Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Demand more

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The Highway Patrol Out Of Control

Imagine you’re driving down a South Carolina road and you see the blue lights of a trooper’s car flashing in your rearview mirror.  It’s obvious you’re supposed to pull over.
If you’re white, you probably expect the trooper to approach your car and say, “License and registration, please.”
If you’re black, do you have the same expectations?
The answer is so obvious it’s almost silly to write.  How in the world could an African American in South Carolina have the same expectations – even after the years of progress in civil rights in the last 50 years?  How could a black South Carolinian expect the fair treatment anyone should expect, especially after two weeks of videos that show Highway Patrol troopers handcuffing black women to bumpers, kicking people, hitting them with cars or approaching vehicles with drawn shotguns?
Even more to the point:  How could state leaders sit by almost idly for about two weeks before becoming outraged enough to call for a deep investigation into what’s going on with the Highway Patrol?  Haven’t folks gotten the memo that we’re in the 21st century and no longer a plantation culture?
Dr. Baxter Wynn, minister of pastoral care and community relations at the First Baptist Church of Greenville, found what has happened to some people stopped by the Highway Patrol to be troubling – an indication that the church hasn’t paid as much attention to a moral crisis in our society.  Some 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have passed and while there’s been a lot of progress on treating all people with dignity and respect, some old problems linger, he said.
“Maybe we’ve run the first 10K, but this is a marathon,” he said.  “We’ve got a long way to go.  Dignity and respect and being treated like human beings without regard for color are what Dr. King was all about.  And yet, we’re struggling with the exact same issues today.”
The Rev. Don Flowers Jr., pastor at Providence Baptist Church on Daniel Island, said he was shocked by the videos from troopers’ cars.
“This is not acceptable behavior,” he said.  “In none of those cases did I feel like any of the officers were in danger. “
He wondered whether the officers involved were just the “bad Barney Fifes” of the Patrol or whether there was a Highway Patrol culture that subtly reinforced the kinds of behaviors caught on tape.
S.C. Department of Public Safety spokesman Sid Gaulden stressed the incidents displayed on videotapes were the results of “individual misbehaviors – people going outside how they’ve been trained for whatever reason.”  There’s not, he said, a systematic pattern of misconduct with a racial bias.
So far, the jury’s out on the Patrol.  A vast majority of law enforcement officers there certainly act professionally during millions of routine interactions with the public.  But over the last 20 years, the Highway Patrol also has been caught in the middle of politics.
Not only do some state lawmakers try to get their way with the internal workings of the Patrol, but they’ve been fiddling with the agency’s budget for years.  Twenty years ago, for example, there were 850 commissioned troopers.  By 1994, the number grew to 1,045.  But with a huge deficit earlier this decade, budgets were slashed.  Seasoned, veteran troopers left.  In 2005, for example, the Highway Patrol was down to 785 troopers.  Then when state coffers started getting flush again, legislators funded more hiring so that now, the state has about 950 troopers.  Unfortunately because of past cuts, today’s troopers are more inexperienced than in 2000, when the Patrol last was at the same force strength.
It’s pitiful state lawmakers waited more than a week to launch a probe into what has happened to motorists stopped by troopers.  Making our highway patrol work is important because it’s the right thing to do.  All people should have expectations they’ll be treated fairly.
It also is financially wise to clean up things.  Don’t state leaders see that moving slowly on incidents like those shown in the tapes makes the state look bad (again)?  Don’t they see that the millions of dollars being spent to attract tourists and jobs will be completely wasted if they don’t get ahead of the curve to ensure that old attitudes are erased?
 State legislators should insist that the Patrol be cleaned up.  Then they should step out of the way, stop  cronyism and micromanagement, and let professionals run it.  We shouldn’t expect anything less.

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