Sunday, October 8, 2017

Ordinary Rendition: The Public Servants' Quagmire

Media reports about the predicaments of public servants remind me of the passenger who brought my efforts as a taxi driver full-circle.

She started out like most the others: the buzz of a fare offer and "835 yards" as the distance. When the address came through I turned around, turned right, and arrived at the apartment complex in about 4 minutes. I called the provided number. A woman's voice gave directions to a building in the back of the complex.

A group came out; a woman in her 20's got in the cab. An 50-ish male stood outside and gave directions to where his truck was parked. As we pulled away the passenger said, in a flustered voice, “I don't know why he messes with her, she's like 20 years younger...”, and this wasn't the first time they'd had to take a taxi or a bus to get the truck back.

I didn't care, because I was happy to have a longer trip than someone going across the street with groceries. I broke into my standard line of questions.

Before long she asked me her own question: "Did you ever pick a girl up downtown, take her to [West-Valley city], and she wasn't able to pay?"

'I would do that. Let me think.... ... .. .' I glanced at my passenger to jog my memory. Recently: no. Semi-recently: no. Then I remembered, 'THAT WAS A LONG TIME AGO!' I looked at my passenger again, 'Was that... YOU?', and cautiously confirmed that I had.

She said with glee, "THAT WAS ME!"

I remembered her trip well.

Almost 2 years earlier...

I tended to stay in the areas north of the Salt River, but I worked wherever the passengers took me. On that night I'd just gotten off I-17 at 7th St. A fellow was on the off-ramp asking for change. I asked what he was planning to buy. He said he just wanted a cup of coffee. That sounded reasonable, so I gave him a few quarters. "What's your name?"

"Maverick, really!" He quickly produced his state-issued ID card and showed it to me.

I was about to drive away when I realized that I'd had all of the coconut pie I could stomach, and that I might as well give the other half away to someone who'd appreciate it. He took the pie gratefully, the light turned green, and I turned south to go under the freeway. Seconds later I was offered a fare to the north, so I turned around. Maverick was strutting along with the pie box, like he'd just won the lottery.

The provided address and phone number was for a cheap motel in downtown Phoenix. A woman promptly appeared when I pulled up and jumped in the cab. She was obviously distraught, and urgently said “GO GO GO!”

She asked to go to one of the cities in the west valley - it was a bit of a drive.

I was more cautious than usual with my standard questions, and my passenger's story gradually revealed itself. Her boyfriend had some sort of cancer which was in and out of remission. They were economically stressed - without jobs, staying with friends,  and dependent on the kindness of others to survive.

A few hours earlier this passenger had been out walking her dog in the quiet neighborhood around her friend's house. Then someone said, "YOU, FREEZE!" huh, whut? "YOU'RE UNDER ARREST!" It was a public servant.

My passenger asked why she was under arrest, but the public servant was dismissive, in a “you know what you did” sort of way. Eventually she learned what she was being accused of. She protested that she hadn't been to the convenience store that night, and that she most certainly was NOT the petty beer thief the public servants were looking for. But the officers were looking for a blonde white woman, and she was the first person they found matching this description. They'd taken my passenger downtown, and began the process of booking her into Sheriff Arpaio's Gulag ("County Jail" - the now-deposed Sheriff of Maricopa was notorious for his cruelty).

Some time later the city cops in the west valley found the petty beer thief they were actually looking for, and they released their mistaken arrestee (my passenger) from the  4th Avenue Jail. “... Aren't you going to take me back to [west-valley]?” She thought they would take her back to where she'd been mistakenly arrested, but the public servants told her she could call for a taxi.

She didn't have quarters to use the payphone, and eventually found her way to the cheap motel. The staff lent use of their phone to call the taxi company. Her hope was that the friend whose house she was staying at could pay her fare, but this concern was secondary to getting out of the scary area surrounding Arpaio's Gulag.

When we were almost to her friend's house a very important question occurred to me: "What happened to your dog?" Maybe I shouldn't have asked, as she didn't know.

She also didn't know the exact address of where she was staying. Eventually the house was found and my passenger went inside. After a few minutes she returned with her friend, who apologized profusely for not having any cash. We tried his prepaid debit card, which was supposed to have funds from a tax refund soon, but it didn't authorize, for any amount. She wanted to make arrangements for later payment.

I depended on my passengers being able to pay their fares so that I could buy fuel and otherwise support myself. But it was clear that this woman was genuinely distraught, and she had a good story. I left a card and said she could pay when she could.

(The friend said that animal control had been called to collect the dog.)

