Traffic Citation or Terrorist Threat? A Curious Tale of Priorities In Washington

I had a rather odd experience on the way into school this morning. I was going over the Memorial Bridge and saw a guy on the bridge in front of what appeared to be a rappelling rope tied to one of the columns. He seemed nervous and came across as a lookout. There was just a paper bag next to him and he was not wearing any of the usual items signifying a construction crew like an orange vest or some other marking. As I turned in front of Lincoln Memorial, I saw what looked like a man dangling off the bridge. I decided to call in the matter to be safe. [Update below: three arrested in protest]

When I first called in, I was first patched through to the Arlington police department which asked me where the men were on the bridge. When I said that they were in the middle, I was told it was not within their jurisdiction. The dispatcher was very responsive and did stay with me as he transferred the call to the D.C. dispatcher.

The D.C. dispatcher was absolutely professional and prompt. However, only a block away there were two D.C. police cars in front of the State Department. I told the dispatcher that if she wanted me to do so I would pull over and inform the officer. She agreed that was a good idea. However, after I told him that there was a guy hanging under the Memorial Bridge, the officer said that he was in the midst of a traffic report. I went back to the dispatcher and told her that she would have to send another cruiser. In his defense, I was just reporting a suspicious sighting and he seemed to be following protocol in completing the report.

Nevertheless, it seemed a bit curious in this day and age that a routine traffic report would take priority over a suspicious individual hanging under one of the major bridges and national symbols in Washington. I want to stress that the police officer in the cruiser was very polite and said that he would call in the report as well, but it would seem a good policy to make such calls a priority in the future. By the time I reached the law school nearby, I saw a helicopter pass overhead so the police may have dispatched both a cruiser and helicopter.

If it was some form of protest or stunt, I will feel a bit guilty, but this is a poor choice for such expression. We are all a bit edgy about such sightings on our memorials and it would be a very dangerous choice for such a protest or stunt. All of us who live in this city understand that we are at ground zero for terrorist attacks and there is often great overreactions on suspicions. However, the sight of someone dangling under a bridge would warrant some priority measures. Once again, some of us may be overly sensitive.

Hopefully it was completely innocent but I thought the response of the officer to be strange in Washington with so many concerns over security. The officer was literally just seconds away from a report of suspicious activity on not just a memorial but a critical bridge. Yet, he felt that protocol dictated that he remain in the cruiser and complete his paperwork. Even if this proves entirely harmless activity, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department needs to look at its protocol and priorities in such cases, in my view.

UPDATE: Three individuals were arrested in hanging a banner in a protest from the bridge. I feel a bit guilty about calling in the police, but there are good reasons why the government cannot have folks hanging under bridges due to legitimate security concerns. I still believe that the most scary thing to emerge from the encounter is the response of the first officer. As for the protesters, they were hanging a Free Tibet banner. I am highly supportive of their cause, but I imagine they expected to be arrested. They made their point, albeit a brief one. However, I still believe that we all have a duty to call in such sightings and the police have a legitimate need to act at such highly sensitive sights and transportation links.

20 thoughts on “Traffic Citation or Terrorist Threat? A Curious Tale of Priorities In Washington

  1. Valid concerns all, but when you say “dangling”, I have to wonder if it wasn’t a suicide (attempt). It wouldn’t be the first time someone hanged themselves from a bridge.

  2. My first thought was thrill-seeking, or publicity seeking (Hey, guys! Watch me rapell down this bridge!). What a sad commentary on the state of our society that your first thought was that he was going to blow the bridge to smithereens for political purposes.

  3. “3 arrested at Memorial Bridge for hanging ‘Free Tibet’ sign”

    Is this the same bridge?

    http://www.wtop.com/?nid=109&sid=2745838

    3 arrested at Memorial Bridge for hanging ‘Free Tibet’ sign

    Monday – 2/13/2012, 11:07am ET

    WASHINGTON – At least three people are in police custody after rappelling off Memorial Bridge to hang a “Free Tibet” sign.

    D.C. Police first reported two men rappelling off the bridge just after 10:20 a.m., according to a tweet from the department. Officers from the Second District, as well as Harbor and Park police responded to the incident.

    Two men were still rappelled off the bridge at 10:30 a.m., police say.

    They advise drivers to approach the area with caution.

  4. Bette Noir 1, February 13, 2012 at 11:03 am

    My first thought was thrill-seeking, or publicity seeking (Hey, guys! Watch me rapell down this bridge!). What a sad commentary on the state of our society that your first thought was that he was going to blow the bridge to smithereens for political purposes.
    ======================================
    Especially when the danger to the masses is not powerless individuals, but rather are those with power over us, who have some serious problems.

    The professor points out correctly that the policy in that area needs some adjustment, in the sense that it allowed an untimely delay to develop.

