I saw the flashing lights behind me as I pulled over. It was close to 3am on Saturday morning, and I’d just dropped Andy home after a night at Urge, and co-owner Alan before that because his spine exploded without warning. I was the sober driver of the evening.
I’d received a message on my phone as I was turning a corner on a deserted road, and had pulled over about ten metres after the intersection, as soon as it was safe to stop. That’s when the flashing lights appeared.
Within seconds a burly police officer was at my window. He asked me if I’d been drinking and if I knew why I’d been pulled over – the standard opening gambit.
I responded that I expected it was something to do with my phone. I then attempted to explain that I was doing what I understand is expected under the law – if you’re going to use your phone, then you pull over first.
I wasn’t to get that far. Perry Mason proceeded to berate, intimidate and interrogate me for at least five minutes, interrupting me whenever possible and trying to catch me out on details: he’d seen me picking up the phone. He’d seen me using the phone. But I’d pulled over. But I was still on the phone. I was turning a corner and pulling over. But at what point did I pick the phone up?
At this point I thought we’d need CSI and a computerised re-enactment. I was starting to lose touch with reality. This guy seemed hell-bent on proving I’d not only been using my phone while driving – which I wasn’t – but that I’d committed some deeper, hellish crime that would only be uncovered by further questioning.
“I just want you to be honest with me.” “Let’s start back at the beginning.” “So you were on your phone?” “Were you using your phone, yes or no?”
I looked to his accompanying officer, a stony-faced woman who had precisely the same look a Jehovah’s Witness once gave me at the door when I told her I was an atheist. She thought I was going to hell, and so did this woman, so no help was forthcoming there.
By this stage, I was getting irritated. I started thinking about the underage drinking, wife-beatings and stabbings that were probably occurring across town right at this minute (when I checked the paper the following morning, sure enough there were). My anxiety levels were going through the roof, and this guy was making me crack.
“Look, I’m tired and I want to go home,” I said. “How do we end this?”
“How do we end this?” he scoffed. “By giving you a ticket, that’s how we end it, mate.”
“Fine. Give me a ticket.”
I didn’t care how much it was at this point. I wanted this man out of my face before I had a meltdown and got thrown in jail or had a CATT team called out on me. For obeying the law and pulling over before I used my phone on a deserted road at 3am.
“Can I have your driver’s licence?”
“What do you do for a living?”
My brain froze. What job do I tell him first? I spend most of my time writing, and it just somehow popped out:
“I’m a journalist.”
“A journalist?” he repeated with a raised eyebrow. Given the amount of bad press the police get, probably not the wisest occupation to admit to. “Who do you work for?”
“I work for the Mental Health Foundation.”
“The Men-tal Health Foun-dat-ion?” he repeated, as if he were a Ricky Gervais character talking to someone intellectually disabled.
I just nodded.
“Wait there,” and he and his companion headed off.
But I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, could I? I was so angry, so intimidated, I thought that if I don’t say something this is probably going to bring on an episode.
“Congratulations, you got your big one for the night,” I said.
He swaggered back to the car.
“Excuse me? What did you just say to me?”
Oh Christ, this is getting like Taxi Driver.
“I said, congratulations – you got your big one for the night,” I repeated.
He eyeballed me for a minute, then smirked and walked back to the car. “Pfft – got more than one, mate.”
They went back to their car to do their requisite series of checks or whatever the hell it is they do back there. It seemed like an eternity.
It was long enough for me to phone Andy, who after three rounds of ringing finally picked up.
I told him the whole story, including the most recent bit – “Oh god, you never talk back to a police officer,” he said.
About halfway through our conversation, the officer returned –on his own. He could see I was on the phone. As if by magic, his tone changed.
“Sir, we’ve decided we’re not going to give you a ticket, we’re going to let you off with a warning,” he said.
This is going to sound like I was being a smart-arse, but I swear to you I’d just lost 90% of my cognitive power at this point and it was taking me all my effort to form sentences. “Great. What’s the warning?”
“Don’t use your phone while you’re driving.”
“Thanks very much.”
“You’re welcome. You have a great night.” He may have even tipped his hat as he walked off, I don’t know – I was avoiding eye contact, because by this stage I was having difficulty breathing.
I put the phone back to my ear. “Have a great night?” Andy repeated, laughing. “Have they gone?”
I saw out the corner of my eye as the unmarked car did a u-turn and disappeared. “Yes,” I answered.
“Are you going to drive home now? Or come back down here?” I was literally a minute’s drive from Andy’s house.
“I’m sorry, I can’t move. I’m too scared to start the car,” I answered. And I was. The thought of even turning round and driving back to Andy’s house filled me with utter panic, and as for driving home – half an hour across town – forget it. I thought I was going to have to sleep in my car. I was immobilised.
“I’m coming up,” Andy said, and rang off.
A few minutes later he was there, having run up the hill. He offered to drive the car to get back to his place, but he was well over the limit, so we just sat there while he calmed me down enough to be able to start the car and drive it back down the hill to his house at 20km/h.
We sat there for another hour as I watched TV like a zombie, and eventually my fog of terror and anxiety lifted.
It was 5am by the time I got home and crawled into bed. Thank god for good friends.
One wrong move, and I really think I could have ended up in jail. I’d seen a comment on Tumeke! that the Arie Smith-Voorkamp case showed that there’s a big difference between how the police behave on reality shows and what they’re like in the field.
Based on one anecdote, I can’t possibly make any evidence-based comment on that.
My Perry Mason could well have been called to a job ten minutes beforehand that really upset him and I became the fall guy for it. Or, his silent witness could have been a trainee police officer and he was showing off what a big man he was in front of her. I don’t know.
What I do know is, we’ve all been in situations where the wrong thing said at the wrong time can turn an encounter ugly.
Words and the way we use them do have an effect. And as the Arie Smith-Voorkamp case has shown us, sometimes the consequences are far worse than a roadside anxiety attack in the wee hours of a Saturday morning.