I’m writing after a very long and scary night in an encounter with the Beaver police department in Pennsylvania.
My dad and I attended the 10pm showing of Star Trek at the Cinemark Center Township Theater near Beaver Valley Mall. All went well until our trip home. On the way home, I took my normal exit to cut through Vanport and Midland to take my dad home in Ohio.
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Directly off of the exit, I encountered something I have never seen before. Having lived in Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Washington State, I have never encountered a “sobriety check point“. Am I the only one who has reached the age of 33 without this “pleasure”? It was a foreign concept to me so when I approached the officer and he asked me for my license, I was taken aback. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and my “sobriety” can be ascertained without my license. I looked at the officer for a moment strangely and before I could react he immediately barked, “give me your license or I’ll arrest you”. I pulled my license out and handed it to the officer reluctantly. He then asked me something, which I cannot remember exactly. The question was effectively asking why I hesitated to give him my license. The question seemed strange and obvious to me. I answered, “Have you not heard of the fourth amendment?” Obviously the officer was not happy with the answer because he put his hand on his gun, leaned in toward me and started barking at me “Your F*$%ing 4th amendment rights?! Say something again and I’ll arrest you!” The police officer went on and on for what seemed like an eternity but was likely shorter than I remember. I literally feared for my life. I was among a dozen or so “peace officers” and I feared for my life as a law-abiding citizen. For what? For answering the question that he asked. Granted, my response was in a tone that was not respectful, but it was not taunting or belligerent either. The situation was so bazaar to me that the question just seemed absurd. It would be like an officer pulling you over to ask you if you know how to drive. The obvious fact that he pulled you over would indicate your ability do drive. Therefore, you might likely respond, “Umm. Seriously?” That’s how I felt.
My dad at this point looked shocked too and we were both scared. The man was clearly out of control. I gazed at the other officers at the checkpoint. They all had a very confused look on their faces too. At this point, I was scared – not so much for me but for my dad. He has two bad knees and all I could imagine was the police pulling him from the car and slamming him to the ground – all because I answered his seemingly silly question.
I picked up my ‘mini computer’. I didn’t even care that it wasn’t recording. I just wanted to get the device out and visible. I figured the police, thinking they were possibly recorded might be enough to deter him from making an unwise decision. Worst case scenario – if I did manage to record anything that the recording might serve as evidence if anything “happened” to my dad and I. Apparently, this decision worked in my advantage. I didn’t even have to tell him the device was on or that I was recording. His actions ever so slightly changed from “Who’s your daddy now” to “just get the hell out of here.” He just handed my license back and started yelling, saying “Go ahead and say something again.” I kept my mouth shut and he said, “Just go”. So as I turned my gaze back toward the road ahead of me, I didn’t even inch forward a foot from the checkpoint before he started cussing at me and yelling. It was disturbing. This man has a gun — and is sanctioned to carry AND use one by the city. He was dangerous and frightening. This was only the beginning of a long night.
After making it through the stop, I pulled over and called 911. I told them what happened and they directed me to go to the police department in Beaver to file a report. My dad, knowing the area better than I do, advised that I go around the checkpoint a different way so I didn’t instigate that officer further. The 911 officer, still on the phone at this point, seemed to indicate that going the alternate route wasn’t a bad idea.
My dad and I drove to the Beaver police department the back way and got into town where I was greeted with a darkened police station. (see Google street view below)
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I used the telephone outside the station to contact the police. The individual on the phone asked for my name, and said someone would be there shortly to take my report. My dad then said, “They aren’t going to be happy about you reporting one of their own.” I felt this was a slight risk, but was unlikely – something that only happens in movies. Boy was I wrong.
I went back to my truck for a minute and my dad stayed on the stoop of the police station. Just as I got into my truck, an officer pulled up. I got out of the vehicle and so did the officer. We met together and I began telling him what happened, my dad chiming in occasionally with his perspective and agreement that the officer was acting recklessly. The officer was very courteous and listened intently and seemingly concerned. He was a fairly young looking guy so I wondered if he was able to take the report or had to report to someone else first. The officer started to give me his perspective on the legality of sobriety checks and the reason for being able to side-step the 4th amendment (see the previously linked Wikipedia article for more information – essentially, it was decided that violation of constitutional rights is OK because its effective… hmm). I told him that at this point I wasn’t as concerned about that as I was with the officer’s very inappropriate actions and temper at the checkpoint. The officer may normally be OK. Maybe he had a bad day. Whatever the case, I didn’t think he needed to be at that station tonight. That said, I expressed my concern that all I wanted was to file the report and go home. Just as I did, another officer pulled up and started listening from his car. The second officer, also a young guy with a shaved head, stayed in his car for some time. After I while further into my story, the officer in the car told me “You know what, If I go and get that officer and he tells me it didn’t happen, I’m going to arrest you!” At that point, I told both officers that I was fine with that and I would prefer they got the officer so he could be present while I gave the report. I also told them that I might have been able to record the incident in question and really wanted to file my report. I could suddenly sense the mood change and the officer in the car looked visibly upset. Scared what may happen, I told the officer that I may have uploaded the recording already. I didn’t want them thinking that if they took the device, they could make it go away – and therefore the problem too.
