The Frederick County sheriff's office recently was accused of mistreating a female motorist who was stopped for driving too slowly and of beating a diabetic man who was pulled over for driving erratically. Neither accusation surprises me.
I worked at Hood College in Frederick for 21 years and commuted from Washington to my job at least four days a week during that time. A few years ago, I was pulled over by a punkish-looking character in an unmarked car who identified himself as a Frederick County deputy sheriff. The experience was horrifying.
As I look back at it, the incident probably resulted from the D.C. plates on my car. Ironically, it happened as Frederick was encouraging tourism for its 250th anniversary.
The more I think about what happened to Ester M. Pena, the more I think my license-plates theory is right.
I was pulled over in the same section of Route 15 where Pena, a 58-year-old D.C. teacher, was stopped by three officers - at least one with gun drawn - on June 10.
Pena says she was ordered to put her hands behind her head, pulled from her car and hauled to the Frederick County Detention Center, where she was held in a cell in leg shackles for more than three hours.
The sheriff's office says Pena's infractions were driving 38 mph in a 55 mph zone and failing to pull over promptly when officers gave chase.
The same day that Pena was stopped, Frederick "Tom" Moore IV, a diabetic suffering from hypoglycemic shock, was stopped by officers who apparently thought he was drunk. The man was beaten with police batons, bitten by a police dog and sprayed with pepper spray.
My experience occurred on the last day of classes in May. I was feeling happy as I got on the road and headed toward Washington in mid-afternoon. I had traveled about a mile from the school when I heard a siren. As the sound became louder, I accelerated so I could move to the right lane and let the vehicle pass safely. I was puzzled when the vehicle did not pass. Its siren was blasting, and when I looked into my rear-view mirror, I saw it behind me, an unmarked police car with a flashing light.
I pulled to the shoulder, my heart pounding. A man stopped beside me. He was wearing jeans and a purple T-shirt with some sort of rock logo. He got out of his car and pounded on my car's passenger window.
I refused to lower my window until he showed me identification. I've read many stories about crazy and violent people on the roads, so I wanted to see official identification. It was hard to believe that someone dressed like this man was a law enforcement official. When I asked why he stopped me, he said I was speeding. When I told him that I sped up to let him pass, he told me that I had no respect for the laws of Frederick County because in D.C. we don't obey the law. He ordered me out of the car. I refused, and he settled for examining my driver's license and registration.
As a professor of political science who has taught courses in civil liberties, I couldn't believe how frightened and powerless I felt. I can only imagine what Pena thought when officers approached with guns drawn.
When I told this fellow I had the right not to answer his questions, he said I would be locked up. I explained again that I had been driving over the speed limit to make way for what I thought was an emergency vehicle, and which, of course, turned out to be his car. I told him that I was frightened by his attitude and that I didn't feel safe getting out of my car. He mocked me and said, "They all say they're frightened."
After what seemed an hour but was probably only 10 minutes, he issued me a speeding ticket and told me I had better learn some respect for Frederick County. I told him he had better learn that every American has rights whether in Frederick County or in the District of Columbia. He sneered at me and drove off. I don't know how I got home safely, I was so outraged and upset.
I contested the ticket, and when my trial date came up a few jTC months later, the judge refused to let me plead guilty with an explantion.
"If you were speeding, then you pay a fine. This is a traffic court, and all we're interested in are violations," the judge said. I hand-delivered a letter to the sheriff telling him what had happened and asking that disciplinary action be taken against his deputy. Some time later, I received a response from Frederick County Sheriff Jim Hagy, who admitted cutting back on training time for his deputies, assuring me that this young man would be subject to some kind of reproof. That ended the story.
It's clear to me that no amount of training would help to change the prejudices of young men such as this. They should never be hired as law-enforcement officers. I could think only that things would have been worse if I had been black, which is probably what he was hoping for when he saw the D.C. plate. Not finding a black driver, he had the next best person on whom to unleash his threats - a woman.
What happened to Ester Pena proves me right. I was merely harassed, whereas she was shackled in a cell. This is a disgrace for any community but particularly for one less than 45 miles from the nation's capital. I am sickened by the actions of the sheriff's office and hope this becomes a major issue in a county where there are many people of good will who should not be judged by the example of their ignorant and posturing law enforcement personnel. The FBI should make this clear to the sheriff and his crew.
Margery Elfin recently retired as a professor of political science at Hood College in Frederick.
Pub Date: 7/26/98