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A Journey to the Center of the Mind, Book II, The Police Officer Years

James R. Fitzgerald

Bonus Chapter 11A


Back to 1977in uniform as a patrol officer

During one of our pre-shift roll calls, after having discussed the number of illegal
handguns suspected of being on the streets at the time, Sgt. Gene Ashton casually mentioned that
if any of his officers comes upon one and brings it in, hell award him with a half-day off with
pay. We collectively laughed out loud and one of the other officers said, Okay, now we
REALLY have a reason try to find those guns. As if protecting ourselves and others from
random gun violence was not reason enough to remove them from the streets. I got his attempt
at humor.
Of course, confiscating a gun which is unlawfully in the possession of someone is always
a good thing, and made for a good arrest. Thats one less chance for that gun to hurt or kill
anyone and/or to be used to commit a felony.
As it so happened, within a few days of that impromptu motivational roll call incentive
by our sergeant, I observed a car flying through an intersection against a red light. I conducted a
car stop of the vehicle and its lone occupant, naturally calling in the tag, car description, and
location to the dispatchers. Lo and behold, sticking out from under the back seat in clear view
was the brown grip of what was later determined to be an unlicensed .38 Special.
Without initially telling the driver that I saw the handgun, I routinely asked him to step
out of his car. My body was bladed to him and my left hand on my gun in its holster the whole

time in the event he should try to make a quick move for the weapon I already had seen, or any
other weapon he may have hidden on his person. I didnt want him to know I saw the gun under
the seat yet, so maybe he wouldnt try to reach for it. He came out of the car unsuspecting and I
immediately told him he was under arrest and handcuffed him. I didnt even have time to call
for backup as it all happened so quickly, but I knew at the time that at least he was away from the
weapon under the seat. That was important to know before affecting the arrest.
It was later determined that the guy was a convicted felon, an outlaw biker, on parole,
and should not have had that handgun anywhere near him. The weapon was never traced to a
specific person or to an earlier crime, but who knows if it would have been used in a future
crime. At least this weapon was now off the streets permanently, with this convicted felon
eventually off the street for a year or more on a weapon and parole violation.
When Sgt. Ashton learned about my arrest that afternoon, he immediately reminded me
of the offer that he had made at roll call just a few days before. I remembered it too, of course,
but I waited for him to bring it up first. To his credit, he did, and asked me what half-day Id like
off, schedule-permitting, of course. I asked for the last four hours of the upcoming Saturday 311 shift, and he said, You got it!
So, by 7:00P on the following Saturday night, I only had to work a half day, earned by
taking a gun off the streets of Bensalem. I know thats what we as police officers were getting
paid to do anyway, but it was nice nevertheless to be given the occasional motivation to do that
little something extra, and then getting the promised reward for it.
Sgt. Ashton told me years later that there was really no protocol in the BPD for awarding
time-off such as that without the Township Board of Supervisors approving it as a formal award
for valor or meritorious action beyond the call of duty, an exceptional police action/arrest, or

something like that. But he got it done somehow that night for me, a young officer who was
rewarded almost on the spot in a very appreciative way for a job well done.
Kudos to Sgt. Ashton for thinking of innovative ways to get his officers to work even
harder, to go that extra step, in attempting to stop or prevent a crime, even a future crime. Its a
management ploy that I remembered years later when it was my turn to be a sergeant on the
police department and beyond that as a supervisor in the FBI.

*****

As with the recovered gun example, Sgt. Ashton rewarded me when I did well, but he
also admonished me when I did not so well. One of those incidents occurred during the course
of another routine car stop mid-way through my rookie year.
One evening, a fifty-plus year old man and his wife ran through a red light while driving
their car. I observed it, pulled them over, and proceeded to write the driver a traffic ticket.
Upon walking back to the car and handing the summons to the man, he was visibly upset. He
argued with me that he did not run the red light, it was yellow, it was a safe crossing, etc. I stood
there, alongside his driver side door and politely responded Yes, Sir, and No, sir, when
appropriate, during most of his tirade. Eventually, after reminding me several times that I should
be out there catching real criminals and looking for real crime, he stated to me at a very loud
volume that he was going to ask for a hearing and hed show me who was right then and there.
My nerves semi-frayed at this point from the non-stop challenges and questions coming
from this driver, I responded, without really thinking, Thats fine with me! Ask for a hearing! I
could use the overtime! I then walked away, reentered my patrol car, and drove off.

