The Myth of Jones: A Column
by BILL PETERSON
Here’s the story we would rather have heard: A San Marcos police officer pulls over a motorist going 95 on Interstate-35 in the middle of the night. Realizing that the duressed motorist is speeding his dying teacup poodle to the veterinary emergency room in New Braunfels, the officer says, “Follow me,” and escorts the panicked citizen to the veterinarian, as if this were an episode of The Flintstones in which Fred is rushing Wilma to the hospital for childbirth. The escort arrives just in time for the veterinarian to heroically save the poodle’s life. Later, the officer issues a speeding ticket, because we can’t just let 95 on the Interstate go, but the motorist cheerfully pays the fine and thanks the officer for his indulgence.
Here’s the story we heard instead: A San Marcos police officer pulls over a motorist going 95 on Interstate-35 in the middle of the night. The duressed motorist is speeding his dying teacup poodle to the veterinary emergency room in New Braunfels, but the young officer is unmoved because he is too tone deaf, full of himself or, perhaps, alarmed by the motorist’s frantic demeanor. Instead of just telling the motorist to slow down or dispassionately writing a ticket, the officer loses his cool and tells the driver that his dying poodle is “just a dog.” Sometime during the 19-minute traffic stop, the dog dies.
The story pushes a lot of buttons, which is why it’s all over the media and message boards from Austin to San Antonio. But it really breaks down into two elements.
First, judging from remarks, the story teases up a veiled lack of trust in law enforcement officers. It’s not that the public hates the police, and everyone knows we need them. But the police are like any other profession in that there are good ones and bad ones. And because the police are such an important institution for protecting the public’s trust and security, the bad examples create a chilling effect.
If the police simply can’t solve a case, at least they’re trying to do the right work. People respect that. But they don’t respect cowboys on the police force. They don’t respect ordinary guys with ordinary prospects putting on a badge and all of a sudden becoming Somebody. They are The Law and you aren’t, so they indiscriminately throw that weight around, simply because they can, without understanding what being The Law really means. That officer is a hammer, and you are a nail. He thinks he’s your boss. We’ve all encountered cops of that ilk, who are a pox on a free society.
For good reason, we give police broad discretion in how to handle the range of matters they confront, but that discretion comes with a demand for fair judgment, a feel for human affairs. The officer who treats an incidental lawbreaker with the same indignation as a common hood lacks that feel, and he can disrupt anyone’s life for no good reason. Even worse is the occasional rogue cop, who is worse than a criminal because he’s protected by the imprimatur of The Law.
That’s not the case here, but it looks enough like the case to start people chattering. We have here an officer, Paul Stephens, with less than two years in the San Marcos Police Department (SMPD). He obviously lacked the guile to diffuse a delicate, emotional situation. A more experienced officer, feeling more latitude, may have actually provided an escort, but that’s a fantasy. We wouldn’t demand or expect it. We would have said the officer went above and beyond the call of duty. We should hope, though, that a more experienced officer at least wouldn’t heighten the driver’s distress.
As for the driver, Michael Gonzales of San Marcos, what did he expect? We can respect his emotional state and still understand that if he’s going to go 95, weaving in and out of lanes on a heavily patrolled stretch of the Interstate, he not only is going to be stopped, but he should be stopped and ticketed. And that stop is going to take 15 or 20 minutes. And if he’s going to be anything but calm and cooperative after driving so maniacally, that’s going to raise red flags with the officer. Calmness with the cops is always the right approach.
And that goes for the cops, too. SMPD Chief Howard Williams has acknowledged that “this was not our finest hour,” adding that Stephens’ first job was to calm Gonzales down. Instead, Stephens gratuitously and ham-fistedly belittled Gonzales plight. Stephens has been reprimanded and counseled. He’ll learn, one hopes, but he shouldn’t be suspended. If he hadn’t let loose that “just a dog” remark, there’s no story here.
That “just a dog” remark points to the second element in this story, which is the way people feel about their pets. We love our pets. They bring us comfort, companionship, edification and a warm, fuzzy feeling. In some ways, they’re like children.
But they’re not children, and too many people conflate pets and children. Such people are tragically confused, when they’re not insufferable. Pets are not children and children are not pets. People who treat their pets like children are laughable, while people who treat their children like pets are dangerous.
If you want to have children, and if you want the respect and consideration that good parents deserve, then step up to the plate and have children, attend to their complex needs, raise them to bring good to the world, guide them through their difficult emotional challenges, finance their expensive requirements for 20 years or more and realize that you’re responsible for unleashing a force on society. But don’t you dare settle for a dog or cat, which is your own private pleasure, then expect the same sympathy and regard as people who do the important work of raising children, because your pets aren’t your children, and no amount of saying so will make it true.
This silly idea that pets are children trivializes parenthood, which is one of the most valuable and indispensable functions of the society. The easy moral equivalence of pet ownership with parenthood is a farce to the most irksome degree. Love your pets for what they are. They are not children.
With all that said, the “just a dog” remark bluntly underplays the emotional attachments people make with their pets. Such a remark illustrates that the officer might understand the law, but he doesn’t understand life. For what we want from law enforcement, that’s not good enough.Email | Print