Opportunity missed

Mitch Daniels should have told the Purdue police officer to just get it over with and write the ticket.

Instead, on the morning of Oct. 20, Daniels did what we all try to do when a patrol officer has us dead to rights on a handful of traffic violations: He said he was sorry — profusely so — and hoped the officer would let it slide just this once.

The difference: Daniels is Purdue University president. He was on campus. The officer is technically his employee — and she knew it even before she walked up to his door after her flashing lights followed his Toyota into the driveway of Westwood, the president’s home off McCormick Road. His Purdue-branded license plate — No. PB 1 — was presented to him by trustees when he was named president in 2012.

As the officer told Daniels, she simply didn’t recognize the plate when Daniels went buzzing by her on Third Street at more than double the 20 mph speed limit. (“Like 42 in a 20,” she said. Video of the traffic stop also shows Daniels rolling through a stop sign as he turned onto McCormick Road.)

Daniels probably wasn’t thinking about it at the moment, sitting in his driveway, itching to pick up a cellphone he’d left by the bed. He had a call coming to that phone at 8 a.m., so he was in a hurry.

But in that moment, Daniels could have made a statement about traffic safety on campus — the very kind at the heart of the millions of dollars being spent on the State Street Master Plan, much of which is designed to remove cars and reduce traffic speeds through campus. And he could have lowered his head and made a statement about what’s fair is fair.

He could have. Should have. But didn’t.

Instead, as fresh footage of the traffic stop gathered cynical steam around campus, Daniels comes across as the poster boy for Driving While President.

That’s no major crime, by any stretch. It’s really more of an indictment of officer discretion, watching how easy it was for Daniels’ pleas and apologies — “This is the only day that this’ll happen,” and, “No, it’s not OK. … I am so sorry” — to turn into the end of the conversation for the officer.

“You have a better day and stay safe, OK?” she said, before Daniels headed up the driveway to get the phone he’d left behind.

Time elapsed, from Daniels driving by on Third Street until the officer says goodbye: 2½ minutes. The conversation at the stop was roughly a minute.

Daniels chastised himself publicly for it a few days later. In a self-deprecating post Oct. 22 on Twitter, Daniels wrote: “Warning for speeding. Good job Purdue University Police Department for usual alertness. Note to self: Don’t lv cell ph at home on nightstand when expecting an 8 AM call.”

But consider the timing. By then, curious student reporters at the Purdue Exponent had heard about the incident and were nosing around for dash-cam footage.

Without that, the deference given to a driver who happens to be the ultimate boss on that side of town never would have been heard of beyond a good barroom story someday. (Let me tell you about the time I pulled over Mitch Daniels ….)

Without that, the assumption that position has its privileges in such situations would have remained just that — an assumption.

From Mumbai, India, where he was traveling this week on Purdue business, Daniels told the J&C in an email that he had “nothing to add to what I said at the time. … I was in the wrong. The circumstances were one of a kind, but making no excuse.”

A ticket — or even a written warning — in that situation would have sealed it.

Even a request from the officer for license, registration and a demand that Daniels close his door — he opened it as soon as he pulled into his driveway — would have given the incident a cover of standard operating procedure.

Instead, Purdue traffic stops will have a new out for busted drivers: Can I get the deal Mitch got?

But, like Daniels rushing for his phone that morning, it’s a bit late now.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.