When Ethics Hero Meets Ethics Dunce: Alan Ehrlich and the Spirit of Citizenship vs. South Pasadena Police Chief Joe Payne and Official Arrogance

"Step away from the intersection, sir! You are not permitted to make my officers look bad by doing the essential jobs they cannot."

When a traffic light in South Pasadena went out during the morning rush hour, citizen Alan Ehrlich stepped into the breach and began directing traffic at the major intersection.

“I grabbed a bright orange shirt that I have and a couple of orange safety flags. I took it upon myself to help get motorists through that intersection faster,” said Ehrlich. Before he took action, traffic was backed up for more than a mile, as vehicles took more than a half hour to maneuver through the intersection.

“It was just kind of chaos of cars . . . there were stop signs up. But people were challenging each other to get through the intersection,” said a witness  who works at an office nearby. He reported that Ehrlich’s stint as volunteer traffic cop had traffic flowing within ten minutes.

South Pasadena police then responded to the scene, ordered Ehrlich to stop, and issued him a ticket, but refused to direct traffic at the intersection themselves. South Pasadena Police Chief Joe Payne explained that he did not have the man power needed to staff officers when lights fail, and that Ehrlich should have just allowed traffic to back up.

This is government arrogance at its worst, incompetent and proud of it, completely antithetical to American values. The police do not respond and cannot respond to an emergency, so a responsible citizen, wholly out of noble motives and the desire to help his community, fills the vacuum created by the government employees’ failure to perform—and is punished for it. The message sent is that we should all be prepared to sit quietly and be victims in exigent situations until the government, from which all blessings and bounties flow, sees fit to come to our rescue.

My neighbor’s house is on fire, but the fire department isn’t responding. Never mind. Our duty is to wait, not to grab a garden hose.

A child is cornered by a vicious dog. Animal control has been called, but hasn’t arrived. Never mind. Our duty is to be bystanders, and not to try to divert the dog before he attacks.

A woman collapses on the sidewalk, the apparent victim of a heart attack. The rescue personnel on the scene inform us that they are on break, and have no obligation to do anything. Never mind. We should wait for them to finish their coffees, as the woman expires.

A plane is hijacked by terrorists. No air marshals are on the plane. Never mind. The passengers should allow the plane to be flown into the U.S. Capitol.

Alan Ehrlich deserves a commendation, not a ticket, for embodying the highest civic instincts and obligations of a member of his community. For government officials like Chief Joe Payne to try to undermine our culture and traditions of proactive citizen response, as well as the values of self-determination, autonomy, courage, sacrifice and responsibility, by his fatuous bureaucratic logic—better to have chaos than to have non-sanctioned and budgeted solutions—demonstrates the danger of depending on others, especially government, who insist that they must retain all the power to act even when they don’t use it, or exercise it incompetently.

I will be interested to see if the citizens of South Pasadena take up a collection to pay Alan Ehrlich’s ticket, as they should. After that, they can take up another collection to buy Chief Payne a one-way ticket out of town.



48 thoughts on “When Ethics Hero Meets Ethics Dunce: Alan Ehrlich and the Spirit of Citizenship vs. South Pasadena Police Chief Joe Payne and Official Arrogance

  1. I’ve often considered stepping in insuch a situation. I never considered that there might be a law or ordinance against it. What was his violation? Orderly Conduct? Preserving the Peace? Sober in Public?

  2. This is as ridiculous as that time they arrested a young man who commandeered a school bus and drove dozens of people out of the danger zone during Katrina.

  3. Chief Joe says, “Mr. Ehrlich was waving cars through posted stop signs and causing a very dangerous condition. When the officer arrived due to a complaint from a motorist about Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. Ehrlich berated the officer.”

    Ehrlich was sure that he was the answer to the problem, but that does not appear to have been the concensus. It may have been negligent not to post police in the intersection to direct traffic, but using those resources to remedy an inconvenience may be an unpopular but correct call. Sometimes placing stop signs really is the best answer. Directing traffic, particularly in an intersection complete with stop signs, is not a job for anyone who happens by and is eager to help.

    In the examples you offer as comparable (fire, vicious dog, heart attack and plane hijack) the consequences are life or death, not being late to work, and require a different standard. Ehrlich may or may not be a hero (admittedly, my bias is toward giving the police the benefit of the doubt), but crowning Chief Joe a dunce and calling for his ouster is not fair.

