HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

November 5, 2007
From Regent Street

Contacting the Police

Neil Turner


In "From Liberty Street," my brother, John, writes upon topics of major concern - those that, literally, affect the course of the world. In this feature, I will be addressing those little events that bring snatches of joy to our lives and annoyances that are not of great import but tend to drive us a little more insane each day. I am surely no Andy Rooney but hope that you will garner modest amusement from my words and will reply with comments and examples of some of the little events that have brought you joy or that have really "bugged" you.


A number of years ago my niece stayed with me for a short period of time after her graduation from the University of Virginia.  She spent much of her time traveling back and forth from my house in Annapolis, Maryland to her boyfriend's apartment in the District of Columbia.  He was to graduate from Georgetown University a week later than my niece, and the two of them were involved in a flurry of both post and pre graduation activities. One evening at about nine o'clock, she called to say that she was leaving Georgetown to come to my house, a drive of about forty-five minutes.

When she hadn't arrived at my house by one o'clock in the morning, I, being the bachelor uncle not used to having a young adult in and out of the house at all hours, had become a nervous wreck.  I called the Maryland State Police and was referred to several barracks through which I could get information on any accidents between Georgetown and Annapolis.  Each of the troopers to whom I spoke was courteous and efficient and told me of no reported accidents.  I then called the District of Columbia police and told my story. I was told by the lady on the phone that they couldn't tell me if there had been an accident unless I knew where the accident was. Upon hearing this totally illogical reply to my inquiry, I was so dumbfounded that I simply hung up.

By this time, it was one-thirty, and I had to grit my teeth and call her parents in Vermont to inform them of the situation. I was picturing horrific scenes of family discord caused by my "losing" their daughter.  Being experienced parents of a young adult, they were not as panicked as I and gave me some reasonable suggestions as to my next move.

A couple of minutes after I hung up, the phone rang, and it was my niece telling me she had been lost in Washington but had finally found her way back to her friend's - who later became her husband - and was staying there for the night. I promptly called my sister-in-law and brother to tell them that my niece had been "found."  They took the whole affair in stride.

As I tried to settle down for the night, I was helped in the easing of my tension by considering the amusing and ironic fact that this young woman who had just graduated with high honors from the University of Virginia - not an easy school - had difficulty traveling the relatively simple route from Georgetown to Annapolis - one that she had already driven several times before.  I then began to think that maybe it was in the genes for even though I have no problem finding my way around Washington, I have become hopelessly lost in such places as Baltimore, Boston, and Charlottesville which, to others, are far less complicated than the District of Columbia.  I guess DC was just one of those difficult places for my niece - a weakness that has since changed as she and the boyfriend turned husband now reside in the District and know far more about getting around in the area than I ever will.

The next day I began to consider the help I had received from the local law enforcement agencies and assumed that my situation must be repeated hundreds of times each year by other worried parents, relatives, and friends. I decided to write letters to the commander of the Maryland State Police and the chief of the District of Columbia police. In each letter, I briefly outlined my experience.  In my letter to the Maryland State Police, I complimented the troopers with whom I spoke but suggested that there be some sort of statewide computer hookup that would enable a person to find out about any accidents in one call rather than having to call individual barracks.

In about a month, I received an answer from David B. Mitchell of the Maryland State Police thanking me for my letter and stating that the state was, indeed, instituting a computer aided dispatch system.

I never received any answer from the District of Columbia which exemplifies a common trait in our modern society. Businesses and organizations that should - more times than not - fail to reply to correspondence via snail or electronic mail. And if there is a reply, it is often a "canned" response that really doesn't address the full topic or question. It would seem that in this age of advanced communication and word processing, the percentage of responses would be higher than in the past, but they are not.

One might excuse the lack of response to the increased volume of communications because of the easily availability of e-mail, but I think the real reason is the dwindling lack of common courtesy rampant in our society today. I encounter it in almost every area of my life whether the subject be insignificant or major.

As I write I am reminded of one little gnat-sized annoyance that takes place in my own life. I am the board president of a small civic organization in my area. Each month when I send a reminder about our next meeting, I ask that the members respond to my e-mail as to whether or not they will be able to attend so that I can better be prepared with copied materials and knowledge of our ability to conduct business. (As example, expenditures require a majority of board votes.) Each month, there are members of the board who do not reply to my e-mail leaving me in the dark as to whether we will have a quorum. Is it because the members who do not respond are so busy that they cannot take sixty-seconds to reply to my e-mail or is it because of this deterioration of common courtesy? Much to my chagrin, I think it is the latter.

I think that businesses should make a concerted effort to reply to correspondence and that government agencies supported by taxes should be compelled to reply. What do you think?


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