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In the flatland of Arkansas’s Mississippi delta rests a small town named Jericho. Just off the interstate and home to less than 200 people, motorists generally pass it by on I-55 without a moment’s notice. Unless you’re driving through town, that is.

“You can’t even buy a loaf of bread, but we’ve got seven police officers,” said former resident Larry Harris.

Some news broadcasts confirm only six but at either count, those police officers were well-known for their propensity to write tickets, to such an extent that many locals and passers-through called the town a blatant speed trap. Among other infringements, officers also routinely wrote tickets while well out of their jurisdiction and for actions which are not illegal. Larry Harris, quoted above, moved away from Jericho to escape law enforcement’s heavy hand there. Another resident stayed in Jericho but agreed that the police were prolific ticketers.

“They wrote me a ticket for going 58 mph in my driveway,” said Albert Beebe, a 75-year-old retiree.

On August 27, the issue came to a head. Local Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne was issued a traffic ticket and disputed it in court but failed to get it dismissed. He was ticketed again later that day and returned to court to dispute it. This time he let his unvarnished opinions fly in front of the judge and the attending police officers.

At some point, it developed into an argument between Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne and the police, all of whom attended the proceedings. The argument then turned into a scuffle and Payne was shot. That’s right, in the middle of a court in session, in full view of the presiding judge, a Jericho police officer drew a pistol and fired on the unarmed fire chief.

The bullet grazed another officer and struck Don Payne in the hip. He was transported to the Memphis Regional Medical Center and is currently in good condition.

Presiding judge Tonya Alexander voided all outstanding tickets issued by the Jericho police force for the month prior and, following the incident, resigned from her position. Police Chief Willie Frazier disbanded the force for the time being and the Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office took over policing duties in the area. The identity of the officer who shot Volunteer Fire Chief Don Payne has not been released and Payne is not speaking out on the issue. No charges have been filed against anyone, but Police Chief Willie Frazier and the former police department are now under investigation.

And not just for the shooting. It seems Jericho police had a funding problem. Despite writing unusually high numbers of tickets, which should have generated a lot of income for the town, one of the Jericho cruisers and one of its fire trucks were repossessed. (I have a feeling the loss of that fire truck may have had something to do with the fire chief’s growing displeasure with the police force.) To date, the police have issued no statements and provided no records indicating where the funds may have gone, not even to the sheriff’s office and investigators. Allegations point toward officers pocketing the money themselves. Police Chief Willie Frazier is also said to have used town vehicles for personal use, including repeatedly driving his squad car on 140-mile round-trip excursions to Atoka, Tennessee. The investigation is just getting started.

I believe, in Jericho, walls are about to come down.

You can read more in the AP article or listen to short reports from the regional news station here.

I tagged this as humorous – which it is – but at the same time I am completely disgusted by this reviling excuse for a police department. How many years have they defrauded the public? How many thousands have they illegally collected? And I cannot believe this whole set-up did not raise some eyebrows at county level long before now. Why wasn’t someone with authority asking questions? Just how many towns with a population under 200 can afford half a dozen police? One town I live near has a population of over 400, contains several businesses, and can afford two.

That impossible people-to-police ratio must have attracted attention. The Crittenden County Sheriff’s Office was very familiar with Jericho police, just eight miles away, and it was even reported that Jericho police often left their cruisers at the Sheriff’s Office overnight to avoid vandals. This wasn’t a podunk outpost in a far corner of the county; this was just off the interstate, eight miles down the road, and the officers drove right into the sheriff’s parking lot.

As in most cases, I’d say the corruption surfacing in Jericho is just part of a larger tangle of malfeasance. The real questions, I suppose, is how far the tangle reaches, what all it ensnares, and how many other towns – all across the country – live with one eerily like it on their own streets.

