Bill Heavey on Cops and Game Wardens

Not long ago, curious to see firsthand how local government wastes my tax dollars, I hitched a ride with the only game warden in the District of Columbia. Actually, any police officer can enforce game laws, but over the years it's been Dennis Hance who has devoted himself to the task. If you call up the D.C. Police and ask to speak to a game warden, he's the guy who answers. If President Bush decided to fish the Potomac without a license, Hance would be the guy to write him up.

The department public-information officer had told me that due to liability issues, members of the press were prohibited from riding in the patrol boat. So when Hance invited me aboard, I slapped myself in the head, inducing a bout of temporary amnesia, and jumped in. Almost immediately, Hance, who bears a passing resemblance to Harrison Ford, pulled up to a guy fishing from shore. "See your fishing license, please?" he asked pleasantly.

The angler in question, like most inner-city residents, had the ability to detect hostility or condescension from a cop in parts-per-billion concentrations. He glared at Hance. "I know who you are," he muttered. "You gave me a hard time 'bout not having one last week." I stood there and tried to look like Hance's tough but taciturn backup. The guy's eyes swept over me, and I could sense him thinking, At least I don't have to worry about the bald guy.

"Then it ought to be easy for you to show it to me now, " Hance said.

The angler's radar kept pinging away. But the strangest thing was happening. It was coming up blank. "Alright," he said. "I bought one after last time, but I ain't got it on me."

Hance ran a sniff test. He believed the guy. "Look. You know it's a $50 fine. This is number two. I'm gonna cut you a break, okay? I'm gonna be back here and so are you, so let's not make trouble for each other."

And then the guy actually smiled. It wasn't so much the words--it was the vibe. Hance has something they don't teach in the police academy: It's called the common touch. And if you could bottle it, you could name your own price. "You're alright, man," the guy said.

This encounter, lasting all of one minute, blew me away. If it had been me, I'd have tried the soft approach, too. Only the moment it started to go south, I'd have turned Clint Eastwood on the guy: reached for my Glock, cuffed him, and demonstrated why nobody messes with Officer Heavey.

"Easiest thing in the world to be a hard-ass," Hance told me. "The trick is to leave 'em smiling. That guy'll remember me. And I bet he'll have his license the next time I see him."

Lest you think Hance is someone who takes the easy way out of a situation, you should know that he has been cited three times for risking his life while trying to save people who were drowning.

What I like about the guy is that if he thinks you made an honest mistake, he'd rather help you than punish you. But if you're deliberately breaking the law, don't come crying for mercy. Once, he found two men in possession of 138 out-of-season rockfish. He wrote them up for the maximum, a total of $27,600.

Later that day, we came across a man and his daughter pushing bicycles. His was loaded down with rods and a 5-gallon bucket full of herring and perch. These fish were legal, and the man had a license. "Do you have any more fish, sir?" Hance asked. The fellow shook his head. Hance walked past him and pulled a stringer of carp and channel cats from beneath some bushes. "Sir, I saw you put these there not two minutes ago." The limit on channel cats is three a day, and the guy had six. Hance wrote the man up for three $100 violations. The little girl's face was a stone mask the whole time. Hance finally leaned down and said, "If you don't smile, I'm gonna have to ride your bike." The vehicle under discussion: a pink Barbie model. That brought a grin.

Hance reflected on the encounter. "Was it tough to give that guy a $300 fine? Yeah. Was it fair? Yeah. He wouldn't have hidden those fish if he didn't know it was illegal. Now the word will get out to everyone he knows that you can't take too many fish. And when his little girl grows up, there'll still be fish here."

Hance's days on the water may be numbered. Because he's good at what he does, he's up for a promotion. So a guy with consummate people skills and knowledge of the river may end up driving a squad car or, worse, a desk. The good news is that D.C.'s police department, like most bureaucracies, can be counted on to screw up a good part of the time. For the sake of the fish, let's hope it malfunctions correctly. It would be a gross miscarriage of justice to elevate such a deserving public servant.