    • I have seen citizens do this several times during snow emergencies in the Northeast.

      I also give the benefit of the doubt to the police, but I have no doubt that the ticket was out of line. According to most, he got the traffic moving. Of course he was waiving people through stop signs…that’s what traffic cops do, even the volunteer kinds. Some old biddy complained, and Ehrlich reacted to the police the way Arizona and Alabama are reacting to the Feds trying to stop them from policing illegals—“You won’t do your job, and yet you’re telling me I shouldn’t be doing it? Get out of my face!

      I don’t think it matters whether he was doing a perfect job or not—he accepted responsibility in an emergency. “Thank you, please stop now” is a fine response by the police. A ticket—punishment of any kind—is Ethics Dunce territory.

      • If I were Chief Joe, I would sure hope the officer explored other options than a ticket. A jack booted thug arresting a citizen hero rising to take on a crisis in order to save lives is not a spot anyone wants to be in – but I am not convinced that is what this is.

        If you have the order of events correct, I will agree with you. However, if a “Thank you, please stop now” was followed by “You won’t do your job, and yet you’re telling me I shouldn’t be doing it? Get out of my face!” you have to expect the officer to respond with a ticket, not escelate to “pretty please.”

        Again, in your snow example you are using the word ’emergency.’ I have read nothing in this story that anyone was responding to an emergency. A traffic light out is not, in itself, a public safety crisis. Stop signs, assigning police officers, or citizens having to jump in are all options – we are presuming to know which was best here.

        • I guess I’d have to know what the traffic is like. In Boston, the time between a light going down in a major intersection and the first accident is about two minutes…especially at rush hour. I think its more of a safety issue than during a blizzard.
          There is another virtue of the citizen’s actions—it calls attention to the bad budget prioritizing. My old mentor used to say that you had to show a system was broken before anyone would fix it. Now the chief has another reason to go to the city and demand funds to deal with the problem, thanks to Ehrlich—and he’s getting a ticket!

          • If it was a safety issue, you are right. But, a busy intersection in downtown Boston (or Chicago, or New York) may not be comparable to this situation. Your principle is sound – I just don’t think there is enough information to throw the cop, or Chief Joe, under the bus on this one.

    • I have not checked the dispatch recordings, but let’s see if the alleged ‘complaint’ from the motorist was about the volunteer citizen solving the traffic problem or the lack of an ‘authorized’ LE officer on site. More likely, the call to dispatch came from the city’s contract parking enforcement officer who rolled though the intersection and also made no effort to assist. Just another example of the lies, innuendo and truth stretching of those trying to cover up their actions or lack thereof.

  4. Regardless of the details I agree with your analysis on this one. Even if the guy was curt with the officer it’s immaterial. It’s completely legal to be an A-Hole. Unless I’m mistaken law enforcement isn’t offered special protection in that regard. And, it’s possible to be firm and use authority without either groveling or abusing power. Obviously we don’t demand that law enforcement professionals learn this skill but we probably should!

    IMO, it’s one of the hallmarks of the ethical use of power. And, small abuses of power lead to larger abuses of power, period.

    • I agree in principle, but regardless of the details, really? When I read this story I see the possibility that Ehrlich was asked to stop, refused, and got a ticket. A-hole or not, if you opt out of voluntary compliance you are opting in to getting arrested. It may have been Ehrlich’s ego that was the problem rather than the officers – just sayin’

      • If he was asked to stop and refused, he shouldn’t have gotten a ticket—he should have gotten arrested. That’s why I don’t think this is what happened. When do police give out tickets for defying them? They take you into custody

        • Let me clarify a few facts and save everyone some speculation. When the first officer rolled up and instructed me to the sidewalk and present ID, I did so promptly and without fuss. Cops are trained to use an authoritative tone, this officer was typical in that regard. The officer was writing the ticket immediately, while I attempted a calm, normal voice level conversation, not about the LE failure to send an officer, but that I had appeared before Council previously 2/16/11 about the EXACT SAME PROBLEM and that I believe it was a failure of City Policy to prioritize and implement an effective traffic solution to such circumstances. The ‘dangerous conditions’ were created by LE’s policy of not assigning a TCO. Letting traffic back up for a mile, on a primary route to the only Level 1 Trauma hospital in the region, which endangers residents and 1st responders alike , and diverting artery traffic onto residential streets, past 2 schools, while children K-8 are walking to school is negligent and a dereliction of duty and responsibility to the citizens that this PD is supposed to protect and serve.

