Everyone agrees on the basic facts: A fourth-grade boy was walking home alone from Encinal Elementary School on Thursday, Sept. 11. At the intersection of Laurel Street and Glenwood Avenue, a Menlo Park police officer driving by around 1:40 p.m. saw the boy, pulled over, and after some discussion, decided to give the child a lift. Upon reaching the boy's home, he was greeted by an incensed mother.
Here the accounts diverge: Sgt. Jaime Romero reportedly saw a small child too young to navigate the streets alone. Maria Cortez, the boy's mother, sees the police officer's decision as unwelcome interference with a boy mature enough to walk home unaccompanied and who had only earned the right to do so at the start of this school year.
"The officer tried to scare us about 'how dangerous it is out there' and told me repeatedly that he could 'not comment on my parenting,' which I understood to mean that he disapproved of my parenting," Maria Cortez told the Almanac.
Most disturbing, she said, was the officer's statement that if her son continued to walk home alone, he could not guarantee that her son would not be picked up by the police again.
Drivers have a responsibility to yield to pedestrians, Ms. Cortez said. "I firmly believe that it is better to encourage our children to walk home from school, even alone when they are able to, rather than to teach them to fear it. Moreover, this part of Menlo Park is very safe except for some dangerous drivers. The police would do better to keep an eye on the drivers and be supportive of the pedestrians."
Cmdr. Dave Bertini, speaking on behalf of the police department, said officers swear an oath to protect those who can't protect themselves. He said he had reviewed the video recording of the encounter, and that Sgt. Romero saw a child who looked very young and small who appeared to be struggling to cross the street.
The boy initially told the officer he was 6 years old -- even though he was about to turn 9 -- and couldn't give Sgt. Romero his home address, although the boy did know his mother's cellphone number, according to the commander.
The police called to see whether the boy had permission to walk home; the mother said yes.
Still, "(Sgt. Romero) decided to go ahead and bring the kid home," Cmdr. Bertini said. "He had a community service officer come by in a regular car -- not a cop car with a cage. We didn't want to traumatize the kid."
He added that in nine cases out of 10, the parents say thanks very much. Cmdr. Bertini said that 27 years of policing, he has given kids a lift about six times, and since coming to Menlo Park, has experienced the dangers of local traffic up close.
"I run at lunchtime and I've almost been hit by cars three times, and I had the right-of-way," Cmdr. Bertini said. "As an adult I have the experience to know that a stop sign doesn't mean the driver is going to stop."
The bottom line, according to the police, is that in a perfect world, no one would be on their cellphone, no one would be speeding, and no one would run a red light -- but the world isn't perfect.
"Your son could have been trained 100 percent and he could have the right-of-way and step into the street and someone can still kill him. He could have the right-of-way and still be dead," Cmdr. Bertini said.
Menlo Park has "a horrible accident rate," according to the commander. Making the streets safer, he said, comes down to three factors: enforcement, education and engineering. The department has reconstituted its traffic unit, deployed motorcycle officers, and is carrying out intensive enforcement activities, the commander said, but the engineering part of the solution is not up to the police.
But even then, drivers ignore signs like the one at Laurel Street and Oak Grove Avenue that prohibits right turns on a red light when children are present, Cmdr. Bertini noted. "We have officers out there citing drivers, and a lot of them are parents who just picked up their kids."
Ms. Cortez acknowledged that speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians creates a dangerous environment -- and that means the city and the police need to do more to make the route from Encinal to her Merrill Street home safer.
"However, I believe that the police can help by enforcing safe driving behavior rather than by discouraging students from walking home," she said.