A Most-Appreciative Passenger

When we met again, this woman shared how appreciative she was that I'd helped her out at our first encounter, years before. She'd always wanted to pay me, but had lost my card. How long had it been? Neither of us remembered.

She has a job now, “at a mortuary, of all places...”, and her boyfriend is doing well.

"Did you get your dog back?" They'd posted fliers around the neighborhood, which led to the return of her dog.

She paid the fare to get to her friend's truck. I didn't remember her earlier fare amount, and took slightly less than was offered. I spent a few minutes looking for notes from that night on my laptop, but nothing turned up in my searches. Before long another fare was offered - 3.5 miles away, at the Sprouts on West Peoria - and I was off for another trip.

It wasn't until working on this write-up that I remembered giving Maverick the pie that night (which was intended for "the alcoholic", because it was on sale at Whole Foods & alcoholics are always malnourished, but the intended pie-recipient didn't answer her phone that day). That marks the day of my first encounter with this woman as the closing days of December 2012; the second encounter was in November of 2014.

Fairness, justice, and anti-justice

"Tom" drove the cab for our little team 5 nights a week. Tom used to be a police officer in the American south. He drives cab for the adventure, and to supplement his pension. One weekend I messaged to say that I'd finished for the day, and had dropped the cab off. He responded that he was at the Italian food place a half mile away.

In our chat that night Tom mentioned smelling really aromatic marijuana on some recent south-Phoenix passengers - not “spice crap", but something more pleasant. I commented that he used to fight in the war on plants.

"They told me it was a gateway drug, and I believed them. Now it seems that the plant actually has health benefits."  Then he remembered a teenager who tried to hide a joint from Police Officer Tom. "I probably ruined that kid's life," he said with a chuckle. It was a long time ago. It was just part of the job.

Many types of criminals

On the one hand, public servants are tasked with protecting society from violence and predation. On the other hand, politicians have also tasked our public servants with the sick (addicts and mentally ill), the poor, political criminals who haven't hurt anyone, and those who make mistakes.

A wise woman I know once said, “when a person feels safe, the false ego goes away." People who don't feel safe cause problems not because they're bad people who need to be taught a lesson by being thrown in a cage, but because they don't have the resources to make better choices.

Financially-secure people who are arrested for mistakes tend to get the catch-and-release treatment. People with money to burn can hire a good attorney to possibly get them off, or at least to effectively negotiate with the prosecutor on their behalf. My who are your lifelines? passenger said he used to have an attorney who could "take care" of her clients' problems by schmoozing with the prosecutors.

The media makes a big deal about race, but I think the issue is more one of class: poor white people get traumatized by Justice too.

The Public Servants' Quagmire

Police officers have a bit of a predicament: their official motto is to "protect and serve", but the politicians have given them no flexibility to fulfill their role.

After I retired from taxi driving, I spent a couple days at fire school. During the opening ceremony I realized the difference between firefighters and police officers/sheriff's deputies.

If the fire department is dispatched, they will do whatever they can to try to help you. Fire trucks are outfitted with all sorts of equipment that might be needed to save someone's day. These include not just fire hoses and other firefighting equipment, but also tools to cut up cars to extract people when the doors won't open, etc. Equipment on this Mesa special operations firetruck was once used to lift the light-rail train off of a drunk who'd passed out on the tracks:

Mesa Fire Department's Rapid Response/Special Operations Firetruck
No judgement calls are made by firefighters when responding to the incident at hand. In a future post I intend to tell of the time that I had to call on the city's firefighters to save the day. After the firefighters had disappeared into the night, the also-dispatched police officers decided they didn't need to make the situation worse, and also disappeared into the night.

Discretion is the police officer's most important skill. But police are frequently pressured (performance evaluations, etc) to take actions that really just needlessly wreck people's lives.

Another passenger told of the time she was being unruly, and how her family called the police for help dealing with her. After a while those police officers decided they didn't have any way to help, so "we're going to have to take you downtown." Her adult daughter protested, "THIS IS NOT WHY WE CALLED YOU", but the police officers were like, "whatevers". Arresting people is their job, even if that person really only needs a time-out from their situation.

Varieties of Rendition: Ordinary vs. Extraordinary

During the George W. Bush administration, the United States government's use of "Extraordinary Rendition" was sporadically covered by the media:
Extraordinary rendition is the government-sponsored abduction and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another that has predominantly been carried out by the United States government with the consent of other countries. [...]

The United Nations considers one nation abducting the citizens of another a crime against humanity. [...] (Wikipedia)
Ordinary rendition is when an innocent person gets transferred from one area to another as a part of normal police operations. Public servants should realize that they have a duty to make sure people are not overly traumatized by their ordinary practices.

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