  5. And when citizens sit by and let tragedies happen because no “first-responders” are available, or because they’re lazy, or because they’re selfish, they can cite the Alan Ehrlich example. Ehrlich’s may be a minor example, but how many “first-responders” came, UNINVITED, from a multitude of states,to the Twin Towers on 9/11? You didn’t see local officials refusing THEIR help, did you? Same with local citizens helping firefighters in Texas, regular citizens helping earthquake victims, etc. Yup. Let’s all sit by and wait for the “professionals.” Who, by the way, will be even less available as their numbers are cut by Obama’s absolutely terrific economic plans hit states and municipalities..

  6. Anyone posting that what he was doing was dangerous and irresponsible is too stupid to drive and probably shouldn’t be trying to chew gum and walk at the same time either. Any police officer that would cite an individual for performing such a simple and contributory act has no business being a police officer. Any chief of police thinking the same way needs to be replaced. Any chief of police aware of the situation at that intersection that did not ensure an officer or volunteer was there to direct traffic during high volume hours needs to be replaced. (If his department does not include a citizen volunteer program, why? Is it because he has such low rapport with the community he gets no volunteers?) People in positions of authority that are aware of their incompetence tend to walk around with chips on their shoulders, don’t they?

    • You’re saying some interesting things. Joe Payne has only been Chief for a year. He was a retired sergeant until a year ago. He replaced a very experienced and well-loved Police Chief. Payne was installed in a back-room deal that had to do with a political payoff, union pressure, and some city councilmen playing power politics. He beat out 18 other candidates, most of whom were more qualified for the job. That’s because the entire interview process was a foregone conclusion – it was a political payoff and the union was hiring their own new boss. Payne would not have been considered a viable candidate in any other town. He just didn’t have the experience. I think Joe Payne needs to be replaced, but not for the reasons you conjecture about. He needs to be replaced because he got in through an illegitimate process, and he knows it. But first we need to root out the councilmen who put him there.

  7. The complaint call was made prior to Mr Ehrlich directing traffic and was a complaint that no officer was at the scene of the traffic debacle. Check the recordings (unless this call was “accidently” deleted). Mr Ehrlich did not berate the officer, he argued about someone needing to direct traffic, but exited the intersection when told to do so. He also responded incredulously when the officer began to write the citation.

    • Knowing his luck, he was probably the one that made the call to request an officer and then began directing traffic until the officer arrived.

    • Au contraire, I didn’t give the officer the satisfaction of any response. I just signed that I would appear and started a discussion with Officer #2 after Officer #1 returned to his vehicle. We had a normal tone discussion, just as any two friends might. There is no law that says I can’t disagree with how SPPD was responding to the signal failure incident, but in no way can this particular interaction be described as confrontational or hostile, just a respectful disagreement as to how the signal failure was being handled.

  8. I was the South Pasadena Police Chief for 8 years before Chief Payne. This situation is not quite as simple as it may seem. The intersection where Ehrilch was directing traffic is very complicated. It’s a T intersection for two 6 lane highways, each with a wide, landscaped center divider. There are multiple lanes going in different directions and several signal devices. Most southbound traffic makes a right turn and then an immediate left on another street to continue south.

    The SPPD is a small agency with as few as four officers on duty.. South Pasadena experiences power outages fairly often, and they do not have the personnel to direct traffic at multiple locations. I would estimate that to safely direct traffic at this intersection would require a minimum of 3 officers. With other major intersections with signals out and other calls for service, it’s simply not practical to expect police officers control traffic at all intersections. The standard practice when signals go out in South Pasadena is to place temporary stop signs, which was done in this situation. While that will slow traffic considerably, it is the safest way to control traffic.

    No doubt Mr. Ehrlich had good intentions and was trying to solve a problem. But only a uniformed police officer or traffic officer should overrule traffic controls. A civilian, waving flags and wearing a vest does not have the legal authority to wave people through stop signs. I can imagine drivers approaching the intersection seeing the stop sign and then some semaphor signaler waving flags in the intersection becoming confused and not knowing what to do. This increases danger and creates the potential for accidents.

    While Mr. Ehrlich can be commended for good intentions, his actions were wrong. Whether should have been cited is debatable. I don’t know what all was said when the officers arrived, but from Chief Payne’s published comments, Ehrilch did not cooperate with the officers. I would guess he talked himself into the ticket. The elements of a traffic violation were present. That doesn’t mean a citation was the best course of action, but his best course of action is to let a traffic judge make the final decision.

    • This was good information. I know I pictured this as a much simpler intersection. It’s good to have an opinion that has some facts behind it.

      There does appear to be a bit of an issue in your reasoning though.

      But only a uniformed police officer or traffic officer should overrule traffic controls.

      Why? Oh, you’re about to tell us.

      A civilian, waving flags and wearing a vest does not have the legal authority to wave people through stop signs.

      That’s not a reason. It can be illegal to keep them from doing it, but the illegality itself isn’t the reason they shouldn’t do it.

      I can imagine drivers approaching the intersection seeing the stop sign and then some semaphor signaler waving flags in the intersection becoming confused and not knowing what to do.

      I can imagine a pink unicorn, that doesn’t mean they are likely to exist.

      While Mr. Ehrlich can be commended for good intentions, his actions were wrong.

      You didn’t show anything that was “wrong” in his actions. You simply supposed one possible issue without any evidence for it. While you appear to be very thoughtful, I don’t think your rationalization holds water.

      from Chief Payne’s published comments, Ehrilch did not cooperate with the officers. I would guess he talked himself into the ticket.

      This is pretty scary, and appears to be evidence of an abuse of power. If his actions did not deserve a ticket, talking with the officer (even abusively) couldn’t legally or ethically earn him that previous ticket.

      • The reason it was wrong, TGT, is because it was dangerous and increased the chances for an accident. The elements of a traffic violation were present, so the citation was legal.

        • The reason it was wrong, TGT, is because it was dangerous and increased the chances for an accident.

          Any evidence to back that up? All you’ve stated is a hypothetical that I find unlikely. If someone is directing traffic at an intersection, I don’t think drivers stop to check if they are in uniform, and then act differently if they aren’t. I’ve never had a problem with traffic directed by random construction workers or gas and electric company workers.

          The elements of a traffic violation were present, so the citation was legal.

          The citation is only legal if it was given based on the elements of the traffic violation. If it was given because the guy mouthed off, like you suggested, that would be an unconstitutional retaliation on free speech. As a former police chief, I’m sure you know that.

          • 38 years of experience, and the elements of California Vehicle Code Section 21956 were present making the citation legal. Police officers have discretion to cite or warn. We can debate all day whether the right decision was to cite, and since neither of us were there, I have nothing more to add on this.

            • You missed the point completely.

              It’s perfectly legal for an officer to cite an individual for a broken taillight, but if the officer would normally give them a warning, and instead gives them a citation because the individual called the officer a fucking pig, then the officer is retaliating against the individual’s protected speech.

              By your parsing of the situation, the citation was not legal: I would guess he talked himself into the ticket. When you say the citation is “legal,” you appear to actually mean “the officer can pretend that the citation was based on the individual’s illegal conduct, when it was really based on his constitutionally protected lack of respect for authori-TAH!”

              For this topic, there’s no need for either of us to have been there, as we’re discussing the legality of a proposed situation with specific facts. Once we unwind this situation, then your “we don’t have the facts” would make more sense. Why shouldn’t I take this as a transparent attempt to flee an argument that you are on the wrong side of?

              • I didn’t miss the point at all. Whatever the motivation of the officer, if the elements of a violation are present, the citation is legal. Don’t misunderstand – I’m not defending the issuance of the citation, only that the elements of a Vehicle Code violation were present. If he fights the ticket, and I’m sure he will, the judge may very well dismiss the citation in the interest of justice.

                • Whatever the motivation of the officer, if the elements of a violation are present, the citation is legal

                  This is absolutely false. Selective enforcement that is based on constitutionally protected behavior is illegal. The chances of proving it are slim, as the police officer can lie and say the ticket was based solely on the illegal conduct, but that doesn’t make it legal.

                  See this example of a police chief who understands: http://www.pixiq.com/article/rochester-police-to-undergo-new-training.

                  He recognizes the conduct was wrong, even if he doesn’t take full responsibility. That’s understandable, as it would be admitting a pretty serious crime, and officerss don’t rat on other officers.

                  • You need to read the article again. It doesn’t say that the citations in Rochester were not based on violations of the law, only that they were retaliatory.

                    We disagree – there’s no need to further this conversation. No doubt you’ll have the last word, but this is mine.

                    • You need to read the article again. It doesn’t say that the citations in Rochester were not based on violations of the law, only that they were retaliatory.

                      That’s the same situation we’re talking about:

                      * The cars were all illegally parked the man was illegally directing traffic.
                      * The owners wouldn’t have been cited, if they hadn’t been meeting about police abuse (1st amendment protected). The man (in your hypothetical) wouldn’t have been cited if he didn’t talk back to the police (1st amendment protected).
                      * “Unacceptable” and “Inappropriate” Pefectly fine.

                      It’s scary to think that someone could be a police chief for 38 years, and not see the similarity between the Rochester case and this hypothetical.

                      It’s even more scary to think said police chief believes that 1st amendment constitutional issues should be a matter of opinion and that it’s legal to subvert 1st amendment with selective enforcement.

                      Did you also support ticketing only black drivers who broke the speed limit? All the elements to write the ticket are there, so it must be legal.

                    • I had some logical marks that were removed as they included angle brackets. Oops. The three *’ed lines were supposed to have an equivalency comparison mark between the statements on each line that go toward each situation. That’s why a couple of them appear to be run on sentences.

                  • You don’t have to think or speculate on this one. LE from other jurisdictions and traffic lawyers have looked at the ticket, the code cited, the circumstances, etc and are confident that it has a 90+% chance of being dismissed in traffic court, Not 100%, there is no guarantee, but they believe there exists enough evidence, mitigating circumstances and good samaritan case law to make it worthwhile to challenge.. Further, I’ve stated frequently and often to anyone who has asked that I do not care about the cost of the ticket if I should be at fault, only that I hope that this entire “stupid little story” shines a bright enough spotight on the City Council and city managers to come up with a comprehensive plan if/when a similar signal failure, or construction project on a main artery happens again. I refer to the lack of Traffic Control by LE, Public Works, or the contractor during the recent Fair Oaks Blvd fiasco.

            • Dan,
              Respectfully, the elements of 21956 were not in fact present. Reread the code and note that this occured within a business or residential district. The particular code applies oustide such districts. 21956 is not a code typically used by urban LE, it is more commonly used by CHP or Sherriff departments.

            • 21956 requires that it not be a business or residential district, Dan. Pretty much all of South Pasadena is business or residential. So that law cannot be enforced in South Pasadena.

              • 21954 (a) obviously does not apply.
                21954. (a) Every pedestrian upon a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles upon the roadway so near as to constitute an immediate hazard.

                Clearly, he was yielding the right of way to all vehicles. There is no way to direct traffic without yielding to vehicles that pose an immediate hazard. Had he been obstructing, then he would not be directing traffic. Even a judge could understand the difference between not yielding to traffic and directing traffic.

  9. We don’t need to worry about helping Ehrilich pay for his ticket. He’s gotten more than bang for his buck in publicity. He’ll likely fight the ticket in court, hoping that the judge will also pile on and criticize the police department.

    • Ron, I’ve been in general agreement with your other comments, but I can’t let this last one stand. I never in my wildest dreams would have comtemplated doing something like this for publicity. Straight and simple I saw a dangerous traffic situation and the local PD missing in action. Once the back-up was cleared and the dangerous circumstances mitigated, I was intending to leave. the area. The publicity around this event was when another citizen, who was caught in the carmageddon and worked in a nearby office building, observed SPPD finally arriving, not to take over, but to issue the citation and then drive away. The story was compounded by the many foolish statements made by Chief Payne as he attempted to defend his officer’s and departments actions, or lack thereof. The reason I believe this incident has gone viral nationally is because of the arrogance of a gov’t official saying “You can’t do that, but we’re not going to do it either, it’s not our responsibility.” Rhetorically speaking, I want to know, if you won’t let me do it, and you say you won’t do it, who will? There is a void here that the law does not address. In response to both Chief Payne and Chief Watson’s comments, the action of the officer’s and SPPD may have been compliant with the letter of law,CVC, and union contract, but it failed to address the actual problem, which was traffic was not moving and was creating a hazard on surrounding residential streets, to schoolkids bound for 2 schools, and for 1st responders from neighboring cities that needed this route to get to a primary area hospital.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.