Maybe this has happened to you. You commit some minor violation of the law, an act of very little consequence, but then realize a police officer is nearby and observing. Upon this realization, prudent and law-abiding citizen that you usually are, you cease the errant behavior and move on, perhaps with a wave or a nod or some other gesture that says, “Sorry, officer.” Likewise, the police officer moves on as well, perhaps with his own gesture that says, “No big deal.” Thus is a sense of order maintained countless times each day in cities and towns across America.
Now place yourself in the role of a police officer. You’re patrolling your city when you come upon a car double-parked and blocking traffic. You can see there is a driver behind the wheel and that a passenger has just gotten out. You pull your cruiser up behind the offending vehicle and wait for the driver to acknowledge your presence and drive on. When no such acknowledgement occurs, you give a little toot on your horn, sufficient notice to anyone that it’s time to go.
But does he go? To your astonishment, he has the crust to wave out the window and motion for you to go around. And now you have a choice. You can go around and forget this affront to the law and your authority to enforce it, or you can get out and have a chat with the driver. If you choose the former, perhaps no one will be the wiser, but you will go on your way in the knowledge that you have ceded just a bit of control to the lawless element in the community. But if you choose the latter option, you run the risk of a testy encounter and becoming the Police YouTube Star of the Day.
And that’s where Sgt. Terrance McGowan, of the Baltimore Police Department, found himself on April 13, when he came upon one Marvin McKenstry double-parked in the 200 block of Aisquith Street. After stopping behind McKenstry’s car and giving a little blast with the police car’s air horn, Sgt. McGowan was no doubt taken aback to see the man waving him around the stopped car. Sgt. McGowan would have none of it.
What happened next was captured on video through the sergeant’s body-worn camera, a condensed version of which accompanies this Baltimore Sun story. I encourage you to watch the video, but I’ll sum it up here by saying that Mr. McKenstry, to borrow a phrase from a former president, acted foolishly. He told the sergeant there was no legal cause for the stop, he tried to telephone various higher-ups in the police department in the apparent hope of their intercession, and he placed his hands on his car as if to be searched when he had not been asked to do so. He also refused sixty or so requests for his driver’s license and registration before finally producing the license and admitting he did not have his registration certificate. When McGowan wrote citations for the various violations, McKenstry refused to sign them (so he was cited for that, too).
All of this would have been ridiculous enough, but then it was discovered that Mr. McKenstry was the chairman of Baltimore’s Civilian Oversight Task Force, a group charged with implementing civilian oversight of the police department. When the Baltimore Sun reported on the incident, McKenstry resigned as chairman but remained a member of the task force.
And so the police officers of Baltimore are left to wonder: If Mr. McKenstry, who is either ignorant of the law or feels himself exempt from it, is to play a role in overseeing the department, how might he judge their actions if they should find themselves involved in a similarly contentious incident, or one of a more serious nature? Would you trust the man’s judgment if you were a cop in Baltimore? I wouldn’t.
Perhaps you say, “So what if he was double-parked? What’s the big deal?” And indeed double-parking is not a big deal in and of itself. But take note of the fact that Baltimore has just recorded its 100th homicide for the year, reaching that milestone at the second-fastest pace in a decade. Three of those homicides occurred within just a few blocks of where Mr. McKenstry and Sgt. McGowan had their little contretemps. I am a firm believer in the Broken Windows theory of policing, and Baltimore has no chance of reducing its homicide numbers if petty offenses like littering, public drinking, and, yes, double-parking, are ignored by its police officers. If Mr. McKenstry, and the others hoping to provide leadership and oversight to the police, fail to realize this, the blood that flows will be on their hands.
Finally, as you watch the video of Sgt. McGowan and Mr. McKenstry, take note of the available parking spots on the street very nearby where McKenstry stopped his car. How easy it would have been for him to pull to the curb to discharge his passenger, and how easy it would have been to do so after Sgt. McGowan honked at him. McKenstry is not only arrogant and ignorant, he’s lazy, too. Are these the qualities the city hopes to find in its police overseers?