know an officer, to get out of a speeding ticket or traffic fine.

If this type of behavior goes on, unchecked, how can we possibly be expected to believe that transgressing police officers actually receive repercussions, for broken traffic laws?

A New Jersey law enforcement poster on a public police officer forum recently expressed his credulity for being ticketed for speeding, even after he flashed his badge at the other police officer. “I have to say that I was going to [sic] fast, but in my 30 years, I have never given a fellow officer a ticket and I’ve stopped plenty,” said the poster, “milkrun49.” “It did **** me off.”

While most of the post responders joined the original commentator in their disdain for the ticketing officer, Texas officer “gare442” said that, while he or she had never ticketed another officer (is this really something they should be proud of?), “I would not hold it against another officer, if he wrote me a ticket for committing a traffic violation. We are sworn to uphold the laws, but they don’t apply to us? We should be the example, not the exception!

“This is a public forum and I can just imagine Joe Q. Public’s reaction to this thread,” the comment continued. “The typical cop stereotype lives on: ‘Do what I say, not what I do.’”

I am representing Joe Q. Public and yes, I am upset that this type of behavior is apparently the norm, in the police world.

The Founding Fathers instilled, in our government, a system of checks and balances. For some reason, the public safety domain apparently operates without this type of restraint.

It’s time that “professional courtesy” takes a back seat to public safety and justice. New York state, Erie County and, yes, Springville police officers: We are watching. You are not above the law.

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