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November 30, 2011

Toxic tales eclipse kind cops

Everybody’s got a first-hand police story. The ones that resonate — those most often repeated — are none too flattering.

The latest local story gone wild involves WHAS radio and TV personality Terry Meiners, who beat City Hall after challenging a speeding ticket before a jury of his peers. Sam Cromity, the Watterson Expressway’s notorious Mustang cop, accused him of going 75 in a 55 mph zone. The patrolman couldn’t prove it; he was talking to a friend on his cell phone at the time.

The ensuing scrutiny was unbecoming to the officer. Louisville.com quoted a ratemycop.com post by a confessed speeder: “I have never had an officer get so impatient and curse at me … He needs anger management.”

Meiners must feel vindicated. He called Cromity a liar 15 times on the air before the beginning of the trial, during which his attorney, Steve Pence, followed his lead: “I called him a liar; he can sue me if he wants,” he said.

No stranger to controversy, Cromity was an easy target. A 2009 C-J story ranked him among the most prolific ticket-writers, even though the lion’s share of his charges were diminished or dismissed.

I’ve heard quite a few rogue cop stories over the years. For some reason, the most memorable involve musicians.

In 2005, a guitarist/vocalist friend had just finished a gig at a Highlands pizzeria. He was carrying his amplifier across Bardstown Road when an impatient LMPD cop swung laterally, out of a stalled northbound line of traffic, and accelerated up the southbound lane. The impact smashed the amp to smithereens as my friend’s body tumbled up the hood and shattered the windshield.

He called me from an ambulance.

Bystanders described an even more surreal aftermath: an us-against-them siege mentality as police turned some witnesses away and negotiated statements with others. There’s no evidence the cop was responding to an emergency (he was transporting a suspect), yet he wasn’t cited — not even for reckless driving.

Those defining, horrific moments are seared into the memories of all involved. And the bitterness lingers. The victim’s bottom line: “Good cops are the minority. Fuck the police.”

Yet there are stories of guts, glory and mercy. One of the nicest people I know is an LMPD cop who gave one of the nicest musicians I know a pass after stopping him. The guitar in the vehicle and the name on the license rang a bell: “Are you the Craig Wagner?” the officer asked. Indeed he was.

The cop and I had been close friends years earlier when both of us lived in Taylor County. I’d given him an Alvarez guitar and an instructional video by the Craig Wagner, a local jazz musician. I’d felt guilty about copying “The Art of Solo Fingerstyle Guitar” for him until he told me of his random encounter and waiver.

Most of the cops I’ve known were polite, professional, highly skilled state police detectives who routinely cracked confessions out of tough nuts. And yet my most terrifying brush with the law was with a state trooper; I was driving two cars behind him, minding my own business and abiding by the speed limit, when he pulled me over and angrily accused me of stalking his wife, who, it turns out, was driving the car directly in front of me. I could have said, “Sounds to me like you’ve got some marital trust issues,” but I’ve learned to silence my sarcasm when necessary. The bizarre incident ended without drama.

I got my latest ticket last spring in front of St. Xavier High School for speeding on Poplar Level Road. I was guilty as homemade sin, but I’m still confused as to why two backup units responded as though I had slain someone. Boxed in by cruisers with flashing blue lights, an Audubon Park cop actually asked me why I was agitated.

Bad-cop stories — driven by viral video of, say, pepper-spray in the faces of pacifists — draw more attention than good-cop stories. Moreover, it’s the nature of shaken beasts to scream far and wide. Thus public perception skews negatively, perhaps unduly.

Police and citizens might rescue the collective reputation of those who put their lives on the line to protect and serve by repeating uncommon acts of kindness and reporting abuses — without malice, fear or bias.