While unloading fishing boats in Galilee, conversation is the primary means of keeping each other entertained, and the subject matter is typically what one would expect. A while back, for example, after somebody’s acquaintance had his life pretty well mangled by a DUI, one of the older guys on my shift lamented the loss of a day when police saw their role in such situations as getting people home safely, not punishing them for dumb mistakes.
Given general agreement with my elder’s opinion on this matter, I’ll stipulate that the Warwick police’s handling of Narragansett Town Council President Susan Cicilline-Buonanno was probably how these things ought to go, when she was pulled over under suspicion of impaired driving while the officer was being filmed for reality TV. Yes, she admitted that she had been drinking and denied that she was on any form of medication. Yes, she had a bizarre amount of trouble with instructions to follow the officer’s finger with her eyes and difficulty walking a straight line. Yes, the host of the show noted that many viewers would be surprised that the officer let her go with the promise that she would get a ride, but still…
The question is what we want the role of the police to be. My preference is for public safety officers to do their best to keep us all safe as we go about our lives, not to enforce a standard for how we live. The objective ought to be to get people home safely. Yet, fairly or unfairly, online reactions to the video prove that most people don’t expect the law to operate on that principle, and it seems that only some people receive the benefit of the doubt.
This extra margin for personal error applies not just to the police, in this case. The story appeared on Friday night, and Cicilline-Buonanno survived the whole weekend with only the GoLocal article linked above. The Providence Journal waited for a statement from the councilwoman and didn’t include the video, even online. Thus, we’re already into what would normally be the second wave of a story, as Donita Naylor couches her reportage in terms of the reaction to the incident and the print edition headline glosses the story with minimizing language: “‘Live PD’ segment stirs brouhaha.”
The only other coverage so far appears to be WJAR’s quick blurb about the Projo article. Nobody appears to have asked Cicilline-Buonanno’s congressman brother, David Cicilline, for comment, and the Projo also featured prominently on the page a podcast in which Cicilline touts his political power.
Again, maybe this is how it ought to be. Maybe it was also reasonable that nobody (to my knowledge) pressed the Cicilline siblings for comment when their father appeared in Tim White’s excellent book about the Rhode Island mob, The Last Good Heist. Somehow, though, this treatment doesn’t seem ordinary. In a state that makes big news out of a former state rep’s deception about his residence and whose media spotlights the appearance of any local who catches the national eye, one might expect an unfortunate performance for the cameras like Cicilline-Buonanno’s to compete for some front-page Sunday space. This weekend, the Projo front-paged a hyper-local story about a truck repair business and two new advocacy stories for legalized marijuana, instead.
However the police should have handled the matter, this isn’t some minor complaint. If a privileged few have their public images polished with benefit of the doubt while others have theirs tarnished by relentless suspicion, that changes the public’s sense of their community and will affect how we all vote.