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Scarecrow

Claim:   Youths shoot a patrol car parked as a "speeder deterrent" on the one day it contains a real cop.

LEGEND

Example:    [Collected on the Internet, 1997]

Just outside this town in Georgia was a stretch of road greatly favoured by speeders. The local police couldn't afford to keep a patrolman assigned there, so they dressed a mannequin in a cop's uniform, seated it behind the wheel of an old patrol car no longer worth fixing, and positioned the car by the side of the road.

It worked ... but only after a fashion. Those breezing through from someplace else slowed down as soon as they saw the squad car lying in wait, but the locals weren't taken in by it at all. Then some of the local good ol' boys took to shooting up the car and its dummy as they drove by. Pretty soon the squad car was a wreck.

One day a carload of lads spotted a bright, shiny new squad car parked where the bullet-riddled one had been. They aimed their shotguns and blasted away ... only to see a real policeman slump forward onto the steering wheel, blood gushing from his wounds. Seems the local council had finally found the money to keep a patrolman assigned there.
 

Origins:   We've been hearing this story I shot the sheriff! since 1994, and it could well be older than that. In another version of the basic tale, the local gendarmes have taken to stationing a riderless police motorcycle behind a billboard so the front half of the vehicle juts out where motorists can see it. One day a hooligan takes a potshot at the billboard, and it happens to be the one day a real motorcycle cop is back there seated on the bike.

Urban legends are often cautionary tales meant to inspire a set of behaviors by
explaining through a story what could happen if those behaviors are not learned. In this case, the caution is against making blithe assumptions: Don't be lulled into complacency, the legend says, just because things have always been a certain way. Although the speed trap has always been manned by a "scarecrow," that doesn't mean it couldn't be manned by a real person today. By extension, the lesson applies to handguns kept in one's home: Just because you never keep your gun loaded doesn't mean somebody didn't pick today to shove ammo into it without your knowledge, so always treat every gun as if it were loaded.

Sometimes the "mannequin in a police car" story comes to the following humorous conclusion:
[Collected on the Internet, 2004]

Newport News Virginia tried that [using a mannequin sitting in a police car for traffic control] a few years back at the intersections of Jefferson and Oyster Point because of people running red light and just not obeying traffic laws in general. Well one evening the person that came to move the vehicle into a different spot for the next day forgot to lock the car back up before leaving. The next morning the mannequin had been positioned onto of the hood of the cop car, a cigarette placed in one and hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
Police mannequins have been fired at in real life, but the horrifying aspect of the legend — that a real police officer seated in a patrol car was killed by someone who mistook him for a speed trap dummy — has yet to play out. For instance, in June 2013 in eastern Pennsylvania, an armed assailant pumped more than 20 bullets into a patrol car occupied by a mannequin police officer then hurled the dummy across the road, where its head was struck by an oncoming vehicle. Police had stationed the mannequin and patrol car in a residential neighborhood following a car crash in hopes of getting motorists to slow down.

This legend builds upon the common "cops versus speeders" theme (which provides the justification for the local lads to shoot at the parked car). Another tale that puts that theme to use is also often presented as a true story, although there's no reason for believing it to be anything but a joke:
[Collected on the Internet, 2000]

A policeman had a perfect spot to watch for speeders, but was not getting many. Then, he discovered the problem; a 10 year old boy was standing up the road with a hand painted sign which read, "SPEED TRAP AHEAD". The officer then found a young accomplice down the road with sign painted "TIPS" and a bucket of change.
However, that the story about the little boys fishing for tips is more likely lore than anything else doesn't mean that real people who have attempted similar warnings didn't get in real trouble over them. In June 2004, 71-year-old Stuart Harding was convicted of wilfully obstructing a constable in the execution of his duty, banned from driving, and ordered to pay £364 and court costs for his crime of waving a placard at motorists that announced "Speed Trap - 300 yards ahead."

Moral of the story: That which works in the realm of folklore doesn't always translate so well to the real world.

Barbara "driving tips" Mikkelson

Last updated:   6 August 2013

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Sources:

    Payne, Stewart.   "Pensioner Banned Over Speed Trap Alert."
    The [London] Daily Telegraph.   3 June 2004   (p. 8).

    NBC 10 [Philadelphia].   "Man Fires at Police Mannequin in Patrol Car."
    21 June 2013.