|Social and political comments|
My town (December, 2007)
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For 5 ½ years I have lived
in a Connecticut town on the Long Island Sound a bit up the coast from New
Haven. The town is 36 square miles with a population in 2006 a tad
under 20,000, 91% of whom were white (as opposed to 68% county-wide and 71%
state-wide) with 400 residents (plus or minus) who were black, Hispanic and
Asian-Pacific. The poverty rate for the town was 1.3%, as opposed to
9.5% for the county overall and 7.9% for the entire state. Walking
around town, it is hard to notice any non-white pedestrians. You never
encounter a panhandler, and if you did you would probably see a police
officer seconds later.
Town squabbles 1: development
Several months ago, a
private real estate development company went before the town zoning
commission to request permission to build a shopping center at the
easternmost I-95 exit, currently an undeveloped area. Personally, I was
opposed to the plan for environmental reasons and a belief that we shouldn't
be encouraging aesthetic blight just, as some supporters argued,
to increase the tax base and maybe lower property taxes. I attended
a zoning commission meeting to hear what people had to say, and especially to
learn whether any support for the plan wasn’t about money. The meeting
overflowed, and many townspeople, including myself, were crammed together
standing up. The meeting went on for maybe 15 minutes. During a
presentation by a lawyer for the development company, a booming voice
interrupted from the entranceway to announce, “This meeting is
over. Everyone clear the room.” Turned out this was the fire
marshal. I don’t remember if his announcement noted up front that his
order reflected a public danger because of the crowding, though this did
become clear, but the military-like order and threatening tone inevitably
raised many hackles, including my own before I understood what was happening,
and prompted scattered attendees to shout out in protest and challenge
whether the order was a result of town officials not wanting the meeting to
proceed because it was clear the audience was overwhelmingly against the proposal.
Town squabbles 2: school bus depot
couple of years ago, the town decided it needed an expanded school bus
terminal. Every potential site, including one behind the condo
community where I live, was protested by nearby residents.
(Readers may be familiar with the NIMBY—not in my back yard—concept,
which together with concerns about cost seem to dominate support and
opposition to local initiatives .) When the town finally narrowed
to the site that was ultimately used, local residents came to the next
town meeting with arguments blazing. (I imagine the spirit,
though not all the specifics, would have been the same from nearby
residents of whatever site was chosen.) Children would be
endangered by the proximity of US Route 1, noise would be intolerable,
other locations made more sense, property values would suffer….
The tone behind the presentations was that the town council
(technically, Board of Selectmen, albeit women have served on it) and
the zoning commission and anyone else involved in the decision had
cynically and nefariously chosen this site.
Town squabbles 3: senior center, ambulance, library
In the past year, the town prepared a funding referendum to revamp an existing senior center to serve as a small ambulance office while building a new senior center. The referendum was defeated. So far as I can tell, it was all about reluctance to spend town funds (and possibly raise taxes for the construction). Charges and counter-charges were made that an existing building could be converted to one of the structures. (I never could tell who was right on this last point, though it appeared that there were some valid reasons for NOT converting the building in question.)
issue will probably come up again on another ballot. Linked with
it initially was a major library expansion. The town library was
last expanded about 15 years ago, and current employees say they
have significant overcrowding. To an average occasional user, the
library can seem quite adequate, but I do have the feeling that
expansion would significantly improve library use and expand its
I think we run into an extra complication about spending money and
raising taxes. Many people, I gather, rarely or never use the library,
while all my life libraries have been sanctuaries to me. I think there
is some image that libraries are more for school kids at all levels,
and adults with grown kids may not see the point in serving the next
generation. There may also be some association of libraries and
excessive education (cf. eggheads like me) or even “liberal” politics.
(Why does it seem that the less educated a person, the higher the
likelihood he or she will fear change?)
Cops, robbers, and dating transgressions
In the last year, my town has managed to have three cops arrested, one (according to the local weekly paper) for wee-hours theft of food from a fish restaurant, one for using the police database system to vet potential girlfriends, and one for giving legal advice to the first. I think all of these cases are still pending, but the last one intrigues me. Supposedly this cop was a union rep and was advising his colleague to use his constitutional rights not to answer questions and to hire a lawyer. Why this would be illegal or the basis for discipline is beyond me unless the police code itself is constitutionally challenged. But you have to figure that more is going on here—that this last cop has a history of behavior that his superiors want to get him for but can’t make stick and, for legal or tactical reasons, won’t make public.
Over the months since the first arrest, new charges have been brought against one or another of these cops. According to the police department, it is already short-staffed, so the issues among these officers much be pretty grave, at least to the powers-that-be. One wonders if, for good reasons or bad, other cops will be brought up on charges as time passes. It is certainly interesting to be an onlooker, sensing that more is going on behind the scenes than is made public but having little idea what that is. Of if the accusations are all legit, then it’s interesting that they're being handled in a way that unnecessarily makes the authorities look suspicious.
This is the kind of thing that makes citizens wary of trusting their officials—though admittedly for some citizens little excuse is needed.
Added January, 2008: Since I wrote the above, three more arrests have been made, two new cops plus one of the three previously arrested, for consorting with New Haven prostitutes during the shift that starts at midnight. I have also heard from someone who probably knows that the cop who seems to have been run in for advising a colleague of his constitutional rights has indeed, in the authorities' eyes, in fact done other things for which they don't have enough to indict him. Who knows what is actually going on, but such is the gossipy uncertainty that accompanies veiled malfeasance.
Several days later: It strikes me that the cop busted for using the police computer to check out dates was probably doing something a lot of cops everywhere do—using department information for personal purposes. My guess is that if so, this is viewed within the culture as a to-be-winked-at perk, behavior probably viewed by peers as akin to the pranks of Sgt. Bilko, to chuckle indulgently at from a distance but to be enforced with draconian rigor on the infrequent times it comes to the attention of officialdom. Indeed, skiving off while on duty, especially on the graveyard shift (though not necessarily with sexual liaisons into the bargain), is probably not unusual in police departments. How often have we heard sarcastic references to on-duty cops doing things besides patrolling? (On the other hand, perhaps grown men in responsible positions should be expected to stop behaving like fraternity brats.) As Captain Renault, as a croupier hands him a bribe, says to Rick in Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
Some deity or other knows I have little sympathy for cops when they violate civil liberties or plant evidence or search without warrants, and I dislike TV shows or movies when they ask us to wink at such peccadilloes in cops with otherwise good motivations. But real-life cops are, after all, human, and perhaps we should at worst be less surprised when they transgress in relatively minor ways and at best be less outraged or punitive. Some punishment may be in order, but for "lesser" transgressions—which would NOT include theft--we (or at least my town) should find ways to make the punishment fit the actual crime.
In this repsect, though glad to see him in trouble, I felt similarly about Nixon and Watergate—that he got caught doing a version of what all presidents do in some form. Far more significant than that, pace Bill Clinton (of whom I'm no fan) getting caught with his pants down, is lying and deception that challenges the constitution and runs roughshod over rights at home and abroad. To take a random example, oh I don't know—the current administration's behavior in relation to overseas military action and domestic civil liberties?Follow-up news reports
January 31, 2008: (from the Madison weekly, The Source) cop suspended cop fired (1) cop fired (2) new cop hired
New Haven Register: Feb. 1, 2008 Feb. 5