Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In defense of cops

I saw a post on my Facebook feed today from someone I consider highly intelligent and always rational. He starts by saying: "Police are evil. Don't talk to them ever. Really. Ever."

There followed a rash of comments agreeing, saying they all lie, all the time, and should never be trusted. My first reaction was intense disappointment and now I feel compelled to respond. Let me start with a few facts:

There are bad cops out there.
Some cops lie.
Some cops drink too much and beat their wives.

What puzzles me is a willingness of intelligent people like my friend to tag an entire population of human beings as evil on account of one interaction or, possibly, one YouTube video. (It's an irony, I think, that the chap lambasting cops is an attorney practicing civil law.) Anecdotal accounts of individuals acting badly are appealing in an argument but when you think about the thousands of men and women out there dealing with the public every day, under intense scrutiny, is it surprising one or two are shown up? Ten or twenty, even?

I have known cops a long time. In England I was the police reporter. A couple of them were pecker-heads, absolutely, but then I also had a lot of haircuts in England and several barbers were racist, homophobic, narrow-minded and egotistical. You'd laugh at me if I judged from that sample that all barbers (all English barbers?!) are bad human beings.

Here in the US I've worked with cops as a prosecutor and a reporter. You know what I've found? That cops are like any other professionals: some are bad, most are good. Guess which ones make it onto YouTube?

Well, you might be surprised.

Sure, there are more of bad cops but what would you expect? You think there are lots of videos of great refereeing decisions? Oh, I know what you're thinking: a bad cop can do more harm than a nasty barber or a bad referee. Yes, but my point isn't that broad: it's that we shouldn't judge an entire profession by a limited few. One might even think of that as prejudice.

I sat alongside an officer two weeks ago in my ride-along. We were called to a grocery store where a man was causing problems, the management didn't want him there. The officer located this man, in his sixties and probably drunk, and spent 20 minutes just talking to him, calming him down, let him vent. He'd smoked weed with Willie Nelson and played guitar with REO Speedwagon, had a million beautiful babes throw themselves at him, he told us. This officer not once made fun, belittled, harassed or abused this old fellow, instead asking questions about his music, his travels. When the diatribe was over, he gently steered him off the property and towards his home, explaining that he wasn't allowed back on the property. Not threatening, explaining. And that was that.

This cop, by the way, is a former marine and a member of the SWAT team, just the kind of cop people love to hate. But he used patience and kindness that night, and not just because they were his best weapons but because they were a part of his human decency, a decency I've seen not just in him but in many cops. My own brother, for example.

I don't suppose I'll change a lot of minds by writing this, even my evidentiary use of YouTube is just one more anecdote in the swirl of tales but I'm not really writing this to change the minds of people who've decided to hate cops. As much as anything, I write this in the hope that some who are mistrustful will rethink their positions, just a little, and in the hope that a police officer will stumble across it and know that there are many of us out there who trust them to do the right thing, the right way. Make no mistake, I'm at the front of the line when a cop goes bad, but I don't start from a place where I assume that from the get-go.

After all, if things suddenly get dangerous, when your world goes to hell in a hand-basket and someone's trying to do you harm, who do you call? Your minister? Your grocer? Your barber? No, you call the same people I'd call, the people willing to put themselves in harm's way to protect you.

And in my experience, 99 percent of cops will do so, 100 percent of the time.


  1. Enjoyed this one!

    I work as a victim's advocate which means I work around a lot of cops. I work with two young ladies who are married to cops. Cops have my utmost respect! You are absolutely correct, though, that there is the occassional peckerhead (I never heard anyone but an Arkansas hillbilly like my daddy use that descriptor!) who leaves a bad impression on all around him. I have no problem reporting those to their superiors, either. I've had to do that maybe twice in over 20 years.

    No all of anything should be painted with the same brush. We're all just human, mistakes and all.

