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Not so Good Cop Story

Image by Nauman Abdul Hafeez

Many years ago and some months after college graduation, I had a trip planned to Europe. I would stay for about a year in Europa, working, learning, and traveling wherever the wind took me. To celebrate my voyage, two siblings and I decided to have a few beers at Sanders Park in Racine County. Of course, instead of the occasion, these beers would be more expensive and tastier than typical American beers as they were Lowenbrau (imported from Munich, part of West Germany at the time).

It would be a relaxing visit to the park; we would split a 6 pack between 3 adults. Because imported beers did not have the twist-off, it took a few moments before we enjoyed our first taste of the beverages. Before we could savor the hops and malt, we noticed a Racine County sheriff slowly on patrol. My sister, who had spent much time in Racine County, quickly told us to hide them. I looked at her with a quizzical look to say, "There’s nothing wrong with having a beer in a county park." Foolish me!

The Racine County sheriff slowly walked over to us like he owned the patches of grass and tall oak trees we sat under, and he asked what we were doing. If he had already decided, then why the verbal dialogue? I wanted to say we were looking for dinosaurs under picnic tables or thought Sasquatch may be nearby, but I quickly regained my composure and said, "Officer, we're celebrating. I'm leaving for Europe this weekend, and my sister and brother just wanted to hang out before the voyage." As I studied his law enforcement demeanor, I quickly realized nuance was not part of his vocabulary, at least not on that day.

He told us it was unlawful to consume alcohol in a county park. I knew we'd have to pay but didn't know the amount. He took out his pad and began to write a fine to each of us. I asked him what he was doing, and he said it would cost each of you $37 to consume alcohol (two swigs of imported beer) in a county park. I explained to him that this was our first time in this park with a beer and, in my deepest lawfulness, had no idea this was fine-worthy. Perhaps we missed the sign at the front of the park because we hadn't been together for a while, and our talking preceded the sign reading. Mr. Officer, please give us a warning, and we'll know next time.

"Yeah, there's so much less freedom in Europe than in the States."

Critically thinking, I had to delve into the specifics of this case. I asked him the point of such a law, and his initial facial expression indicated that this was not a typical question. He said there were often vast gatherings of rowdy kids with kegs of beer and people partying into the night, and it gets out of hand, and the police are called. I said, "With due respect, do you see any similarities between our group and the one you described? Do you have the ultimate discretion to interpret the law based on the situation?" He just glared at me – he knew I knew what he was doing, and I knew if he had the discretion (some 30 years ago), he would have nailed me with a $500 fine.

A moment before he left, and moments after the empty beer and the fine, he had the gall (or some may say ignorance) to say we don't realize how free we are in this county. He continued, wait until you get to Europe; you’ll realize how free we are. I thought he was completely out of order, telling us we violated the park rule, giving us the ticket, and leaving us alone. If you're going to scold us one last time and tell us how great our country is, look at this situation uniquely and use this as a teaching moment. Because police have so much discretion to interpret and enforce the law, effective and empathetic law enforcement officials might look at every situation differently and perhaps show empathy and understanding instead of his strict authoritarian stance.

Several months later, I'm sitting in a park in Munich having a beer and a smoke, and no one bothering me – no rules against consuming alcohol in a park, no harassment by Die Polizei, just enjoying a beer with friends, some of whom are partially unclothed. There’s so much less freedom in Europe than in the States. At that point, I’m shaking my head at the actions and attitude of one such Racine County sheriff.

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