I mostly forgot about the above car stop until the dispatcher requested me to come into
police headquarters about two hours later. I went inside and Sgt. Ashton called me back into the
sergeants office. It was just the pair of us, and he asked me to tell him about a traffic ticket I
had written about two hours ago. As I didnt think I had done anything wrong, I told him exactly
what had happened. I started my explanation of the car stop by nonchalantly describing the male
driver as this old guy. I realized that characterization was a mistake as soon as the words
left my mouth as Sgt. Ashton was about the same age as the driver. Oops! After I humbly
apologized for the unnecessary and uncalled for age descriptor, Sarge laughed and said it was no
big deal, as he knows hes an old guy too.
Moving right along, Sgt. Ashton then asked me if I thought I had said anything to the
driver that may have caused him to come into the police station and file a complaint against me.
I verbally replayed the car stop and my interaction with him for the better part of the next
minute, all the while convincing Sgt. Ashton of the legitimacy of the ticket itself, emphasizing
the fact that the car clearly went through a full red light at a very busy intersection. The sergeant
didnt question my writing of the ticket in any way, and assured me that he felt the stop itself was
a valid one. But he still wanted me to go through the entirety of the interaction I had with this
guy.
Finally, my sergeant asked me to repeat the last thing I said to the driver. I responded
that after complaining about a number of issues, the guy told me that he was going to ask for a
hearing. It was then that I responded with something like, Well, I could use the overtime.
Now, for the second time during our brief conversation in the sergeants office, as soon
as those particular words left my lips, I realized that I had said something wrong; and not just at

this very minute with Sarge, but about two hours ago with the driver too. Before Sgt. Ashton
even said anything back to me, I offered to him, very humbly once again, I guess I shouldnt
have said that, eh?
Sarge then said, Yes, that was wrong, but I knew youd figure it out on your own.
I did. It took me a few minutes, but I did.

I realized I acted unprofessionally to the man to whom I issued the traffic citation. The
ticket was valid, I assure you, but my last statement to him, especially after politely yes, sir-ing
and no sir-ing him previous to that, was plainly dumb and unnecessary. Despite my initial
politeness and professionalism at the scene, I let the guys rising vitriol and the volume of his
ongoing rhetoric get to me. I ultimately responded as I did, and wrongly so.
Sgt. Ashton didnt do anything more to me regarding this incident. Nothing went into my
personnel file. He verbally admonished me that night and that was it. He said he would call the
man back and explain to him our conversation and that I had been talked to. At the end of the
shift he told me he did and the guy was satisfied with the results.
I never heard back from the ticketed man again. Interestingly, he never asked for a traffic
hearing. He admitted his guilt and paid the fine for running the red light that night. We never
crossed paths again, at least as far as I know.

I learned a lesson from the old guys that night, both the driver and later my sergeant.
As a cop, people were going to give me grief, yell at me, curse at me, and certainly worse
sometimes. I had to learn to accept it much of the time, at least when I wasnt actually being
threatened or assaulted. I had to develop a thicker skin, and not respond to a person directly in