    Yeah, it is not fair! But on the other hand, we have a frequent poster on our local newspaper forum who is a cop's brother. Guess what? That's right--cops are NEVER wrong! EVER! And we are graced with HIS explanation of why LE does what they do and why the bad guys should be in fear, blah, blah, blah.

    It's a toss-up in my opinion--the crappy cop and the cop wanna-be. No real remarkable difference.

  2. Agreed, Edith Ann, I think cops and lawyers are easy targets for the broad brush. Well, and politicians, I guess!

  3. I have to agree with you. There are bad cops out there, but if you look at all professions there are bad people in them as well. My younger brother had a teacher in the classroom next door to him and he swears to this day that all he heard from that room was the teacher yelling. I honestly believe that some people don't belong in certain jobs.

    And police take a whole lot from the public. If they're policing the streets, taking down the drug dealers and drink drivers and the gangs they're seen as targeting a specific sector of the population. But if something happens and the police are involved they're absolutely attacked. I live in Australia and just last week a man died from a taser being used by a police officer. Automatically people were behind the man who died. Reports were coming in that the man had stolen something and then reports came in that this man just stole a packet of biscuits. I heard one man say that women police officers should call for backup if they are up against someone bigger than them; when are they supposed to do that? While the guy is attacking them or while the guy is attacking someone else.

    I'm 22 and I've grown up being taught to respect the police. People today have no fear of the police. Once upon a time when a police officer was seen he or she was seen as someone you don't want to go up against. These days no one has respect for the job. I have the greatest respect for police, especially ones in rural areas where resouces are limited.

  4. Sophie, I think you're right and I think a lot of people have no idea what a police officer actually does. The idea that they spend their time looking to pin crimes on innocent people is silly. But some people are attracted to the job for the wrong reasons, I understand that. Hopefully, with all the in-car cameras nowadays, those people will out themselves and can be dealt with.

  5. It's true, we all make mistakes. It's also true that there are bad cops. So bad (and very bad) things will happen. How about commenting on how difficult it is to use the justice system to get compensation for police errors (let alone get accountability ). This may be a good starting point:

  6. I've had the opposite experience. All the police officers and detectives I have known--and I've had the misfortune to come into contact with a quite a few--have been wonderful, incredible, kind, generous, hard-working, intelligent and heroic people. Compassionate and diligent. There are members of the Philly PD whose kindness I will never be able to repay. Seeing their efforts restored much of the faith I had lost in humanity. I know there are a lot of "dirty cops" as they call them here. But it's like any field--you'll get good and you'll get bad. It is just unfortunate that the good are tarnished by the bad.

  7. Part of the problem in my mind arises from the fact that the courts seem to have given increased latitude to officers to detain without arresting or Mirandizing individuals, to initiate interactions which, though individuals feel unable to leave, are deemed "voluntary" but flight from which amounts to probable cause for detention and the efforts by many judges, including many on the USSC, to eliminate or severely curtail the exclusionary rule under the 4th Amendment, meaning that police excesses will frequently leave defendants without a legal remedy and the police without a deterrent to violating people's rights. New York's stop-and-frisk policy is an egregious violation of civil liberties, which is not to say that the officers engaging in such activity are not "nice" or are not good people, but the prevalence (or at least the regular media coverage) of such abuses, or, for example, of the grotesque excesses of the Sheriff Joe Arpaios of the world (not to mention the Mike Nifongs and Kathleen Rices who seem determined to convict at any cost, legal niceties be damned) that tell people that cooperation with police officers is likely to have a negative, rather than a positive, impact on a matter with potential criminal liability. If officers were more forthcoming and upfront with their role in the system and if courts were more respectful of the rights of the accused, perhaps people would be less inclined to think ill of police, since they would not have to worry that their freedoms were being infringed upon.

  8. Thoughtful post, Nigel, and much of what you say is true. But I find in my ride-outs that the cops are very up front with what they are doing, looking for, trying to achieve. But yes, there are some high-profile law enforcement people who don't help the overall image.


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