The officer in the car said, “Go ahead and record me and put it on YouTube!” Based on his facial expression and the tone with which he said it, I thought he was being serious. I said “really?” “Yeah,” he said, “Put it up on YouTube. You’ll be arrested for wire fraud.” I then realized he was not serious at all. He was trying to threaten me. He got out of the car and kept saying, “go ahead and record me. But you can’t record anyone without their consent.” I said, “As far as I understand, you can record anything that is out in the public without consent. Reporters do it all the time. He said, “How much do you want to bet?” I said, “Well, nothing because unsanctioned gambling IS illegal, but I still contend recording in public is not.” At this point, I hadn’t even acknowledged that I HAD ACTUALLY recorded anything. I simply indicated that I might have been able to – but was uncertain yet. So I pulled the device out again and asked, “You did say I can record you then?” He said “No. I didn’t say that.” He changed his story — a flat-out lie. I asked him, “How can I even trust you to give you a report if you are already lying to me?”
At this point, another car pulled up and the bald-headed officer said, “There’s the chief of police right there! We can ask him!” I said, “Great, let’s go talk to him.” So I started walking toward the chief and the bald-headed officer started shouting, “Don’t say anything, he’s recording this whole thing!” I never affirmed or denied it to the captain or anyone. The captain then started concentrating on my device despite my request to file a report. He didn’t care about the report. He wanted that device away from me. He kept demanding it from me. “Give me that phone. I want to see if it’s recording.” “No!” I exclaimed. “I never said it was recording, HE did,” as I pointed at the bald officer. The captain said, “Well, give me the device, I want to see. You have turned something very simple into something very difficult.” I thought, why was it *me* making this difficult? I just wanted to file a report. They were the ones getting very interested in what devices I had and making the issue about me, rather than simply taking a report. Were citizens that used to rolling over and giving up their rights? Am I really the only person they’ve ever seen who has indicated they had rights? Do they really not care?
I simply held my device and occasionally looked at it. I was afraid at this point. I realized it was the Serriff’s office against my dad and me. The only defense I had was that the police had no idea what technological capability my device had. They also weren’t certain if I had uploaded a recording or streamed it somewhere that others could see. They weren’t certain if my device was a phone and I had someone listening/watching/reading to an open call/video feed/text-to-speech for an witness. That device felt like my only defense against what was increasingly looking like a completely corrupt police department. “Give me the phone,” the captain said assumingly. “No. See, if I WERE actually recording you, and it is actually against the law, I have a right to not turn that over to you and incriminate myself. That is the 5th amendment.” At this point, another few officers had shown up and had circled. There were 6 surrounding me. Other officers were now looking in the windows of my truck and running my license plates. They were just looking for a reason to arrest me. One of the additional officers on duty said, “You think because you read a few law books you know what’s going on? It’s called wire fraud in PA. You can record video, but you can’t record audio. I need to see what you are recording“, insisted the captain. The officers were drawing increasingly close, and had surrounded my dad and I. Some had their hands on their guns. Others were standing very threateningly – like a cobra ready to strike. OK, I’ve seen “Cops” and other shows. I see how these things go down. I was ready for someone to tackle me to the ground at any moment and arrest me. They would then “lose” my device to make sure there was no proof and then I’d be stuck on defense rather than offense. I was playing out every scenario in my head and I kept thinking my poor father was standing in harm’s way. I was still scared they would take him down hard and he just couldn’t handle that right now.
