Monday, June 20, 2011

A Girl and Her Bike: Victory (sort of)

This post is taken from "A Girl and Her Bike".

One night, back in February, I was riding a Capital Bikeshare bike home (I was doing the Winter Weather Warrior contest, remember?)

I was stopped at the intersection of 13th and Kenyon St. NW at a red light, waiting to turn left onto 13th St. Kenyon is a one-way street going west, and I was on the left side of the street, since I would be turning left. While waiting for the light I heard a car speed up Kenyon St. behind me. I could sense the car stop immediately behind me, extremely close. It was aggressive, but fairly typical aggressive driver behavior. I didn't think much of it because we were at a red light, and there was no where for him to go anyway.

And that's when I felt a *BUMP* from behind. Nothing too hard, but enough to intimidate. Now, remember: I knew he had STOPPED behind me. So this was a conscious decision by the driver to hit me with his vehicle. I could hear laughing coming from the car behind me. They thought this was HILARIOUS. Also, there was a taxi to my right, waiting for the light as well that even remarked on this behavior ("asshole" is what I think the taxi driver said).

I ignored this. Why? 98% of the time, it is not worth it to engage with an aggressive driver. At best, you end up getting angrier, at worst, you get hurt. Plus, I spend the majority of my day dealing with people like this and by the time I'm done with work I Just. Don't. Want. To. Anymore.

The light turned green and I started to proceed. And then I felt *BUMP!!!!!* again, this time a bit harder.

Oh no. No. No. No. I can't ignore this. I just can't.

So I stopped. Pulled out my police badge (yes, I'm a cop if you didn't know before. No I really don't want to talk about it, thanks) showed it to the driver and motioned him to stay right where he was.

And that's when he panicked.

Before I get any further, let me explain something to you about a police badge. It doesn't grant you super powers. It's simply a piece of tin embedded with a number. It's not magical. It will not stop bullets. It will not make people do what you want. It will not make you win a fight. I have plenty of friends that always seem to think that because I'm a police officer, I am impervious to assault, robbery & bullets and that I never, ever have to worry about these things. This is not true. If anything, I am more vulnerable. Because instead of just being your average girl, I'm a threat. I live in the fear that should I ever be the victim of a robbery, the criminals will discover my badge and decide they can't risk me living and kill me. This actually happened to a friend of mine who was shot during a robbery when they saw his badge. He lived to talk about it, thankfully--but its a very real and very possible fear.

And that's pretty much what happened here. Instead of seeing a harmless Girl on a Bicycle that he could bully with his car, he suddenly saw someone that was a threat to him. And why was I a threat? Because this upstanding citizen of the District of Columbia makes his living selling illegal drugs, which is more than likely what he was doing that particular night (you will see how I know this a bit later in the story).

All I heard was "Oh shit" come out of his mouth, and the sound of squealing tires as he and his friends desperately tried to run away.

I'm not sure why I decided to go after him. I was on a CaBi, in civilian attire, off-duty. Instinct I guess? I did though. I followed him up Kenyon where he had gotten stuck in traffic & the light at 14th St. NW. I guess he saw me coming after him, because all of a sudden his reverse lights came on (he couldn't go anywhere else), and he started driving backwards towards me. I thought he was going to try to escape down the alley, but I guess he figured it was a dead-end. Anyway, he ended up being blocked in by traffic coming up Kenyon from 13th, so he was boxed in on both sides. I decided to get off my bike and talk to him again. I held up my badge and ordered him to stop. I don't know why I thought this would actually work.

Of course me walking toward him meant for him to step on the gas and accelerate towards me. I managed to get out of the way without him hitting me, but it was very close. So close I was able to hit his side mirror as he went by. The light had changed at 14th & the traffic had begun clearing, so he gunned it and managed to flee out of the block, down 14th St. It was at this time I grabbed my radio (it was in my bag) and broadcasted a look-out and that I needed help.

