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Jaywalkers are among town's most wanted

May 18, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

I have this "Deep Throat" source in Williamsport who calls every now again when he believes the general state of things has transgressed the bounds of what a reasonable man should have to endure.He's usually dead-on accurate with his information, but last month he gave me some news that was hard to believe. Police, he said, were in town conducting a jaywalking sting. What's more, the sting operation was being funded by a state grant, especially for that purpose.

"Number one," I told him, struggling to maintain my least condescending tone, "no one gets busted for jaywalking anymore, even in the big cities where it might actually matter. Number two, the state is a billion smackers in the hole; no way are they going to be passing out bling for something as stupid as this."

"I'm telling you, it's true."

"Oh come now, jaywalking is one of those old laws that's still on the books but never enforced anymore, like the ones making it illegal to tie your horse to a fire plug, or to use blasphemy in front of 'a comely wench of virtue true'."

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But darn if he didn't turn out to be right.

The Washington County Sheriff's Department, as well as police departments in Hagerstown and Smithsburg, received a $5,000 grant from the State Highway Administration to punish people for the wanton crime of running across the street for a bag of chips.

Now, what State Highway Administration is this? It couldn't be the same Maryland State Highway Administration that has been telling us for more than a year now that it is so broke that there isn't one single penny for new road construction, and that it will have to resort to tolls on highways that are currently free, just to make ends meet.

No, it can't be the Maryland State Highway Administration. It must be the Pennsylvania State Highway Commission that is stepping in, all worried about our citizens' rote ability to look both ways.

Actually, and here again I have to thank Al Gore for inventing the Internet, the word "jaywalking" comes from "jay" which in ye olde dayes was basically slang for "idiot." The word first appeared in Boston in 1917, although the offense itself was first criminalized about the turn of the century.

Here's what I don't get: Precisely what was there in 1900 to step out in front of? A horse-drawn milk wagon? I don't know that you would have to be an idiot to be hit, but you definitely have to be really, really slow. Perhaps there was a problem with all those aging Civil War amputees hobbling out in front of the nascent automobile, which in those days had a top speed of about 3 mph.

Be that as it may, I really liked Williamsport Mayor John Slayman's reaction to the crackdown. Saying that he himself jaywalked all the time, his advice to town residents was simply "Don't get caught."

Amen. Look for oncoming traffic, look for a squad car and then proceed as usual.

I sort of have to feel for the police, too. I'm far too unstable to be a lawman ("Forget the training, when do I get the freaking gun!") but if I were, I can't imagine that The Great Williamsport Jaywalking Stakeout of 2004 is where I'd want to put in my time.

I mean, you come in the day after watching a "Lethal Weapon" marathon and look up on the duty board to see you've pulled a jaywalking shift, and immediately the allure of being part of that thin blue line that separates citizens from chaos has lost all its zap.

You've got to feel like bozo writing out pieces of payin' paper to people for crossing the street. They're looking at you like you're insane and saying "You're giving me a ticket for what?"

"It's the law, ma'am."

"Oh, so I assume all your current criminal cases have been solved? So, drugs are no longer a problem, eh? And robbery and murder? They're a thing of the past and do not need to be defended against, so you guys can feel free to spend valuable man-hours playing the part of a glorified crossing guard? Where are your white gloves, ladies?"

And you're seething, because deep down you agree, but you can't say anything because of some stinkin' state grant cooked up by some stinkin' starry-eyed liberal paper jockey in Annapolis that requires the shift supervisor to pull somebody off patrol to stalk the feared perpetrator known as the Grocery Carrying Pedestrian when everyone knows any self-respecting uniformed officer of the law ought to be out slingin' lead at a dirtball street PUNK.

Or maybe that's what they're thinking, I don't know.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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