Capital Punishment for Traffic Violations (William Norman Grigg) There are times when a jester is a prophet who uses comedy as a delivery vehicle for dangerous truths. Perhaps that’s what happened decades ago when Steve Martin, in one of his stand-up routines, suggested that the crime rate could be radically reduced if we imposed the death penalty for traffic violations.
That bit of ironic whimsy is now official policy for many police departments, where traffic stops for failure to wear a seat belt or other trivial violations can quickly escalate to the use of deadly force.
Last May, Florida resident Marlon Brown was pursued by a police officer who saw that he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. After reaching a dead end, Brown left the car and fled on foot. By that time, three police vehicles were on his tail. Two of the officers stopped after Brown left his vehicle. Officer James Harris continued his pursuit in a grass lot, eventually running over the terrified man.
The city of DeLand pilfered $550,000 from local tax victims to pay off Brown’s family, while refusing to admit wrongdoing. The State Attorney for FLorida’s 7th Judicial District, R.J. Larizza, declined to file charges. A grand jury, acting on the principle of qualified immunity for state-licensed killers, refused to indict Harris.
Last Thursday, a distracted driving violation led to the execution-style shooting of a 40-year-old driver in a residential neighborhood. Jose Navarro, who was with a female passenger, was allegedly seen talking on a cell phone by a police officer, who gave pursuit. Navarro, who had outstanding warrants, refused to stop, and an hour-long chase ensued.
Police claim that the vehicle was “linked” to a shooting earlier in the week, and that the driver — his car’s tires destroyed, and surrounded by police — raised a weapon, thereby justifying a prolonged fusillade by at least four officers. Retired LAPD Detective Tim Williams expressed concerns about the shooting, pointing out that the onslaught endangered the lives not only of fellow officers, but innocent bystanders.
“They could have told him to get out of the car, but it looks like they just unloaded on him,” one eyewitness commented to ABC News.
Navarro, who barely survived the shooting, is now on life support. Whatever Navarro’s transgressions, it’s worth noting that he — unlike the heroic defenders of public decency who shot him — acted to protect an innocent non-combatant: Shortly after the chase began he stopped to let his passenger out of the car. If he hadn’t done so, she most likely would be dead.
For their part, the officers saw nothing improper about opening fire in a crowded neighborhood without so much as ordering Navarro out of his vehicle. One young girl, who was awakened by the gunfire, told a local ABC affiliate, “I looked out my window and I saw the cops leaning on my dad’s car and they were shooting at [Navarro's] car.”
About ten years after Steve Martin decanted his line about capital punishment for traffic infractions, Russian expatriate comic Yakov Smirnov explained that the difference between Soviet and American police officers could be summarized in two words: “Warning shots.”
“I like how American police fire warning shots to stop a fugitive,” Smirnov said in a standup routine circa 1984. “In Russia, the police simply shoot the guy, and say that’s a warning to everybody else.”
Thirty years later, Smirnov’s gibe is obsolete — not merely because the Soviet Union is long dead, but also because America’s “local” police have become thoroughly Sovietized.