February 24, 2012

I spend my fair share of time watching “Law and Order,” so I know that when the handcuffs go on, a line has been crossed. You go from free citizen to accused criminal to prisoner of the state.

So imagine my surprise when I heard the steel clasps click as I was handcuffed from behind while innocently working my way through the security screening at D.C. Superior Court, where I had been called to jury duty on Jan. 8.

As the medical director of a public hospital, I never find it easy to take time out for jury duty, but I am (or at least I was) a strong believer in the importance of doing my civic duty. I arranged for coverage at the hospital and showed up early to be sure I got to the jury office on time. At the security station, I took off my coat and outer garments as instructed and tossed my cellphone and a small portable radio into my backpack-style briefcase. I stood patiently in my dress shirt and bow-tie while being wanded, and I waited for my belongings to pass through the screening machine.

And then time stood still.

“What electronics do you have in your case?” I was asked.

“A cellphone and radio,” I responded, wondering what I had done wrong.

“We’ll have to look at that radio,” I was told.

The security team removed the radio from my bag and put it through the screening machine again. Then the shouting began. The entrance was shut down, and everyone behind me was sent to another screening area; people were told not to use their cellphones or two-way radios. I was pulled aside and handcuffed.

Suddenly, I was no longer wondering whether I would make it to jury duty but whether I’d make it home that night or even to the hospital the next day. I had simultaneous thoughts of Arlo Guthrie’s tale of his Thanksgiving Day arrest for littering and of the detainees at Guantanamo — and it wasn’t at all clear to me in which direction this episode was headed.

But mostly I felt growing fear.

I was detained for at least 20 minutes before they uncuffed me and let me go. But my memories of the event reverberate. I figured I should let the court authorities know about the episode. I assumed that they, too, would find the actions of the security team excessive. Certainly there needs to be screening for weapons at a courthouse. But handcuff a prospective juror with a jury summons in hand because of a radio? I expected a quick apology and a promise that the protocol would be rethought.

Instead, in a reply from a court official, I was informed that my radio appeared to the security staff to be an “improvised explosive device,” or an IED, and that until it could be determined whether I was a “wanted” person or had a “criminal record that may be associated with a terrorist act,” I had to be “restrained for the safety of the officers.” However, I was, it was pointed out, treated with “dignity and respect.”

It’s an interesting view of “dignity and respect.” In fact, I was humiliated and frightened. Perhaps I’ve read a few too many news stories about what can happen to people who fall into police custody.

I have a different view of all this. Since the security team already had my radio (and my cellphone, my briefcase, my wallet and my lunch), it certainly didn’t need me restrained to disarm me.

I haven’t had the time to see whether I could do more about what happened to me. But I hope it doesn’t happen to others. I hope that we can attend to our security and still treat individuals with true dignity and respect.

Let’s worry about terrorists, not terrorize each other in the name of “safety” or “security.”

The author is director of medical affairs at Saint Elizabeths Hospital.