Tuesday, October 29, 1996
Taking sides in granny vs. police officer

The Cincinnati Enquirer

An astonishing number of people have phoned with instructions that I am to begin immediately to defend ''that grandma who was sent to jail for doing a good deed.'' They are speaking of Sylvia Stayton, a Clifton woman who put coins into parking meters for cars owned by person or persons unknown to her.

Well, maybe I'm not on her side.

She appears to me to be guilty as sin. Just what is the penalty anyway if you're convicted of aggravated kindness? And this is not her first offense. Active in her church, she has been feeding the expired meters of strangers for years and also has been known to contribute sums of money to charity. While she was waiting to be released from the Hamilton County Justice Center, she led other prisoners in prayer.

She sounds like a real bandit.

And somehow the fact that she is a grandmother has become tacit proof of her innocence and worth.

All grannies are good?

Being a grandmother myself, I do not immediately picture a little old lady with her hair in a bun, wearing an apron and a dab of vanilla behind her ears. I picture me. And I am painfully aware that I do not bake cookies or lead a blameless life. I am not wise. Sometimes I have a big mouth.

I am prepared to be as outraged as the next person, but maybe I should visit the scene of the crime first.

I drove up to ''Short Vine'' in Corryville. It was about 11:30 in the morning, and I had to drive around the block a couple of times before a space opened up. Not good for business, says Ron Norton, who owns a photo studio and is active in the University Village Association.

''This woman is making the police look like bad guys,'' he says, ''and they're just doing their job.''

City ordinance 509-8 forbids ''remetering'' or putting more coins in a meter after a car has been parked there for the maximum allowable time. Merchants have implored the police to enforce this ordinance to free up spaces for their customers. Curiously, Mrs. Stayton was not charged with this crime.

She was charged with obstructing official business, after she put a coin in the meter of a car being ticketed by Officer Edward Johnson. Officer Johnson and Mrs. Stayton began to debate the law. The officer said she was under arrest. ''I really thought he was kidding,'' Mrs. Stayton said.

He was not, and he added disorderly conduct after he says she made a loud scene and refused to provide identification. She said the only time she raised her voice was to scream when he yanked on her arm.

If Mrs. Stayton is convicted of these charges, she faces fines of up to $850 and 90 days in jail. These are criminal charges, which now must be resolved by the courts. Your tax dollars at work, if I may say so. This is not counting the space Mrs. Stayton occupied in our overcrowded jail or the time and energy devoted to this matter by a highly trained officer of the law.

Dangerous assumptions

I have witnessed Cincinnati police defuse potentially violent situations with great skill. And sometimes with charm and humor. They are trained to do so. I assume they will show good judgment in dangerous situations. I assume they will not use their power to bluster or bully. I assume they will not deliver harmless people to our clogged courtrooms.

I assume anybody who has been around long enough to be a grandmother knows that it's not wise to argue with a police officer. I assume that we grannies know that this is an argument we will not win on the street.

But then, since I'm a grandmother, you probably assume I know how to bake cookies. And maybe you assume that police officers who are supposed to protect us from thugs have better things to do than throw the book at citizens who flout obscure and witless laws. You might think that Mrs. Stayton acted unwisely, even though she is a known grandmother. You might even think that both parties overreacted. And maybe things got out of hand.

Of course, the granny was only packing a coin purse. And the police officer carries a gun.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.