  5. rafflaw,

    I’m guessing that others phoned in this incident, as well. I might have done the same. Having said this, I’m goin’ out on the proverbial limb… A part of me wishes that the 3 guys were sipping tea somewhere right now, instead of sitting in jail…

  6. When the guy said : It is not my jurisdiction…. The perfect bridge to take out. When the May Day event styled Stop The Government–Stop The War occured in 1971 there were cops of all stripes out there on that bridge arresting people and they did not back off when you told them it was not their jurisdiction.
    Is the Department Homeland Security located in DC? They need to have some classes for the local yocal cops.

  7. anon nurse,

    Yeah, I know what you mean about the tea. But no matter how good the message (and freedom for Tibet is a good cause), the phrase “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” came about for a reason.

  8. Well done Professor!

    The first department couldn’t dispatch a cruiser because it was outside their jurisdiction so the private citizen waited for protocol. The second dispatcher dispatched the private citizen but to no avail as the cop closest to the “possible threat” was busy filling out paperwork so the private citizen had to ask the second dispatcher to dispatch someone else.

    Seems to me the private citizen was damn lucky it was just some protesters trying to hang signs.

  9. I would have called in the matter as well. I do not hesitate to call the dispatcher if I see an obviously impaired driver, suspicious persons or accidents.

    As for being frustrated, I called in a wreck in front of my house. The driver of one car was having Chain-Stokes breathing, and when the dispatcher asked me if there were injuries, I told her to get the EMS there ASAP and why. Chain-Stokes breathing is dying breathing. She did not do so, but waited for the deputy sheriffs to arrive and make an assessment. They then sent for the ambulance. When they arrived, the EMS people had to cut the top off the car to get him out. By that time, I was so mad I could have bitten the top off the car myself.

    The guy died.

    Priorities–get them straight the first time.

  10. Free the People Hanging to Free Tibet…..People are hanging in Tibet…or is that being slaughtered…..whichever….just remember……No Good Deed Goes unpunished…

  11. Congratulations! The true paranoid nutjobs have won you over!

    Now, if just 1/100 as many jihadis were in the US and willing to die for their cause as we’ve had Americans occupying foreign nations over the past decade, how much damage do you think these jihadis could have caused over that same time frame by detonating on major bridges across the country?

    Now, if you look over the most publicized terror cases in the past decade, they’ve either been cases of criminal incompetence or FBI entrapment.

    We’re not seeing anything remotely like what happened with, say, the IRA. All this elevated security is utter nonsense.

  12. “Two Tibet activists – Bianca Bockman and Tenzin Jigme who unfurled the banner were later arrested along with two other activists; Matthew Zaccarino and Tenzin Yangsel. The four activists were later released.”

    “‘Tibet will be Free’ says a banner welcoming Xi to US”

    http://www.phayul.com/news/article.aspx?article=%E2%80%98Tibet+will+be+Free%E2%80%99+says+a+banner+welcoming+Xi+to+US&id=30896

    Excerpt:

    DHARAMSHALA, February 14: As Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping landed in the U.S. Monday for a trip that includes meeting with President Obama, Tibetans and supporters unfurled a huge banner, sending a “defiant message of freedom” to the fifth generation of Chinese leaders stating “Xi Jinping: Tibet Will be Free.”

    Elsewhere in the capital, Tibetans descended upon the White House to protest China’s repressive policies in Tibet which have led to the self-immolation of 24 Tibetans and a string of ongoing mass protests.

    The 52′ x 20′ foot free Tibet banner was rappelled over the edge of the landmark Arlington Memorial Bridge in the capital welcoming China’s heir apparent, Xi.

    Two Tibet activists – Bianca Bockman and Tenzin Jigme who unfurled the banner were later arrested along with two other activists; Matthew Zaccarino and Tenzin Yangsel. The four activists were later released.

    On the eve of the Valentine date between President Obama and Xi in the White House, hundreds of Tibetans and Tibetan supporters carried out a peace march from the Chinese Embassy to the White House, urging the US to put pressure on China to end the ongoing climate of violence in Tibet.

    “I believe that all Americans would want to see freedom and independence for Tibetans in Tibet, for Syrians in Syria,” said Tenzin Yangsel, of the Regional Tibetan Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey while calling Xi “a representative of a murderous authoritarian dictatorship.”

    Student’s for a Free Tibet, in a release said that a joint rally in support of freedom and democracy will be held outside the White House later today by a coalition of Tibetan, Chinese, Uyghur, Taiwanese and human rights groups as Xi Jinping and President Obama meet.

    A series of demonstrations on Wednesday, including protest marches, solidarity rallies and candle light vigils await Xi in Iowa on his second leg of the tour.

    Talking to reporters, a senior official in the Obama administration last week said the US government will be raising the issue of Tibet during Xi’s visit.

    “It is an area of grave concern for us to witness the increase of tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang. We are watching this, tracking very closely, with real concern,” Daniel Russel, Special Assistant to President Obama had said.

  13. Everyone is way too scared these days, everyones a terrorist lol the possibilities are endless but you choose terror as the motive, and the cop has a tough enough job without some poofder bothering him about people rappelling… what a great terror target a bridge would make and with all these bombings taking place everywhere in America…. stupid sheep.

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