Tammy had me off-balance as soon as I picked up the phone. She had the telemarketer’s professional pacing: quick, breathless sentences; barely perceptible pauses; perfect inflection. She was a paid solicitor, she said, for the District of Columbia Fraternal Order of Police, and she had wanted to get in touch with me. Then, in sweet, soothing tones, came the ambush: “Don’t you think it’s important,” Tammy asked, “to support the police during these troubled times?”

There was really only one answer available. “Yes,” I said.

Since we were in agreement, she informed me that there were two levels of giving: the gold level, at $35, and the silver, for just $25. “And,” she added, “we will send out to each donor a Fraternal Order of Police decal that they can proudly display on their car windshield to show their support.” I was given a moment to process this point. Which level of support, she wondered, might I be more comfortable with?

At the moment, I wasn’t comfortable at all. But this was a real opportunity—not just to support law enforcement, but to secure an actual police decal. The decal, if a lifetime of anecdotal evidence can be believed, works like some sort of cop Kryptonite: Stick one on your windshield, the story goes, and the police won’t ticket you.

Growing up, I knew a family that swore by the decals, plastering their car windows with signs of support for cops in all of the surrounding towns. When their daughter got to be old enough to drive, she told me she had trouble seeing out the back. But she never got a ticket—and I saw her get pulled over in the family car more than once. She always said her feminine wiles were protecting her, but I never believed it. I just stared at the decals, confronting the knowledge that even authority figures could apparently be bought. And it wasn’t even that expensive.

Lou Cannon, the president of the D.C. FOP, doesn’t see the decal business in the same light. “Look, I’m a police officer, and the decal hasn’t kept me from getting tickets,” he says. “The cop might give you the benefit of the doubt in small instances, but it doesn’t make much of a difference when you’re talking about something major.”

It was precisely the small instances, though, that I wanted to wriggle out of. I didn’t need the decal to beat a murder rap. At $25 a pop, the thing would pay for itself if it helped me avoid one minor moving violation. In Connecticut, where I recently got a $279 ticket for going just below 80 in a 65 mph zone, the state troopers are raising money to support their 100th-anniversary ball. For a $10 donation, I could be sporting a nice trooper decal. For $20, I could have two. In fact, the Connecticut troopers offer packages of as many as six (for $250, in some kind of bulk anti-discount)—with which, I figure, I could traverse the state more or less scot-free, wind in my hair, a full row of decals gleaming in the sun.

Now I was being offered the same sort of opportunity in the District. And I had reason to believe it would work. Last month, my friend Jeff Himmelman, who grew up in D.C., got stopped after executing an illegal U-turn on Wisconsin Avenue on a Saturday night. He handed over his license and admitted his guilt. The cop, Jeff says, shined his flashlight on the license, then pointed the beam at the back window of Jeff’s pickup truck—where a 1999 FOP sticker was prominently displayed. Then, as Jeff tells it, the exchange went as follows:

“Is someone in your family a cop?” the officer asked.

“No, sir,” Jeff responded.

“Where’d the sticker come from?”

“I gave a donation a little while back.”

The officer paused and looked at the license once more. Than he handed it back. “Don’t do it again,” he said. “Have a nice night.”

The D.C. FOP, to which my donation would go, is the labor union for District police and corrections officers. It gets no money from the city and is not officially connected with the Metropolitan Police Department. Cannon estimates that the D.C. FOP has about 10,000 dues-paying members, roughly 85 percent of city officers. The funds it raises, Cannon says, help pay for volunteer search-and-rescue organizations, guarantee life-insurance policies for officers, and support a child-identification program, among other activities.

After a failed attempt to do its telemarketing in-house, the FOP hired two outside organizations, Civic Development Corp. and Capitol Enterprises, to do its telephone soliciting in exchange for a cut of the donations. The companies develop the scripts, though the FOP must approve them before they are used on the public. “It’s a necessary evil,” says Cannon. “We just don’t have the resources to do this ourselves.” Cannon isn’t sure how much of the donations go to the telemarketing firms, but he says, “It’s more than we should have to give them.” (The FOP’s treasurer, Kenny Rodgers, was unwilling to release the actual figures.)

Still, that’s better than the cops making the call themselves. Without the telemarketer acting as a buffer, the exchange would feel more like a straight shakedown. With the professionals running the show, it’s a simple sales pitch: cold cash for a shiny new decal.

That decal, however, isn’t what it used to be. In the past three years, D.C. officers have allowed technology to take over some of the traffic-enforcement burden. Red-light cameras have been responsible for issuance of 322,261 infractions in three years, with fines netting the city more than $18 million. Add in the District’s year-old automated speeding-enforcement program—372,909 infractions and another $18 million since August 2001—and you begin to wonder about the diminishing returns on your decal.

By comparison, living, breathing Metropolitan Police Department officers wrote only 86,036 tickets for moving violations last year. With the machines issuing more than five times as many citations, the idea that police discretion might save you seems quaint. One officer I spoke with complained that with the automated systems in place even he had begun getting tickets—and if being a cop can’t protect you, you can be damn sure that merely supporting them won’t, either. The forces of automation are taking over, and my decal would mean nothing to them.

There wasn’t any time to talk this over with Tammy. As I held the phone to my ear, saying nothing, she suddenly began speaking again—reading, I imagine, from the section of the script designed to urge hesitant donors off the fence. Then the old telemarketer response kicked in: I cut her off, told her I wasn’t interested, and hung up. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Michael Kupperman.