Is this any way to run a city?
By Jack Cashill
On Tuesday October 1, I was driving south on Holmes at exactly 8:57 AM when I noticed a large crew of police herding autos into a parking lot on the west side of the street.
“Poor suckers,” thought I, safe in the knowledge that my cruise control was set somewhere safely between 35 and 40. Then, incredibly, a cop motioned me over.
“Hey! What’d I do?” I was stupefied.
“This,” said the cop with a wry smile, “is a school zone.”
I travel this route no more than once a year. I remembered the school in question as the Community Center it used to be. It sits all but unmarked several hundred feet from a fast, four-lane street on which there is but one sign announcing its presence and that a small, unblinking one.
There were no kids in sight. The last one had arrived more than 90 minutes before—school started at 7:15! But the motorists kept rolling in. Ten or so were corralled with me, ten out of the scores that had been gratuitously snagged that morning, now all peeved and perplexed and perhaps wondering, as I was, “Is this any way to run a city?”
It gets worse.
When the cop observed that the sticker on my license plate had expired, I pulled the new ones out of my wallet and attempted to put them on. He stopped me.
“No,” he said helpfully, “scrape the old ones off with a razor blade when you get home.” “OK,” I said dutifully, and left, then headed to my appointment and then back to the Plaza for lunch where I promptly got a ticket for having expired tags on my license plate.
It was not yet noon, and I already owed the financially troubled city of Kansas City $149. This was beginning to seem like a pattern. Not only had I been hearing similar tales of woe from friends, but I had been snagged just a few months earlier in an even more dubious misadventure.
On that occasion, I had just kicked my cruise control off to access I-35 at the bottom of the Broadway hill on a sunny, Sunday morning, on my way to church of all places--that’ll teach me!—when I was herded into an another unhappy corral of disgruntled drivers.
“You were going 47 in a 35,” the officer said sympathetically.
“I was getting on the highway,” I said in full disbelief. “50 yards from now, I’m supposed to be doing 60.”
As I told the officer--both as a way of expressing solidarity and as a desperate last-ditch gambit-- my father, my uncle and at least three of my cousins are or were cops, “But with all due respect, sir, this is just shootin’ fish in a barrel.”
The officer smiled awkwardly. I got the real sense that he, like the other ticker writers, did not really want to spend his Sunday morning turning otherwise good citizens into outlaws. But if this wasn’t his idea, just whose was it? I began to wonder whether this was all part of the city’s budget balancing strategy, and I decided to test the hypothesis.
I started by calling the Municipal Court to contest the tickets. Only on my fourth call did I manage to squeeze my way past all the other disgruntled citizens and get through to the official hold queue. There, for the next 30 minutes and 37 seconds, I listened to a recorded message repeated with Sisyphean regularity. One part of it caught my attention. It was an appeal for aggrieved individuals to call the Human Relations Department’s “24 hour hate crime hotline.”
If there were that many hate crimes in Kansas City, I wondered, why were the police wasting time on rural Georgia-style speed traps. To find out, I pulled up the Human Relations web site.
What I learned is that the hate crime hotline was started after September 11 to protect Mideasterners who might be hassled by angry Midwesterners.
“But if these were crimes,” I wondered, “why wouldn’t the victims just call the police especially since they already know that number?” The unstated answer, of course, is that in a world of diminishing bias (and funding), the Department of Human Relations is desperate to remain relevant.
A suggestion here, guys: If you really want to remain relevant, and actually improve human relations, establish a 24-hour disgruntled driver/citizen hot-line. I am sure you will get a whole lot more phone calls.
Speaking of paradoxes, the same Mideastern minorities protected by the current hot line are not considered minorities when it comes to racial preferences. The federal government, which sets these standards, draws the line between minorities and non-minorities at the Khyber Pass. The weird thing is I’m not joking.
When I finally got through to the Municipal Court, I said, pleasantly enough, “Good to hear a human voice.”
“Well, I’m the only one here,” Craig answered with all the charm of a toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike.
I told Craig I wanted to challenge my tickets. He gave me two separate court dates, one five months in the future, and the other six—lots of disgruntled fellow citizens in between, I presumed.
“Can’t they be combined?”
“Nope.” With a lawyer, he offered, I could likely buy my way to a non-moving violation. That wasn’t my point I told him. He wondered out loud what my point could be, doubted that I would succeed whatever it was, but offered the consoling advice that at least I would not have to pay the tickets until March. I then thanked him and asked his last name.
“I’m the only Craig here,” he barked, and that was that.
I next called Bob Murphy, the public relations officer for KCPD, and asked whether the police were under pressure to stoke up revenue with speed traps or did it merely seem that way.
“No,” said Murphy in a gust of good-natured disbelief, “That is not how we do business.” I pressed no further. I knew he was telling the truth.
Murphy suggested that where I got ticketed was probably an “area of non-compliance.” Of course it was, Bob. Almost no one could see the sign, the school, or the kids. On that day’s take alone the city could have bought a blinking light, a pair of them.
No, I discovered, it is not really corruption that plagues our City Hall. It’s incoherence—that and a general indifference to the human dignity not so much of its Mideastern citizens as its garden variety Midwestern ones.
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