So after repeated attempts to take my device, the captain said, “OK, let’s go! We are done here.” I asked “What about my report?” And they just ignored me and got in their cars. They weren’t even going to take my report. My dad and I went back to our truck. The police stuck around for a minute until the realized I wasn’t going anywhere just yet. I made a phone call to 911 again and expressed my concern that we were going to be harassed or worse on our way out of town. This was a rather valid concern at this point because the police had ‘driven off’ but had circled back around. Despite their obvious attempts to hide – turning off their lights and creeping into position so I wouldn’t see them, I could see them placing themselves in strategic positions. The 911 dispatcher gave me the number for the state highway patrol. I called that number and was told that the officer would call me back. As I waited for a return call, the police officers repositioned themselves. One even threateningly put himself directly in the alley in front of me as if to say, “go ahead and pull out, I dare you.”
The state trooper on the line was very helpful by providing me with some information, but he was unable to come help me in what I perceived to be a dangerous situation. So, I hung up and put my phone down in the console. I knew there are anti-cellphone laws in the area, so I didn’t even want it in my hand where they could say I was on it. I pulled out and drove down toward Bridgewater. It was just a mile or so away to get out of Beaver’s jurisdiction in that direction. My dad and I ended up driving completely around the jurisdiction of Beaver police department out of fear.
I have never been afraid of anything like this in my life. I stand up when I feel it is necessary. When I was a child in school, Edmund Burke’s quote had a profound impact on my life: “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I wasn’t grandstanding for my own amusement. I wasn’t trying to cause problems. I really just wanted to go home after watching a movie. However, this situation just got increasingly worse as more and more testosterone and abused power was added to the group. There was strength in numbers, but fortunately for me, there was also strength in using fear of the unknown and media scrutiny to keep me busy. I fully believe that if I had not had my device, or had the police had any certainty that I wasn’t recording them, I would have been in jail or dead — perhaps my dad too.
From our childhoods, we are told to cooperate with the police. However, I have always had distrust for law enforcement officers. Growing up, I was told about the police scandals in my little home town and knew that a badge isn’t necessarily a reason to trust someone. This certainly hasn’t helped the cause. Tonight I was threatened by an officer at a sobriety check point because I wasn’t familiar with them. I was directed into a bad situation by a 911 operator. I was threatened again by a gang from the police department – including the chief himself. I was told to give up my rights, that I had none. Even if I wanted to record the police officers, apparently it IS illegal to do so in PA (seriously, they can record you, but you can’t record them). I witnessed a police officer change his story to protect himself and others around him when he thought he was being recorded. The chief of police wouldn’t even take my report and in fact, threatened me instead of helping me. So the police are out to stop drunken driving (an admirable act), but were more than willing to break laws, abuse their power, and make threats to protect a man who was just as dangerous as a drunk driver – if not more so.
The police cry foul when citizens don’t help them out. Perhaps this is why. It has taken me three hours to write this up as my hands are still shaking and my heart is still literally racing from the experience. I still fear retaliation or reaction from them in some way. How are my dad and I to react?
Is Pennsylvania so corrupt that they give you means for the average citizen to defend themselves? What is a person to do if they feel their life is threatened and there is no other way to prevent harm other than to record the officer? What is a person to do when the police department is so corrupt that they won’t even take a report against one of their officers. I’m afraid to even go in to file the report now. I’m actually securing an attorney to handle the matter because I feel I have no choice. Had the police just taken my report, I would have been happier and there would have been no need for me to protect myself. Hell, they could have thrown the report away afterward. I wouldn’t have known any better. The point is, I didn’t make this a big deal. The police just gave me no choice but to make it one because they wanted to swing their authority around for absolutely no reason at all.
Please tell me what you think.
Update (May 9, 2009 – 9:34PM EST):
I’ve been doing some more reading and have found some more resources. First, I found the location to contact for public records. I will be requesting transcripts of the 911 calls, videos from the police vehicles, correspondence and public records about the officers involved last night. I also found that the Pennsylvania State Attorney General has a Public Corruption Unit. I will be contacting them on Monday to file a formal complaint and ask for an investigation.
Update (May 10, 2009 – 12:03AM EST):
In my previous version of this post, I posted that this was the Sheriff’s department. After doing some investigation and talking with my dad to confirm, it was the local Beaver, PA police, and not Beaver County police. Beaver is the county seat so the local police and Sherriff’s office are on the same street within blocks of each other. My sincerest apologies for the misunderstanding.
Update (May 10, 2009 – 1:00AM EST):
I was checking out Google Street view and found this ‘grab’ to be a bit humorous. That’s right, Google street view cams drove right by a speed trap on their way into Beaver from Bridgewater.
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