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Bicycle Blues

‘Tis the season of tourists and, my personal bane, the summer cyclist.  In a short article at MSNBC News tackles the subject with typical optimism but aptly titled the piece Deadly tension on the roads — cars vs. bikes

Deadly tension is right. As the article notes, “… There are no nationwide statistics on bicycle-related injuries and deaths for the first half of 2008. But authorities across the country say they are seeing a sharp rise in the number of accidents involving bicyclists.”

Big surprise. A purveyor of bicycles notes how they have become so popular it’s difficult to keep them in stock. All those bikes have to go somewhere and most aren’t just collecting dust in the garage anymore. Hailed as eco-friendly and the green way to go, cycling is on the rise, and so is the number of cyclists on the road. But most roads are designed for automobiles only, leading to fatal interactions.

” ‘Last year in New Jersey 12 bikers, bicyclists, were killed in motor vehicle crashes,’ said Pam Fischer, director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety. ‘So far this year — and we’re at the middle of the summer, July 15 — we have already lost 11 bicyclists.’ Fischer said that ‘in almost every case, the bicycle was doing something that put them at significant risk.’ “

Of course, they don’t go into detail about what constitutes “significant risk” but in many areas simply being on the road can be a pretty significant risk in itself. And I must say it was nice to have mention – any mention – of cyclists at fault for accidents. In contrast, word from the Windy City spells out a more traditional motorist-at-fault mentality.

“At least five bicyclists have been killed in Chicago alone this year, leading to lawsuits, organized protests demanding safer bike routes and a set of new ordinances requiring drivers to give cyclists at least a 3-foot-wide berth when passing. ‘Most of the crashes that we’ve seen are a result of inattentive driving,’ said Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation.”

No surprise he’s affiliated with a bicycle group. And I would love to see how they enforce a three-foot proximity limit on moving vehicles, short of tying a yardstick to the fender. Now, I realize by this point you probably think I’m heavily biased against bicyclists, but you would only be partially correct. I have absolutely nothing against cycling when done safely and responsibly. The problem is that so few bicyclists hit the road in a safe and responsible manner.

I’m not talking helmets, here. I could care less if cyclists use kneepads or sunscreen or Gold Bond medicated powder… I am talking about rules of the road. The rallying cry of bicyclists everywhere is that they should be treated with the same respect as another vehicle. And though road rage is a growing concern in most congested areas, apparently it’s not limited to vehicles alone. In Seminole County, Florida, police videotaped sections of their roadways and “recorded a shocking level of rude and aggressive behavior by drivers. ‘It’s not their right to assault a cyclist or to run a cyclist off the road because they get impatient,’ sheriff’s Lt. Pete Kelting said. Regardless, said cyclist Keri Caffrey, ‘they see a cyclist and they target them, in many cases.’ ”

I have no doubt it’s true. At the same time, the article continues with a warning that those new to the rules of the road with bicycles often break laws and endanger themselves without even realizing it, which only complicates matters. The same video footage from Seminole County, Florida, that showed aggression toward cyclists from their motorist counterparts also showed something else: “… The cameras revealed large groups of bike riders illegally disrupting traffic. ‘You need to obey the rules of the road,’ said Officer Jeryl Vonderheid of the Eau Claire, Wis., police. “Bicycles are not exempt…’ ”

And that it what fuels the real seething anger in me when it comes to bicyclists. As a motorist the rules are very clear and if I don’t obey them I am in real danger of forfeiting a couple paychecks for the stunt. It’s true a lot of motorists get by with dangerous driving that is clearly outside the law, but under the same circumstances I doubt a cyclist would be under the same scrutiny or in danger of similar large fines. You could argue that the cyclist does not endanger the same number of people, or at least not on the same scale, but that is indeed arguable.

I live in a area popular for biking. And that’s fine; it is a lovely area and I enjoy experiencing it firsthand as much as anyone. But I don’t walk down the highway three feet in from the fogline and expect traffic to divert around me or, in areas where they cannot pass, simply follow behind as I amble my way down the pavement. Of all the miles of roadway here, hardly any has a paved shoulder. Of those with paved shoulders, I have seldom – if ever – seen anyone on a bike taking advantage of them.

