Braille Monitor May-June 1986
by Peggy Pinder
We in the National Federation of the Blind believe that people who are blind are (except that they cannot see) just like other people--able to work, able to raise families, able to contribute meaningfully to lives of our communities. But, if you are blind today, two things will happen to you that will not happen to others who are just like you except that they are sighted. These two things will happen to you some time in your lifetime. They will happen more in the lives of some blind people; less in the lives of others. They happen, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, educational background, or natural gifts. They happened to Patti Gregory.
If you are blind, you will suffer unfair discrimination because of blindness. The incapacity of the blind is so deeply held a belief in our society that its unfair effects touch each blind person. And, if you are blind, you will be told that the justification for discrimination against you is your own safety, your own protection. Both these things happened to Patti Gregory.
Patti Gregory is blind. She has been a member of the National Federation of the Blind for about six years. A native of northern Michigan, she holds a Bachelor's Degree in special education and a teaching credential in the State of Michigan. In 1985, she decided to seek a law degree and applied to the National Federation of the Blind for a scholarship. Patti was awarded a $3,000 National Federation of the Blind Merit Scholarship at the 1985 national convention in Louisville, Kentucky. She is now in her first year at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School.
Many of the law school's students are potential prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and authors on police procedure and efficiency. To offer a well-rounded education to these men and women who will one day interact with police departments all across the country, the law school and the police department have created a program for law students to learn firsthand about the experiences of a police officer on regular duty assignment. The program is called "Ride-Along." Law students riding along with police officers do not simply stay in the patrol car for eight hours. The riders accompany officers into homes, follow them through investigations on foot, and go wherever the officer is assigned to go.
Any University of Chicago law student who takes the first year criminal law course can sign up for a ride-along with a Chicago police officer. Patti, who was taking the required course, signed up for a ride-along in the fall, 1985, semester. Every student who rides along must execute a waiyer completely absolving the police department from liability for any harm which might befall the student while riding along. Patti was willing to sign the waiver.
Law student ride-alongs are offered during five weekends in the fall semester and during five more weekends in the spring semester. Like other students who signed up for a fall ride, Patti was assigned a date to ride with an officer. On the day of her ride, Patti would be required to execute the waiver of liability. But the police somehow discovered prior to her scheduled ride that Patti was blind and refused to allow her to ride along. Her criminal law professor, Professor Nerval Morris, spoke to the police liaison officer about Patti's abilities, and the police department withdrew its objection to Patti's riding along in exchange for Patti's promise that she would ride with another law student. The option of riding with another law student is offered to everyone who rides along, and many law students prefer to go in pairs. Patti agreed to go with a friend, Patrice Glinecky, who also signed up for a ride-along. When these negotiations were completed, Patti was ready to ride. But the fall ride-along program was over, Patti was compelled to wait for the spring semester.
When the spring ride-along program was announced, Patti signed up again. She then went to the nation's capital to participate in the Federation's annual March on Washington. On February 6, 1986, the day after she returned from Washington, she learned that the Chicago police had gone back on their word. They again refused to allow her to ride along.
With a scant few weekends left in the spring semester ride-along program, Patti was informed that she would not be allowed to ride along under any circumstances. She was reminded that the police department had specifically reserved the right to refuse anyone a ride without giving its reason. When she had signed up in the fall, Patti was told that the police department had this refusal policy because it wanted to insure that no one with a criminal record would be allowed to ride along. Blanket refusal allowed elimination of these persons without publicizing the reason.
Patti Gregory does not have a criminal record. She has never had her fingerprints taken. Her facial features have never been recorded photographically, along with a number across her chest for a mug shot file. She has never been questioned as a criminal suspect. Her name has never been recorded on a jail house booking sheet. Yet, she has been barred from riding along with a Chicago police officer as though she were a criminal.
Patti Gregory is "clean" of any criminal record. She is merely blind. For this reason, the police refuse to let her ride along. They say it wouldn't be safe.
Patti is independently mobile and would have used her white cane as a travel tool to get around safely during the ride-along. She goes where she pleases, safely and efficiently, including her recent trip to Washington, D.C.
But the police say it would be unsafe. They say they would not be able to protect Patti if violence began. They say that the officer with whom Patti would ride would not be able to perform official duties because the officer would constantly be worrying about Patti's safety and would therefore not protect other citizens or perform required duties. No doubt they have said to one another: "I just could never live with myself if anything happened to that blind woman." Certainly someone at the police department has commented: "We'd be liable if she got hurt even with the waiver. After all, no reasonable person would let a blind woman just walk into danger." You can be sure that someone at the police department has gently murmured: "You know, it's our responsibility to protect these people. I think it's nice that the law school lets her go there, but, after all. . ."
Although the hierarchy of the police department would probably not recognize it, there is irony in what they have done. They are sworn to uphold the law and defend the rights of citizens. Yet, apparently they do not comprehend the most basic rights which free Americans prize. Patti Gregory is an American citizen, a fully responsible adult. As such, she has the right (just like other citizens) to waive liability, assess danger to herself, and accept some risk when she believes it will enrich her life and further her education. To take reasonable chances in the interest of making possible gains is the very essence of freedom and liberty.
But Patti Gregory's encounter with the Chicago police is not finished. At this writing she is negotiating with them to give them an opportunity to be persuaded. The police have offered her what they call an alternative. They have suggested that Patti go to Central Intelligence rather than ride. Central Intelligence is where the police department receives and sends all the police radio messages which control and direct individual officers during their duty assignments. From this vantage point, Patti could hear all radio transmissions--and participate in nothing. Of course, she has declined. She wants to ride along like her fellow law students.
Before it is finished, the odds are that Patti will ride. Her membership in the Federation and her drive and determination make it a virtual certainty. In the short term she may be the object of irritation and the subject of annoyance and comment, but in the long run she will prevail--and not only she but also society in general and the Chicago police department in particular will be better for it. Patti will ride.