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‘I’m the law, honestly’

North Harrison Elementary School has a poster of a pack of meerkats. One is outside the gaze of his companions and therefore outside the scrutiny of his peers. It says, ‘Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.’
It was a Saturday evening, and the other meerkats and I had been drinking frothy libations in a toast to whomever invented football highlights. Afterward, I relocated to my favorite Mexican restaurant where one of the waiters had plans to celebrate his birthday with ‘mucho party and beer.’
Upon arriving, I noticed something discretely inauthentic: three, relatively large and relatively white guys in jeans and T-shirts behind the bar. My arrival had brought the Caucasian population at the restaurant to four.
One asked if I worked there. That seemed kind of unlikely, so I said, ‘No.’
It was clear to me that these guys must either be law enforcement or really need a cigarette lighter. I don’t carry a lighter, so I asked, ‘Are you guys here in some official capacity?’
One said, ‘Yes.’
Fair enough.
He could’ve told me it was none of my business. It would’ve been sort of impolite, but he would’ve been within his rights. The reason I asked was because of my familiarity with the restaurant, staff and management, and a feeling of responsibility as the lone gringo customer.
The owner had worked her way to the bar and asked, ‘May I help you?’ These gentlemen had already begun rifling about without so much as a ‘How do you do?’
A thorough perusal of documents, bottles, storage space, the refrigerator and ‘the birthday boy’ followed.
He handed over a bartending license, and that’s when things got really odd. Two employees at the restaurant gave two first names for the pseudo-identified waiter, and everybody knows that you don’t give two first names to guys who must be law enforcement, even on your birthday.
One of the inquisitors seized the Mexican’s upper arm and forcibly moved him to the otherwise empty, adjoining room amidst pleas of ‘Don’t let them take me!’
That’s when the question, ‘Who is them?’ gained weight in my mind.
There’s a poster of a hippo in North Harrison Middle School. His mouth is open in a wide yawn. It says, ‘The best time to hold your tongue is when you feel you need to say something or burst.’
I felt no such need. After all, I knew the three guys must be law enforcement. At the same time, it felt wrong to say nothing. Maybe they should know another meerkat is looking, I thought.
I asked one of the men if he could tell me who he was, show me some identification, and tell me what brought him to the restaurant. He flashed his badge in a move so quick and practiced that it might have said, ‘Diners Club International,’ for all I knew. He said they were state excise police. His flippant disposition was ironically reminiscent of the days when, at work, I would ask for identification from youthful-looking individuals purchasing alcohol or tobacco products.
I became the wide-yawning hippo and was promptly told to step back. Even my comment that I was a reporter didn’t loosen his lips. Well, maybe that’s not so surprising.
The men eventually left without making an arrest or citation, and two of them, to their credit, did talk with me individually and carefully explained their activities at the restaurant that evening. I would like to think that I was polite and fair, sharing their concerns while also raising some concerns of my own regarding their tactics.
The following Monday, I did some research.
I had no idea who the Indiana State Excise Police were. My thinking was that tires, among other things, are subject to excise tax, but it was hard to imagine these guys storming Big O’s service bay.
A friend of mine told me, ‘Those guys take your beer away and never give it back.’ So, I went to the library.
‘The Indiana State Excise Police are the law enforcement division of the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission. State excise police officers are empowered by statute to enforce the laws and rules of the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission as well as the laws of the State of Indiana,’ Alex D. Huskey, Supt. of ISEP, explains on their Web site.
‘Our agency’s primary goal is to reduce the access and availability of alcohol and tobacco products to minors,’ Huskey adds.
The ATC used to be the ABC, and it has been around since the repeal of prohibition.
While officers of the ISEP do have the authority to do so, their mission does not include immigration law and informing Mexicans that they ‘aren’t in Mexico any more.’
Such was the case with the bartender, who, unbeknownst to the ISEP, had been a police officer and soldier in his native Mexico. He has told me stories of corruption in Mexico’s legal system, and he admits, in a reluctant tone, ‘It is better here.’
I’ll never be able to convince him or anyone else in the restaurant that the officers’ methods weren’t to some degree colored by racism. At best, they were overzealous, offering little explanation of their activities while inappropriately asking the owner, ‘Are you a citizen?’
I was asked about this piece while doing some research. A woman told me, ‘My son is a policeman. So I know the other side of it, too.’
Without knowing it, she was writing my conclusion.
Aren’t we all supposed to be on the same side? Now, I wonder, how many sides are there? And whose side am I on? Who’s on my side?