A mother's anger and the tempest that ensued over a recent incident involving a Menlo Park police officer's decision to help a young child get home after school has resulted in a welcome dialogue about children's safety on our streets. The incident has also provoked misdirected criticism of the officer and the police department, sometimes crossing the line into hyperbolic silliness.
A lively discussion on the Almanac's online forum, Town Square, includes comments ranging from the benefits of allowing kids to walk or bike to school, to whether the police officer overstepped his duty. The most extreme comments suggest that the incident was evidence that our local department represents a "police state."
The incident in question occurred earlier this month when Sgt. Jaime Romero saw a small boy walking home from Encinal School. According to Cmdr. Dave Bertini, it appeared to the sergeant that the boy was struggling to cross the roadway at Laurel Street and Glenwood Avenue, so he pulled over. When he asked the child his age, the boy said he was 6, according to Cmdr. Bertini, who reviewed the video recording of the encounter. In fact, the boy was nearly 9. And, he couldn't tell the officer what his home address was, although he was able to provide his mother's cellphone number.
Did Sgt. Romero's decision to call for a community service officer to take the boy home in an unmarked car constitute an overreach in his duties to protect the public? The boy's mother says it does. Her son had her permission to walk home from school, and the sergeant's interference could lead to the child's fear of doing so in the future, she says. "The police would do better to keep an eye on the drivers and be supportive of the pedestrians," she told the Almanac.
Few would disagree that more police on the streets with "an eye on the drivers" who put walkers and bicyclists at high risk would be welcome. But now, let's return to the real world. How many police officers would the city have to hire to patrol the areas around all of our schools, every school day, to cite speeding, or texting, or stop-sign-running drivers? Schools in Menlo Park and Atherton have been struggling with the question of how to get kids to and from school safely for years, but they also understand that some of the same time-constrained, stressed-out parents dropping the kids off are the same ones who are putting walking and bicycling children in danger.
The community discussion taking place over the appropriateness of the police sergeant's intervention takes a more productive turn with the dialogue about how we -- all of us who drive the streets used by our kids to get to school -- make those streets safer by policing ourselves. Parent Erin Glanville writes in her blog for the Almanac (at AlmanacNews.com), " ... the root of the problem doesn't lie with the officer or the mother's decision (to let her son walk to school); the problem is the rest of us who contribute to making a walk to school unsafe."
That's a sound observation, and thinking about that fact -- and our personal role in correcting the problem -- is a far better way of thinking about the incident than second-guessing a well-intentioned police sergeant concerned about one child's safety on his way home from school.