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COLUMN

A Letter to Troop F

Eric J. Plosky

To Whom It May Concern (probably including the individuals named herein):

I’ve always respected the police. Nearly every police officer I have encountered throughout my life has been courteous, respectful, and considerate.

That is, until Monday, September 13, 1999, when I had occasion to deal with three Massachusetts State Police officers of Troop F, stationed at Logan International Airport. This letter, which is also being printed as a column in the MIT student newspaper The Tech, takes those three officers to task for their unprofessionalism -- their discourtesy, rudeness, and contemptuous attitudes. Note that my criticisms will be restricted to these individuals’ job performance; I intend no attacks of a personal nature. Indeed, I use these officers as examples only because I fear their actions may indicate an underlying trend that deserves public scrutiny -- namely, that State Police officers stationed at Logan are receiving inadequate training in dealing with citizens.

On September 13, I drove up to Logan’s Terminal E to retrieve an arriving friend. Officer Henry Chan, directing traffic, waved at me to move on, but I saw my friend approaching my car, and I indicated so to Chan, who allowed me to remain. My friend gave me her carry-on items and returned to the terminal to get her checked baggage, which she told me she had already obtained from the carousel.

Chan returned to my car. “Move your car,” he told me. I pointed to my friend, who was already exiting the terminal and heading back toward my car with her bags. I asked Chan, “Can I stay for just a second? My friend is right there with her bags.” Chan suddenly advanced on me. “License and registration!” he yelled, as if he were a drill sergeant.

I blinked. “Excuse me, officer?” (My friend was loading her bags into my car -- only a few seconds had gone by.) Chan assumed a menacing posture and spoke in deliberately harsh tones. “I said, give me your license and registration! Right now!” His voice and manner caused me to fear for my safety; he had moved his hands to his waistbelt and looked as though he was on the verge of physically attacking me if I did not immediately, wordlessly comply. So I took my wallet out of my pocket, removed my license, and handed it to Chan. “I said your registration, too!” he practically screamed. “Right now!” Of course, while he was bellowing, I was retrieving my registration from a different compartment in my wallet.

Chan disappeared, at which point Sergeant Joseph Vinci appeared. “Get your car out of here!” he yelled. I felt it necessary to say, “The other officer took my driver’s license -- I can’t go anywhere.” We repeated this exchange once or twice, after which Vinci finally said, “Well, move your car over there,” and pointed to a striped area of pavement. I complied, and then walked back to Vinci. “May I ask you a question?” I said; Vinci assented. I told him what had just happened with Chan, and then posed my question -- “Is that usual procedure?” Vinci abruptly advanced on me, jabbed his index finger only several inches from my nose, and announced, “Your problem is, you don’t do what you’re told! If you did what you were told without backtalk, you wouldn’t be in this predicament!” Vinci was so close, and he screamed so harshly, that he actually spit on my face. I raised my eyebrows. “Thank you,” I said politely, and went off in search of Chan.

I found Chan at the other end of the terminal, directing traffic. He saw me approach and immediately yelled, “Shut up! I’ll be with you in a minute!” (I had said nothing.) He then presented me with a citation, which he said would cost me $50. I had to ask him several times what it was for before he responded, with a smile, “Disobeying a police officer.” As I walked away, not replying, I heard him mutter something, so I turned and asked him, “What did you say?” He said something that I didn’t hear, and again I asked him, “What did you say?” He finally yelled “Nothing!” -- and that was that. I drove home.

I had spoken calmly and respectfully. I had disobeyed no one; I had merely asked two officers one question apiece. The first officer physically intimidated me and, instead of answering my polite question with a simple yes or no, immediately issued me a citation. The second officer pointed in my face, yelled at me patronizingly, and spit on me. Both officers were entirely unprofessional; they treated me with rudeness and contempt. Now, I myself am a public servant -- an employee of the U.S. Department of Transportation -- so I know that such behavior on the part of public servants is not tolerated. That Chan and Vinci both demonstrated a total lack of courtesy and respect indicated a potential problem with how Troop F trains its officers.

Later in the afternoon, I called Troop F, trying to reach the commander. I obtained a telephone number from Lieutenant Paul Maloney of the State Police’s public-affairs office (he was courteous and polite). I dialed it several times before the dispatcher was finally able to connect me to a real live human being -- Sgt. Vinci. I introduced myself; Vinci quickly hung up on me. I tried calling back several times, but each time he hung up on me, refusing even to confirm the spelling of his own name.

Eventually I spoke with a lieutenant who asked not to be identified; she was willing to answer my questions but suggested that I should speak with her superior, Lieutenant Ed Conolly. I accepted her advice and called Conolly the next morning (after leaving him a message to expect my call). Disappointingly, Conolly was hostile from the outset. “I don’t even know who you are,” he charged, and informed me that he needed to be convinced of my “credentials” as a journalist before speaking with me. He refused to answer any of my questions regarding the behavior or training of Logan officers; instead, he declared “I am terminating this call,” and then did so. I called back Lt. Maloney, the public-affairs officer, who confirmed what I suspected -- State Police officers are trained to be nondiscriminatory in dealing with citizens, so my “credentials” should never have been an issue.

Chan, Vinci and Conolly all behaved inexcusably. The question is, does their behavior indicate a larger problem within Troop F? If not, if these were three isolated incidents, then each officer should simply be reprimanded and required to undergo retraining. But if so, if these three incidents resulted from a fundamentally flawed Logan officer training program, such training must be reworked immediately to ensure that officers working Logan treat citizens with courtesy and respect, not the contempt and rudeness to which I was subjected. (Needless to say, satisfactory training shouldn’t permit three ‘isolated incidents.’)

I have written this letter in order to determine which of the above two situations is the case. Of the two corresponding remedial actions I proposed, tell me, via the above address and within twenty days, which you intend to implement.

Yours, &c.