(Now, I know a lot of folks out there are going to say that this guy only got caught because I was a cop. I'm not going to argue, because its a bit more complicated than that. It's sort of right, and sort of not right. The only advantage I had over a "regular citizen" was my radio--I was able to get the information out to the officers in the field directly, rather than go through 911 call-takers & dispatchers. If anything, my "advantage" is my training. I was able to give the vehicle's tag number, description, as well as the description of the occupants of the vehicle and which direction they were headed in. I've taken plenty of hit & run reports and unfortunately many victims simply don't know what to look for or what's important. It's great that you memorized the license plate number--but we don't arrest cars, we arrest drivers.  Also, license plates get stolen, typically by the sorts of people that do hit & runs. Most of the time, victims cannot positively identify the driver, let alone the car. But that's just my experience)
Anyway, some officers came to my aid on Kenyon to make sure I was alright (I was. Thankfully I was not injured but it was very close). Soon after, they informed me that another officer had spotted the car and pulled it over. I would need to go there to see if I could positively identify the vehicle & driver.

When I arrived to the traffic stop, the driver & passengers had already been pulled from the car. I walked to the front of the car (because that's how I had viewed it back on Kenyon) to make sure it was the same car that hit me. It was. Also, because the doors were all open from when the passengers were taken out, I was able to quite clearly smell a SHIT TON* OF MARIJUANA. There was no mistaking that smell, and it was definitely coming from the car.

I looked over the passengers, and I was able to identify the driver very easily. He was placed under arrest at that point. One of the passengers also had a pending warrant and he was placed under arrest as well. The car was searched very thoroughly, but no marijuana could be found. It's my personal opinion that it was ditched while they fled from me. Either that, or it had just been sold because the driver also had a SHIT TON* OF CASH on him, all in a big wad.

The driver was charged at the scene with Assault with a Dangerous Weapon (vehicle), Assault on a Police Officer, Fleeing & Eluding, & Reckless Driving. Needless to say, his vehicle was impounded.

I was very surprised to learn the next day that the United States Attorney's Office (USAO) had agreed to not only prosecute those charges, but also made it two counts of ADW instead of just one. I was also floored when they decided to hold him instead of releasing him (usually you have to kill more than one person to get held in jail in this city, sheesh). So, he was gonna be hanging out in DC Jail for quite awhile...

Anyway, because Mr. Harrison (that's his name) had been charged with (multiple) felonies, a Grand Jury hearing was needed to be sure there was probable cause to charge him. If you are not familiar with how a Grand Jury works in DC, its basically this:

The Grand Jury is made of a panel of 16-23 citizens, all randomly selected. In DC, they sit for about a month at a time, hearing hundreds of cases in that time-frame. There is no judge, nor is the defendant or his attorney present. Besides the Jury, there is a court recorder & the Assistant United States Attorney assigned to the case.  The AUSA presents their evidence to the Grand Jury in the form of victim & witness testimony, and any other evidence they may have. Unlike a trial, the standard of proof is simply probable cause. They do not find anyone "guilty", just merely that there is enough evidence to charge them with a particular crime. In the Grand Jury, the citizens are able to question any witnesses brought before them to testify. This is the part that always gets a little sticky....

In this case, I was to testify since I was the victim. And of course it became difficult to explain that No, this was not simply as result of a traffic accident, but rather Mr. Harrison purposely hitting me with his vehicle (making it an assault, not a traffic citation), and that No, there was no "bike lane" not that it mattered at all, and No, I did not abuse my power as a police officer for a personal vendetta. It seemed (to me) that there was a slight anti-cyclist bias and a slightly more pronounced bias against DC police officers (which I always expect. It is what it is). But overall, I think I did a fairly good job explaining what happened and why this was a crime.

Apparently the Grand Jury agreed with me and the AUSA, because my next meeting was with the AUSA to discuss the trial. Although the USAO had offered Mr. Harrison a plea deal, he refused it. He even hired some fancy-pants defense attorney (my guess is that when the attorney learned it was a DC police officer that was the victim, they smelled blood & money in the water and offered their services).

