Up Against the Fence, Martha
Sunday night both Russ Niles and I got one of those e-mails that interrupt the peaceful routine of the weekend news biz: "We were held at gunpoint and handcuffed at an airport and it could happen to any pilot." The note was from John and Martha King.
By now, you will have read the details or heard Martha's detailed description in this podcast in which she generously describes the incident as an over reaction. To that, I might add that the Santa Barbara Police Department should get a special mention for lack of professionalism in law enforcement, with a tip of hat to DEA for contributing incompetence.
Why? It's not because they armed up and drew guns on what they perceived to be a felony stop, but because they apparently failed to do even a cursory background check on what they were dealing with. If they had, the entire incident might have been avoided or at least law abiding pilots wouldn't have been exposed to the very real danger of having loaded weapons trained on them for no good reason.
The problem is, what do you do about incidents like this? My view is that you hold local officials accountable—that would be mayors and police chiefs—to make sure any planned procedures in which weapons are drawn as the standard response is carefully vetted. I suspect some departments are good at this, some not so hot. Like everything else in life and aviation, it relates to cultural predisposition and training. Recall earlier this month, the LAPD pulled a similar blunder on a minivan full of vacationers. And along with quick draw procedures, there ought to be one for delivering formal apologies, too, which the Kings never got. We can support our police forces without giving them license to be or accepting that they are sometimes goons.
As pilots, we are uniquely vulnerable to this sort of thing for two reasons. Unless they fly—and not many do—cops don't get that airplanes aren't just cars with wings. Second, in the continuing hysteria after 911, airplanes are just automatically suspect as being terrorist's tools and a huge, intertwined federal security apparatus has sprung up to ensnare the unwary, whether deserved or not. And that's what happened to John and Martha King.
The larger and more troubling aspect of the federal edifice that has arisen in the wake of 911 is that it's sustained by political leaders using national security as a cudgel to obtain votes. It is thus all but impossible to unplug the funding for some of these agencies or even to expect them to at least be competent enough to maintain their databases accurately. The Kings' very airplane was subject to previous incident similar to theirs. Why? Because the feds didn't bother to cross reference and edit their data. It'll probably get stopped again.
When I covered the cop beat many years ago, I learned why cops do these things—that is, accost citizens with weapons drawn—and knowing that they're in harm's way every day in my behalf, I am tolerant of the need for force. It goes with the job.
But so does judgment. So does respect for the citizenry they are sworn to protect without the all-purpose hiding behind the badge of "my job is dangerous." Wouldn't it be encouraging to see such thinking in Santa Barbara? And also in El Paso and Washington.
TUESDAY P.M. UPDATE: Martha King just e-mailed to say the Santa Barbara police chief phoned for a chat and offered a profuse apology. That sounds reasonable to me and maybe the department will benefit from it. He further explained that the department has no procedures for stopping airplanes--no surprise--and thus reverted to what it knew: standard felony traffic stop procedures. Next time, they'll know. Unfortunately, there probably will be a next time. Here are some comments from John King.