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Innocent actions that look bad to officers, troopers, deputies and an office building

August 7, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
This tale begins about 25 years ago, very late one night after either a very long council meeting or an election. It ends yesterday in a parking lot in a massive suburban office park, and hopefully I never create another chapter. We’ll see.

That night in downtown Steubenville, I was very tired. I ran a traffic light and two stop signs on the way home after a very long day of work. It was literally the middle of the night. There was no traffic at all, so why stop? And when the flashing red-and-blue lights of a white City Police Crown Victoria swirled in my rearview mirror, I wasn’t surprised. I pulled over. I reached into the glove compartment for my registration. And I looked out the passenger-side window into the muzzle of a gun accompanied by about the entire Steubenville Police Department yelling, “Get your hands where we can see ‘em. What are you reaching for? Get out of the car and put your hands on your head. Slowly.”

And now there were about 18 Crown Vics and 2,000 police officers present. Well, three cars and four or five officers. Felt like more.

Which prompted me to yell back from a suddenly dry mouth, in a voice about six octaves higher than my normal speaking voice, “Guys! Guys! It’s me! I won’t move.” I was the police reporter at that time.

Memory says it was patrolman and now-Capt. John Young who advised caution and looked into the car and calmly said, “What the hell are you doing?”

“Uhh, getting my registration?”

“Not at this time of night. Never, ever reach for anything when you get pulled over.”

I hadn’t watched enough episodes of “Cops” at that point. When pulled over, I keep my hands on the wheel and stare straight ahead unless ordered otherwise.

Fast forward about 15 years to the post 9-11 era. I’m late getting my brother to the airport. I’ve dropped him off at the departures door and hastily sped through the departures deck on the way to the upper level of the parking garage. I realized my brother left his computer in the back seat of my car.

And I get out of the car and grab the computer bag and start running for the moving walkway when a voice from above bellows, “What the hell are you doing! Get out some ID now. NOW!”

By then, about four Allegheny County deputies or maybe Pennsylvania troopers have come from somewhere, checked the bag, inspected my license and told their buddy up above to stop yelling because I’m armed with a computer, an Ohio ID and a good dose of fear -- as indicated by the dry mouth and the uber-soprano speaking voice. I never, ever, go over 15 mph in the departures or arrivals area. I don’t tell jokes in the sight of the airport. It’s a serious place.

Fast forward another 10 years or so. Yesterday. I pull past the “Visitors” sign in front of an office building and pull around to the back, employee, parking lot. I park my wife’s car behind my son’s (technically still my) car. He is supposed to meet me here with the keys to his car so I can take it for service.

I get out. I open the trunk of the Civic and stand there a bit, waiting.

I look for a text on the phone. No response. I reach into the Civic and get out my little Motorola Bluetooth module thing that fits in the palm of my hand, and the charger plug. I get my backpack out of the trunk and walk six paces to the back quarter panel of my son’s car (registered to me, by the way). He’s still not coming out the black glass door of the black-windowed, single-story, secured monolith where he works. It’s surely surrounded by security cameras and sensors and secret stuff to keep people away.

A guy scurries from his car into the building. And a couple of minutes later a big guy I figure is Security, possibly ex-SEAL but at least ex-Blackwater, comes out and says intimidatingly in that Suspicious Cop voice I’ve heard at least twice before, “You need something?”

My mouth dries, my voice goes up the requisite six octaves and asks for my son, who comes out the door now, just in time.

I’ve learned long ago it’s not the time to yell back in that soprano voice, “Hey, this is my car and I’m taking it out of here when I get my keys from my boy.”

Tasers and police guns usually get drawn at that point and I would probably lose consciousness under the knee of ex-Blackwater guy.

My son later completes the tale telling me that about nine people were watching me on the other side of all that black glass, fingers twitching to hit 911. And probably a bunch of people with security monitors trained on me. They were doing the right thing in this age.

I hadn’t considered what they saw:

A shaved-headed, scowling little man, possibly foreign, in a Hawaiian shirt, who waited by an open trunk, pulled out a backpack he’s keeping with him and he’s got some kind of electronic device in his hand. He’s suspiciously checking his smartphone repeatedly and staring at the back door. In the secure non-visitors lot. Did I mention that the guy, yours truly, was wearing the black RayBans with the black lenses?

And my old friend Capt. Young would have been nowhere nearby if somebody had actually hit 911.

I could hear the news.

KDKA: “An Ohio man was arrested today for innocently lurking in an industrial park, scaring the employees. His intention was innocent enough but he was charged with creating a disturbance and terroristic acts.”

WTAE: “Next on Four, the case of an Ohio man who didn’t mean to be suspicious but he’s behind bars tonight. We’ll explain.”

WPXI: “Crazy Ohioan busted for violating the peace of a Pennsylvania office park and frightening the employees, and we were there when police took him to jail. He could be sent to federal prison.”

Not to mention the screaming headlines in The Weirton Daily Times.

I’m not going near that building again. I’m not even visiting the website.

I’m never waiting with my backpack in anyone’s parking lot ever again. Ever. I’ll always park in the “Visitors” lot. I’ll just sit in the car without moving, with my hands on the wheel and the ignition off. But that sounds creepy too.

Maybe I should just stay in bed with the pillows over my head.

Until I find the next unintentionally stupidly innocent thing to do that scares the hell out of people.


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