I actually would have preferred him to have pled out. I really did not look forward to going to trial. If you have never been a victim of a crime, (or have experience in dealing with them), you have no idea how tiresome & aggravating our system of justice is. You are basically forced re-live the crime over and over and over and over....

First, you tell your story to the police officers on the scene. Then you usually have to tell it again to the detective that follows up on the case. Then you have to tell it again to the prosecutor. Then there are all manner of motions hearings (in my case, Grand Jury). Then when you get to trial, you get to tell it yet again, and have the distinct pleasure of a defense attorney do everything in their power to discredit & destroy you while they cross-examine you. THEN, if you are lucky, they are found guilty and you get to tell your story AGAIN at sentencing. And AGAIN at a parole just never ends. And depending on how traumatic the crime is, this can have a very detrimental effect on a victim.

So, yeah. Not looking forward to a trial. But, it is what it is.

And now we come to the (almost) end of my story.

Keep in mind, that Mr. Harrison was still being held at DC jail.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with the AUSA to go over my testimony one last time before the trial date next week. When I got there, he apologized and told me that he needed to run over to the court house because Mr. Harrison's arraignment was about to begin.

Arraignment? Wha? His arraignment was months ago.....

Not that arraignment---another one. Mr. Harrison was being charged AGAIN. Know why?

Because the criminal genius that he is, made a phone call to his girlfriend from the DC Jail. Phone calls which are RECORDED and MONITORED. And he asked her if she wouldn't mind hiding his drugs and gun for him.

Yeah. Super Smart.

An emergency search warrant was obtained and his room searched. Sure enough, a gun was recovered.

Remember when I told you that police badges aren't magical and they don't stop bullets? I'm very lucky that Mr. Harrison didn't have that gun with him that night. This is why its not a good idea to engage with aggressive drivers 98% of the time--you never know who/what they are. (The same could be said for hitting Girls on Bicycles too, though. I'm quite sure the idea that I was an off-duty police officer didn't cross his mind).

Anyway, he was charged with Felony Possession of a Firearm. So...yeah. Another pending felony charge. On top of all the others.

I guess Mr. Harrison & his attorney decided a plea deal sounded good after all, because at his arraignment they agreed to one.

He pled guilty to felony possession of a firearm, felony fleeing & misdemeanor assault on a police officer.

This is good. Sort of. It's good because it hopefully teaches him that you can't run from or try to run over a police officer. Even off-duty ones.

This isn't quite as good because you'll notice none of the vehicular assault charges were pressed. They were dropped. I think its just as important to show that you can't use your motor vehicle to bully cyclists on the road.

But there is still a chance to get the justice system in DC to hear that message loud and clear. And I'll need your help to deliver it.

Mr. Harrison's sentencing hearing is scheduled for August 19th at DC Superior Court. I want to pack the courtroom with cyclists. As the victim of a crime, I am able to present a "Victim Impact Statement" to the judge. You better believe that I intend to bring up the fact that I am a cyclist first and foremost, and that this whole saga began when a driver decided to literally push around a cyclist with his motor vehicle. It was just a matter of luck that this cyclist also happens to be a police officer as well. It is Not Okay for drivers to bully cyclists on our streets. His actions were not only irresponsible, but CRIMINAL. He didn't "accidentally" hit me--he made a conscious decision to hit a human being with a 2-ton vehicle. That is assault. These sorts of things have to STOP. I know I am not the only victim of these sorts of attacks. Read what happened to Saul Leikin when he simply tried to assist another cyclist after a traffic accident by calling 911.  He was only trying to do the right thing, and he got a concussion for it. This is unacceptable. Drivers need to start being held accountable for their decisions & actions, and punished appropriately.

If you also think this is unacceptable please try to attend this sentencing hearing. Pass the word around to other cyclists. I want it impossible for a judge to ignore the seriousness of these crimes. I've contacted WABA, and they've agreed to give a community impact statement as well. Awesome. Maybe we can get the ball rolling on change.

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