You fall asleep behind the wheel of your car at a major intersection at 2 a.m.
The light changes, and you don’t move. A police officer who is several cars behind you pulls up to investigate. He bangs on the window and shakes the car before finally rousing you. Later, another officer determines that you are “highly intoxicated.”
Do you think you might have been charged with drunken driving in an incident such as that?
Well, that’s exactly the situation that Jeffrey A. Lancaster, of Galloway Township, found himself in on Feb. 17, 2011, at the intersection of Tilton, Mill and Shore roads in Northfield.
But he was never charged with drunken driving or any other criminal violation. The inescapable conclusion is that Lancaster was not charged because he is an Egg Harbor Township police officer.
And that is outrageous.
Not only was Lancaster not charged or held in custody, but Northfield police called Egg Harbor Township police and arranged for an EHT supervisor to drive Lancaster home.
The cops call a situation like this professional courtesy. Others call it the blue code of silence. We call it a violation of the oath every police officer takes to uphold the law when he or she becomes an officer. Nowhere in that oath is there anything about protecting fellow officers who break the law.
Furthermore, the public would know nothing about this incident were it not for the dogged efforts of John Paff, the chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Police Accountability Project. Paff had to sue to get the public records regarding this incident.
Last week, an Egg Harbor Township internal police report was finally released. EHT Sgt. Michael T. Hughes, who had driven Lancaster home, concluded that Lancaster was staggering drunk that night. Lancaster eventually admitted violating several departmental rules and was disciplined. But he remains an officer, was never charged with drunken driving, and the Northfield officers who did not charge him were absolved of any wrongdoing after an internal affairs investigation.
You can bet that anyone other than a police officer would have been charged immediately in such an incident.
To a degree, the urge police officers have to protect their own is commendable. On the streets, in the face of violence, all they have is each other.
But the minute a police officer puts a fellow officer above the law and above the public whom all police have sworn to protect, there is nothing commendable about it.
It’s a disgrace, and it undermines the respect that police officers need to do their jobs and, most of the time, deserve.