Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cellphone-ticket officer no villain

Handing out citation to outraged senior couple surely has him stressed, too

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It was Friday, March 2 -- about three hours after the incident -- when 72-year-old Margaret Piszker called the Free Press newsroom asking to speak with me.

I was on deadline. So later, she called back and asked to speak with a reporter. The story that resulted -- about her 74-year-old husband Laszlo receiving a $199 ticket for allegedly using a cellphone while driving -- appeared in Monday's paper.

What made news out of an otherwise commonplace occurrence was one quirky, yet resonating, ingredient. Margaret and Laszlo claimed they don't have a cellphone. Or, for that matter, any other kind of electronic "gadget."

It was such a strange story that soon the Crestview couple was on CBC's As it Happens, telling it to the whole radio universe. He with his Hungarian accent, and she with her British accent.

So it was that Thursday, with the story still crackling like a downed power line, I finally returned Margaret's call.

"It's been stressful," she began, what with strangers calling to congratulate them and the media at their door. So stressful that Margaret said she's not comfortable leaving the house.

"We're just average, regular, ordinary, boring people," she said. "The biggest thing we do is go on a holiday to see our kids. Now we have to wait with this hanging over our heads."

Average, ordinary, regular and boring? Perhaps. But, as Margaret suggested, there's been nothing boring about their lives lately. In the space of a week, the Piszkers have become what amounts to local folk heroes. At least they have to a seething segment of Winnipeg drivers who feel they themselves have been unfairly tagged by police in the past. They're mad as hell at the Winnipeg Police Service and, vicariously, they see the elderly couple's run-in with the law as a way of screaming they're not going to take it anymore.

What has stoked the public fury is the timing. The police service is in the midst of a traffic-enforcement campaign where general patrol officers are expected, but not obliged, to write one tag a shift. So says WPS Chief Keith McCaskill, who also insists it's all about public safety. The public perception is it's more about digging deep into their pockets to fill the void in photo-radar revenue.

But not everyone is on the Piszkers' side.

"Did anyone actually bother to find out if possibly he was in fact using his son or daughter's cellphone?" a woman asked in an email.

Good question.

Turns out their son resides in England and their daughter in the United States. I called the daughter, Diane Wren, at her home near Philadelphia.

"They do not have a cellphone," Diane insisted. "No," she said, answering a second question. "I've never suggested they get a cellphone."

Curious... her mother said her daughter had asked them repeatedly to get a cellphone.

"It would be absolutely wasted on them," Diane went on. "Who would they call? Each other? They go out together. They're home together. What are they going to do? Sit on the couch and call each other?"

Diane said there was one thing she did ask them to get.

"I've said, 'get an answering machine,' but they won't get one of those, either."

Still, the officers who pulled them over must have thought they saw something.

Laszlo was emphatic. He said he didn't have his hand to his ear or anything else. Maybe it was the high collar on his coat police mistook for a cellphone, he said.

 

Anyway, as Laszlo saw it, getting stopped was all about the traffic ticket "quota" campaign. He said he believed police targeted them because they are elderly and, presumably, easy prey. Which, as respectfully as I can put it, is garbage.

At least it is in this case.

There are cops out there who -- other officers have told me -- "would ticket their grandmothers to get a tag."

Plus the court-appearance overtime that went with it.

But, as I suggested earlier this week, the senior officer in this traffic stop, who was working with a trainee from what the Piszkers could see, isn't that kind of cop. Quite the opposite, so I'm told by an officer much like him, whom I highly respect.

But when a car doesn't stop right away when police are trying to pull it over, when the driver gets out and confronts officers, his wife follows, and then the driver refuses to take the ticket...

Well, cops are human. Problem is not enough of us -- and I include myself -- always see them that way.

Everyone can relate to an elderly woman being stressed and traumatized by police pulling her husband over -- and the outraged husband who saw no reason to be pulled over in the first place.

But what about the police officer? Stress and trauma are their silent partners. Who knows what he had to contend with earlier that day, or week?

And now, in most of the public's eyes, this cop they've never seen, much less know, is the personification of every bad-guy cop in the service.

A few years ago, a young police officer I know said something that surprised me. Something that put the job, and the people who do it, in a different perspective.

"I'm not afraid of being stabbed," he told me. "I'm not afraid of being shot. I'm afraid of being vilified."

And all over a lousy traffic ticket.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2012 B1

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