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.