The rest of the roads are not designed to accommodate bicycles. Period. These roads are lucky to have a faded fogline on the crumbling edge of the pavement and a steep gravel shoulder littered with refuse from the road – mufflers, branches, chunks of blacktop. There is no room and no safe place to ride a bicycle. Steep hills, blind driveways, sharp corners, sudden shifts in weather … it is dangerous enough for regular traffic, let alone two-wheelers. Despite that, I pass handfuls of cyclists every day. Counting only my commute – direct to work, direct home – I cannot remember a single day without a bicyclist. And these are not peak hours or peak roadways by any means, nor even a long drive (nor an interesting one … only trees and more trees for your viewing pleasure). But the bikers are still there.

And every year at least one person dies. Someone on a bike hits a pothole and lands in front of a pickup, or a car drops over the top of a steeply-crested hill and cannot swerve in time, or a million other versions of the same old stories. Sometimes it’s the bicyclist’s fault, sometimes it’s the motorist’s, but often it’s just a matter of bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, our highways crawl with cyclists, part of the seasonal locusts that maraud over every inch of the countryside in sweeping hordes year after year after year. (You may think I exaggerate. I don’t.) And while it’s certainly not the end of the world, it is so ungodly annoying. You can’t even drive to the bank, or the post office, or the hardware store, or the gas station, or the grocery store without having to contend with a person on a bicycle. But the worst part, the real kicker… There are miles and miles of trail systems that criss-cross this area, systems laid out with bicycles and foot traffic in mind, where the byways are well-maintained and safe to frequent, where motorized vehicles aren’t allowed during the summer, and where scenic views abound. They are free to access. There are even free shuttles to them, with bike racks on the front.

So, my dear bicyclist, can you explain to me why it is so essential that you ride down the road in front of me every morning? Every evening? That you slow traffic to a crawl so I don’t have time to, say, check my mail or pick up some paint from the hardware store on my lunch break? Is it really so vital to your vacation that you can’t allow normal people to go about their normal working lives without making special accommodations for you? Because it doesn’t end well. People get hurt. And in a fight between a Huffy and a Hummer, guess who’s going to be on the winning side?

Here’s the ugly truth: some days, it takes amazing personal restraint to refrain from knocking you and precious spandex right into the ditch. Truly.

The next time you go for a ride, keep that in mind.

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Most of us have heard this term, at least in passing, but to refresh…  Schadenfreude is generally taken to mean deriving joy from another’s misfortune, or other’s taking joy in yours.  It’s seen a few headlines since the turn of the new century/millenium and been the basis of a few TV episodes, as well, most notably with James Spader’s character Alan Shore on ABC’s series Boston Legal.

This is generally one of those human attributes which are frowned upon and, when possible, ignored altogether.  I rather enjoy the word, and it’s very human pretext, though I try not to overly indulge in it.  This week, however, I did.  I know it’s only Wednesday evening, but it’s been a lousy week.  I haven’t felt well, fitful nights have been even less restful than usual (hard to believe it’s possible, but it is), and work has been … trying.

And today I got to take pleasure in someone else’s bad fortune.  (And, really, they deserved it anyway.)  The downtown area near where I work is fairly old with narrow streets and limited parking.  To visit one of the small shops along main street, you have to park a couple blocks away or right on the street (if you’re quick enough to snag a space).  But main street is also part of the truck route so you have to be careful about how you park.  As I traversed the street I noticed, with what might be described as joy, that a large Cadillac Escalade barely out of my lane had sacrificed a mirror to its owner’s stupidity and/or ineptness.  Either way, I got a good laugh as I drove by the monstrous vehicle and it’s mirror – casing broken, glass spiderwebbed with cracks, hanging by a few wires … quite a sad affair.  A small thing, to be sure, hardly even a hiccup for the owner (if you can afford an Escalade, what’s a mirror?).  But for me…  Schadenfreude at it’s finest.

It made my week.

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