You’re driving through downtown San Luis Obispo, navigating the crowded streets where pedestrians strut this way and that, trying to keep an eye out for an open parking space as your child in the backseat rattles off their Christmas wish list from the car seat. You approach a red light, come to a complete stop, look left, right, left, and consider making that right turn on red, but there are just too many pedestrians. Suddenly you spot a police officer on the sidewalk, staring straight at you and waving his arms as he approaches your vehicle.
Ignore your gut instinct. Stop searching for what you did wrong. This time, the policeman won’t be issuing a ticket, but instead a gift card for doing something right. It’s all part of the Good Driver Holiday Reward Program put on annually by the San Luis Obispo Staff Officer’s Association and the San Luis Obispo Police Officer’s Association.
Between Dec. 11 and 24, members of the department gave out a total of twenty $15 gift cards for Food-4-Less to motorists exhibiting good driving habits like wearing seatbelts, utilizing child safety restraints, and stopping for pedestrians.
The program is administered by day during a season of frantic shopping and widespread, shiny red distractions masked as ornaments. By night, police officers countywide have also been busy with a massive crackdown on motorists driving under the influence.
San Luis Obispo Police Department Capt. Chris Staley said the rewards program is a way for officers to engage with the community and demonstrate that they can interact with motorists in a positive and productive manner. Because the law bars law enforcement from flashing the blue and red lights and using a siren when there isn’t an emergency or ongoing crime—and because that could cause a scene or an uneasy episode of fright—officers will be on foot, approaching people more gently.
“We don’t want to do anything that causes any hazards,” Staley told New Times.
As for the possibility of an unfortunate incident where positive reinforcement from a police officer encounters a moment of law-breaking from a civilian, the situation seems a bit murky.
“If we did come across something like that it would be an interesting circumstance,” Staley said. “If they exhibit something that would present itself to be probable cause, then obviously we’d have to act on that.”
On one hand, the police can’t legally detain someone without probable cause. On the other, if someone is caught in an act while receiving a gift card, probable cause could be present, and a police officer is obligated to act in the presence of illegal activity.
Was that gray area present this holiday season? According to Staley, it was not.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay