None of us should be surprised that Charlie Sheen enjoyed a police escort on his notorious ride from Dulles International Airport to a performance at DAR Constitution Hall. Our star-struck culture seems fine with special treatment for celebrities, and Sheen reigns as the nation’s premier anti-hero.
I can’t summon a lot of outrage over the April 19 incident. It shouldn’t have happened, but nobody was hurt. Sheen’s camp wrote the city a $445 check to cover the cost.
The high-speed escort might even have served the public interest, given the thousands of fans eagerly awaiting his arrival. If they wish to spend their discretionary income to hear the incoherent, narcissistic ravings of an oversexed, drug-using, fired sitcom actor, hey, this is America.
What did distress me, however, was several days of muddle over what exactly was the D.C. police policy on supplying uniformed escorts to private citizens already privileged by prominence and wealth.
After offering slow and incomplete explanations at the outset, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier cleared up much of it for me in an interview Wednesday. But not quite all.
Sports team caravans often get escorts for the sake of orderly traffic and crowd control, Lanier said. But escorts aren’t provided for people, she said, “because they’re late or because they’re celebrities. There has to be a public safety reason.”
Many “reimbursable details” are to manage traffic to allow movies to be shot. “That does not in any way involve escorts,” she said.
And even escorted vehicles, she said, aren’t allowed to flout traffic rules by speeding or driving through red lights. Exceptions are made for the president or other official dignitaries, or when “common sense” dictates.
Good enough, but that still leaves unanswered at least two big questions raised by a top official in the police union, Kris Baumann. First, he says other celebrities have received escorts similar to Sheen’s, including Patti LaBelle, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Fran Drescher.
Furthermore, says Baumann, supervisors routinely approve such escorts to raise money and do favors for the famous.
“This is what we do. Whether this is a good idea is another question,” said Baumann, who is chairman of the labor committee of the Fraternal Order of Police.
His comments frosted Lanier. If that was true, she responded, then the rules have been broken a lot more than she realized. She ordered internal affairs to look into the union’s allegations about escorts for LaBelle and the other celebrities as soon as she received my e-mail asking about it. She also took a shot at Baumann for speaking out about it.
“I find it shocking that the FOP chairman is now raising to my attention that I need to investigate other union members for violations in the past,” Lanier said. “It’s going to fall squarely on the members that he represents.”
Personally, I hope no rank-and-file cop gets more than a reprimand for taking an hour or two to squire a Hollywood luminary. They should have followed the rules, but they’re human.
“They probably see it as one of the perks of the police department. They get to rub shoulders with celebrities and be part of their entourage,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice, a longtime watchdog on police misconduct.
She doesn’t take it lightly. “Even after it dies down as a silly celebrity situation, it’s a serious issue for the people of the District of Columbia. Why is our money going for this? And it poses a danger to people” if escorts travel at high speeds or otherwise break traffic laws, Verheyden-Hilliard said.
It would be even more serious if supervisors were regularly approving such escorts in violation of policy. It wasn’t reassuring when they issued seemingly contradictory comments on the Sheen case.
Assistant Chief Lamar Greene initially said the Sheen escort was proper. Later, an e-mail emerged in which one of his subordinates, Special Operations Division Commander Hilton Burton, disapproved.
“This is why we should not do escorts for any and every body,” Burton wrote.
The chief and her deputies need to put this to rest. If internal affairs doesn’t do so, then someone like the D.C. Council or attorney general should step in. If clarity were achieved, then for once Charlie Sheen’s buffoonery would have contributed something constructive to society.
I’m not doing my regular radio commentary this Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). No, I wasn’t preempted by the royal wedding. It’s to make space for a special report on childhood obesity.