my face the same way I would have as when I was a teenager, a young man, or as a regular
civilian. In uniform and carrying a gun and a badge, I had to react differently now to these types
of confrontations. I had to learn to bite my tongue and just walk away sometimes from the
argumentative types, especially if its ONLY an argument, and no other laws are being broken at
the same time.
Sgt. Ashton actually complimented me for my initial responses that evening in that I
started out my interaction with the man very appropriately. The guy even confirmed that with
Sarge when he came in and filed his complaint, and his wife agreed. But, of course, it
deteriorated at the end with my overtime statement to him.
Sgt. Ashton told me that he learned a long time ago that an officer can really make his
point, do so professionally and without getting into trouble, yet still manage to piss off a loud
mouth at the same time by simply killing him (or her) with politeness. Thats a notion that
many people dont understand, and I certainly didnt earlier that evening. It simply involves
being overly nice and friendly in any response to a person trying to make his or her loud and
histrionic points. Again, as in, Yes, sir, No, sir, Thats your opinion, or Thats your
right, etc., repeatedly to questions being asked and directed comments toward an officer or
anyone else for that matter. This lack of a real response can be frustrating to both parties, but at
the same time, the loud mouth would have no complaint against the officer at all in that regard.
Can you imagine a disgruntled civilian coming into a police department and complaining
that an officer only answered politely in the affirmative or negative, with Sir or Maam at
the end of each response? It would be a groundless complaint from the get-go, unless the
complainer embellished what happened or outright lied. Thats been known to happen too, of
course.

Bottom-line in these situations, an officer should take care of his or her business, respond
politely and professionally when required to (even when a clear attempt is made to push his/her
buttons), and then get out of the situation, wherever that may be, as soon as possible. That will
help keep civilian complaints to a minimum, and law enforcement professionalism to a
maximum.

*****
Of course, not all of my arrests and traffic citations resulted in guilty pleas. At some
point, not too far into 77, I had the opportunities to go to court and testify in various legal
proceedings related to arrests or citations which I had made or issued since becoming a
Bensalem police officer. My initial foray may have been the preliminary hearing associated with
my first-night arrest of the trio of burglars at the Two Guys department store. After that it would
have been at several traffic ticket hearings when so requested by the ticketed parties. My initial
testimony ever as a sworn police officer would be in the faux-wood paneled courtroom of
District Magistrate Chris Ritter in the small courthouse on Galloway Rd., pretty much
geographically in the center of Bensalem Township.
Chris and his wife Kay, who was also his office manager, (and later elected District
Magistrate herself), were well-known staples in Bensalem for years before I got there, being
deeply involved in local politics. All district magistrates in Pennsylvania were elected officers of
the courts. Chris Ritter was not a lawyer, as most district magistrates at the time were not either.
Their functions were to preside over traffic citation hearings, summary criminal hearings (such
as Disorderly Conduct, Underage Drinking, etc.), preliminary arraignments, preliminary
hearings, and small claims actions. When first elected, new magistrates travelled to Harrisburg,

the capitol of Pennsylvania, for a two-week crash course specially designed for these mostly
non-lawyers who were now sitting judges at hearings of various sorts and for various reasons.
(Today, the length of the training is longer and many magistrates are, in fact, lawyers.)
I recall being in Magistrate Ritters courtroom awaiting my turn to testify on several
different days. A few of my fellow rookie BPD officers were there ahead of me on some of
those days, testifying in their own cases. On more than one of these occasions while awaiting
my turn to testify in my own case, I would watch my peers go through much of what I went
through one-and-a-half-years before when testifying as a store detective at a specific retail
theft/shoplifting preliminary hearing in Philadelphia City Hall (as referenced in JCM Book I). I
observed many of the new BPD officers getting easily tripped up in their respective crossexaminations by the defense lawyers and fumble over some very fundamental issues as they
related the facts of the offense to which they were testifying.
Like me back at City Hall a year-plus before, these officers perhaps didnt fully prepare
or have a specific recollection of what happened on the day or night in question of their arrest or
citation issuance. This seemed to be the result of the fact that they did not record certain
information in their reports or their notes, or did not bother to review either before actually
testifying. They were also confused about the hearsay rule when it came to testifying, in that
they couldnt testify as to what someone else told them, to include what a dispatcher may have
stated over the police radio when providing them with specific information.
Fortunately for them, none of the officers was almost held in contempt-of-court because
of reading a newspaper in the courtroom, like me in my earlier case. But they otherwise suffered
through their first cross-examinations, and even sometimes in the direct-examinations, in much
the same way as I did my first time. It certainly confirmed for me that testifying was to some

