District police officers enforce new laws

Officer Matthew Earls joined the Metropolitan Police force seven years ago, but last week’s Friday night patrol was nothing like ones he had when he first joined the department.

It’s nearing 11:30 p.m., and a group of young men who appear drunk are walking down a street in Cleveland Park. One of them throws his drink into some nearby shrubs as Earls pulls up.

“Stay out of the bushes,” Earls tells the men. “Stay out of the street.” The students say they’re 21, but Earls doesn’t seem to care. He tells them to go home.

Earls jokes, “I should have asked where the party’s at. I’m sure it’s here somewhere, you just have to follow the kids.”

“Don’t look, it’s the police!” he says, poking fun at the students who pretend not to notice car 2031.

In another time, MPD could have taken decisive action against underage drinking, but thanks to a recent change in the law, they have been rendered nearly impotent in their efforts.

“The laws have changed,” Earls says. “I know there’s a stay on arresting underage drinkers.”

He continues his drive and pulls into a parking lot off Connecticut Avenue. It’s time for him to pull over cars whose drivers have violated the city’s new ban on using cell phones while driving, which took effect in August.

Earls said he is pleased about the new law and believes cell phone use while driving is dangerous.

“Driving is a privilege, not a right,” Earls said. “Using the cell phone makes it more dangerous. I’ve been screaming about it for years.”

A Honda speeds by and the driver is clearly using his cell phone. Earls turns on his siren and the driver ultimately stops at Appleton Street and Connecticut Avenue. The driver admits to using his cell phone, and Earls takes his information back to the cruiser. Earls waits in his car to decide whether the driver will get the $100 ticket.

“I can make someone feel bad about something … ‘You know better than that,’ Earls said. “But it depends on how I am, how I’m feeling. You’ve got to mix it up.”

Since the driver was polite and treated Earls with respect, he ultimately gets off with just a warning. He apologizes for breaking the law and extends a handshake toward Earls, the kinds of treatment Earls said is rare.

Earls continues on his way to Woodley Road and Wisconsin Avenue, where another officer has pulled over a young driver in a Jaguar who just ran a red light. While Earls waits at the side of the road, he hears a loud beeping noise inside his car. After spending a few moments searching for the source of the sound, he discovers it’s his radiation detector. It registers 15 megaRems – and climbing.

“You might be sitting here making history,” he tells a reporter.

Sitting next to the National Cathedral, a major landmark, the threat must be taken seriously. He calls his sergeant to make her aware of the situation but points out that only a triple digit reading poses a real threat.

As he continues along Wisconsin Avenue, he pulls over a gasoline tanker bound for a Mobile station at 22nd and P streets. He said MPD officers are supposed to check large trucks for signs of explosives, particularly when the truck looks unfamiliar.

“That thing’s a giant bomb,” Earls warns. “You cruise it into a gate, and that’s not going to stop it. We may be too close to it right now.”

Earls walks up and down the side of the tanker, checking under it with a flashlight. After examining the driver’s license, registration, insurance and manifesto, Earls lets the driver continue to the gas station.

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