Security on the Ground

cop at night

I got up at 3:30 this Thanksgiving morning so I could leave the house by 4:30 to take my wife to the airport. As soon as I entered the arterial from my neighborhood I was passed by a county sheriff’s SUV. He “followed me from ahead,” as cops can do, for about a half mile, then I turned south, leaving the county and crossing the Tucson city line. The sheriff continued on but may have “handed me off” to TPD like an air traffic controller because I immediately saw a TPD black-and-white about a half mile behind me.

Turning west on Broadway, I lost my tail and had all the lanes to myself. There was nobody else out on the road, not surprising for a holiday morning. I spotted one TPD patrol car lurking in a side street, watching as a lion watches gazelles. I felt very watched.

As soon as I turned south again onto the main road to the airport, my mirror showed a TPD patrol car behind me. He came up close behind at the next stoplight, no doubt getting the license plate number, then as we continued, he dropped back into my blind spot behind the C pillar. It was very skillful driving on his part. How did he know exactly where my blind spot was? Every car is different. He would have had to be monitoring my side mirror. Needless to say, I observed all rules of the road but I felt vulnerable and surrounded, being the only car on the road, southbound.

Tucson has few cross-town or through-town freeways, so if you’re on Alvernon southbound at 4:45 in the morning, you’re probably going to the airport, even though it’s five miles away. I figured that’s why I was being followed. Inevitably, the roof rack lit up and I had to pull over. I took out my wallet and put my hands on top of the steering wheel where he could see them, and thanked heaven I am white.

An extraordinarily young (it seemed to me) officer said the light on my license plate was burned out. I’m not even sure that’s a legitimate moving violation but it was his excuse for making the stop. I handed over license and registration, and he wanted to see proof of insurance too. He disappeared but left his powerful spotlight pointed at my side mirror so I couldn’t see him, but he could see my face. I turned my mirror out to get the light out of my eyes and, truthfully, to express my annoyance at that heavy-handed tactic.

The guy was very polite, and I am very clean, so he had nothing further to do. He returned my paperwork and engaged me in a little conversation about how hard “they” make it to change the bulbs on a car yourself these days.  This small talk was obviously part of psychological profiling, and I played along, and at the end, I actually thanked him for heads-up security when everyone is so tense these days about public safety.

Driving carefully, I noticed two more TPD patrol cars lurking on side streets as I completed the remaining five miles on deserted roads to the airport. They probably knew (by radio) I was coming and that I had already been vetted. It was a little creepy.

At the airport departure area, instead of the usual Airport Police sedan, there was a large TPD armored truck, part of the SWAT fleet. I recognized it because as a member of Arizona Mystery Writers, I had studied the city’s SWAT vehicles before.

I said goodbye but my wife and I could see that TSA security was everywhere and the lines stretched almost back into ticketing. Mind you, this is 5:30 in the morning, in Nowheresville, Arizona.  Good thing we were early.

I should note that police and sheriffs are normally very scarce on the ground around Tucson. You can go a whole week without seeing one. That’s because Arizona is extremely Republican so we hardly pay any taxes, and consequently, there are hardly any services. My experience this morning stands out against a background of rarely seeing police presence, so obviously, the word is out on travel security today.

The implication is that security on the ground must be extremely tight all over the country. It’s easy to get paranoid when you see ten times the number of cops you usually see in a day, especially in the context of international tensions lately. I only hope it’s mostly “security theater” rather than a response to actual threats.

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