degree an art, if not at least part science, and when combined with prior on-the-stand actual
testimonial experience, it can be done the right way each time to get the facts across to a judge,
jury, or in this particular courtroom, to Magistrate Ritter.
I was very glad I got over my one bad testifying experience while still a store detective in
the shoplifter case some eighteen months before. I now knew how to achieve the goal of keeping
my answers short and to the point, answering only what was asked, avoiding the hearsay
dilemma, presenting just enough testimonial evidence as necessary, and not more or less. And of
course, the Prime Directive in ALL testimonial situations is always telling the truth, the whole
truth, and nothing but the truth, each and every time. Thats the easy part. Or, at least it should
be.

In later years on the BPD, I really got the hang of this testimonial thing. It even got to the
point in which others in the courtroom thought I was someone I was not; in a good way, that is.
Allow me to elaborate...
In Bucks County district courts, whether it was a traffic ticket hearing, a summary
offense hearing, or even a preliminary hearing for misdemeanor or felony charges, officers and
detectives were allowed to, in effect, act as the prosecutor in their case. In other words, the
officer/detective could present his own testimony and/or he could then call one or more
witnesses to the stand to lay out the basic facts of the crime(s) so charged as they related to the
defendant(s). The witness, under oath, would be questioned by the officer just enough during his
or her direct testimony to establish a prima facie case or, if it was a summary offense, to lay out
the evidence for the district magistrate to render a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

Naturally, for major cases such as homicide or rape, or attempts thereof, an actual
assistant district attorney from Bucks County would be at the magistrates courtroom and he or
she would represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania during the preliminary hearing. But in
other cases which did not rise to that level of seriousness, such as basic theft related cases,
burglaries, or simple assaults, a few of my peer officers and detectives would enjoy acting as the
prosecutor in these situations. After a few years at the BPD, I was one of them. After a few
years of acting in this role, I actually got pretty good at it.
When the situation allowed, I would thoroughly enjoy presenting my case to the district
magistrate. In doing so, if required, I would exhibit actual articles of evidence (lab reports,
medical reports, pictures of broken windows, pictures of broken noses, car theft tools, weapons,
etc.), call my witness/witnesses, and enlist their direct testimony from the stand. When the
public defender or hired defense attorney would then cross-examine my witness, and if he or she
would go off on tangents, beyond the scope, and/or attempt to badger my witness, I would
verbalize an objection to the judge. Most of the time, the magistrate would sustain it.
Sometimes in various hearings, the counsel for the accused would even call their own
witnesses (rarely the defendant him/herself) and put them on the stand and walk them through
their direct testimony. This would be done in an attempt to offer exculpatory testimony/evidence
in favor of the defendant. Afterwards, of course, Id get to cross-examine these witnesses. In a
number of these situations, and through my follow-up questions to them, I found ways to put
significant holes in their testimony and discredit them in front of the magistrate.
The results, virtually every timea prima facie case established by the Commonwealth,
and the case remanded to trial in Doylestown each time with me in the role of prosecutor at the
preliminary hearing.

Over the years, after at least three separate preliminary hearings in Judge Ritters
(husbands and wifes) courtroom, the defense counsel would come up to me afterwards and ask,
Excuse me Officer, are you in law school? Or, Are you also an attorney?
Of course, I would reply, No, Im not.
Each of them acted surprised and would then separately suggest in one form or another
that I should consider attending law school as I so impressed them with my evidentiary
knowledge, testimonial and cross-examination skills, and overall courtroom acumen. I thanked
them and replied, Yeah, maybe someday.
What these several well-respected lawyers individually said to me in terms of
professional respect and admiration back then was very much appreciated.
But, no, I never did attend law school.
Maybe someday.