Of the tools we carry with us on-duty, some of the most important are not on our duty rigs: intelligence, common sense, and the goodwill of the law abiding members of society. It is this last item that I am concerned we are in jeopardy of losing.
Adherence to our U.S. Constitution and to the individual rights of the people for whom it was written has been gradually eroded by the legislatures and the courts over the last several decades. At the same time the number of laws and regulations has grown exponentially both in number and in complexity.
A Texas business leader, Roman F. Arnoldy, (founder of Texas Alloy Products Co.) framed the issue very well: “As more and more things a person might do become unlawful, the more our whole society tends to become criminalized, and the more it loses respect for the law. In other words, the less logical our laws, the less respect they command.”
As the public's respect for our laws (and lawmakers) is diminished we will find our jobs harder and harder to perform. Whether we work in a large urban setting or a sparsely populated rural one; for a federal, state, county, or municipal agency; or in patrol, traffic, investigations, or community relations matters little; we cannot effectively carry out our mission without the consent of the governed. The following is from a October 2001 study titled The Public Image of the Police published by the IACP, “While much research remains to be done on the link between the perceived legitimacy of the police and crime rates, there is some evidence to suggest that as institutions like the police lose legitimacy, an increase in crime and rebellion against the police and other legal and political institutions might result” (LaFree, 1998; Tyler, 1990).
This is a problem that we cannot wait on lawmakers or administrators to correct, nor should we. It is a problem we can and do each individually impact by the quality of our daily interaction with the public we serve. Most of us try to be respectful and considerate in our dealings with citizens. We strive to give them all the respect that they allow us to. I know that I could do better though. In my early days in law enforcement I know that I occasionally succumbed to the temptation to produce stats and wrote tickets for minor violations that, while they were righteous charges, did not serve the ends of justice. I recently read a post by an officer who was bragging about the number of tickets (in the 100's) that he had written in a matter of a few weeks at, he said, about $200 each enforcing a new statute in his jurisdiction prohibiting smoking in a vehicle when a child was present. How many of those citations were issued to single, working mothers who could barely afford to pay for their vehicles, much less their auto insurance, rent, and groceries? Did he really serve the ends of justice by depriving that child of groceries or utilities or their mother's time in the interest of protecting them from as dubious a harm as second hand smoke? Was the mother's window open? Was the new statute well publicized? Were these all cases of conscious disobedience or were some innocent errors?
Even though neither of my parents smoked, I was exposed to second hand smoke daily growing up in the 60's & 70's—as I am certain many of you were. At 56 no ill health effects have manifested themselves. Yes, it is a better idea not to smoke around any non-smoker but does that mean we should leave discretion at the station when we go on patrol? This is just one example but you get the idea. We can educate without punishing. We can educate without creating undeserved hardship.
I recall an incident early in my police career that brought home the importance of community support. I worked for a small municipal department with responsibility for a very large geographic area. On midnights your backup was going to be 20-30 minutes away if you had one at all. One night after the bars had closed I pursued a DWI suspect several miles outside our jurisdiction and into a sparsely populated rural area that was out of the range of our hand held radios. As often happens at the end of a pursuit, the perp bailed and ran. I caught hold of his waist about the time he went through the front door of a dark house. I shoved him forward until we both went crashing over a chair and into a back wall. About that time a light came on and I found myself surrounded by over a dozen non-English speaking Mexican nationals. I had managed to pin the subject but that was not preventing him shouting orders in Spanish to his friends. As I cuffed him and pulled him to a standing position his friends were trying to surround me and block us in. At the instant that I was prepared to draw my revolver (The closest thing to a non-lethal weapon that we carried at that time was our Streamlight and of course mine was in my vehicle.) a voice shouted a command in Spanish from behind the group and they stopped advancing. The source of that order was another Mexican national that I had assisted during a weeks earlier encounter in our jail lobby. The offender and I exited the house unmolested and he was later deported. I have often wondered whether I would have gone home that night but for the assistance of that anonymous individual I had only momentarily assisted with some everyday issue that for him had been a major problem.
The judicious use of our intelligence and common sense, i.e. police discretion, is an important tool in our arsenal. We should use it while we can.
“The true importance of laws lies far less in their direct result than in the effect upon the sentiment or convictions of the public”(A. V. Dicey as quoted by James Bovard in the WSJ, 16 May 1997).
“The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour” (Japanese proverb).
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