The Police and Public Relations: Things Could Be Better

Cops, I’ve noticed over the years, have a real problem with public relations. They manage to rub people the wrong way. An awful lot of people tell angry tales about this or that misbehavior by police, most of which isn’t really misbehavior. Rather it’s dealing badly with the citizenry.

I think a lot of them just don’t know how to handle humanity.

For example, a few days ago I was on my bicycle on the sidewalk along Lee highway in Arlington and found a motorcycle cop parked there, I don’t know why. I said, “Good morning.”

Cold stare. No answer.

This isn’t unusual. You get curt answers, or no answer, or sometimes deliberately rude answers. This is not true of all cops, but it’s true of enough that people can get tired of it. So you stop talking to them, which makes them feel disliked, which makes them more distant.

Yet the same cops, if you rode with them, would be considerate and friendly. Why the difference, one might reasonably ask? Cops talk about how much they value support from the public. So why the obnoxiousness?

Some of it stiff-white-guy syndrome. White males seem to default to all-business, to distant authority. While female cops can be disagreeable, on average they are better with people. Black cops–again, on average–seem able to be more human, warmer somehow, than white guys, even when handing out tickets. Whites often seem to be almost hiding behind a shield of officiousness to avoid personal contact with the public.

Some of the stiffness I think comes from the nature of a cop’s dealings with the public, which usually aren’t happy. Officers constantly tell people to stop doing things, arrest them, give them tickets. It’s hard to be warm and fuzzy with people who are angry at having been stopped, who resent authority as almost all of us seem do, who are trying to find excuses or claim innocence. The police spend their time in confrontation with the public, however controlled the confrontation may be.

The street runs two ways. The public isn’t real good with cops. People really don’t like being told what to do. Cops get a lot of attitude, of phony manipulative friendliness, of bird-brained excuses, and “You only pick on me because I’m (black, brown, out-of-state, drive a sports car–take your pick).” Then there’s, “Why aren’t you catching real criminals?”

An odd isolation from the community arises merely from being a cop. Motorists obviously become defensive when they see the bubble-gum lights in the rear-view mirror. Perfectly innocent people feel guilty when a cop walks into the convenience store. They aren’t unfriendly exactly, but they don’t treat cops like normal people and are just as happy when they go away. Kids act the same way when a teacher appears on the playground.

It spreads to social life. If your neighbor is a cop and your friend Joe occasionally smokes a joint, you have to manage things. Is it legal to have a beer in your front yard? Walk across the street with it? The cop isn’t out to arrest his next-doors, very likely drinks as much beer as anyone else, would rather just not know about the joint. But the awkwardness is there. And of course he wonders where to draw the line.

Some of the abruptness is the arrogance of power. Starting when he comes on the force as hardly more than a kid, a cop can tell people what to do. He’s special. He can make U-turns that others can’t, stop traffic, give tickets, arrest people. He carries a gun, often concealed when off duty. People thirty years his senior have to do what he says. And in his adult life he has never known anything else.

Most cops handle it reasonably well. The ones who don’t are hard to take. They’re the ones everybody remembers.

Finally, there is the need to maintain authority. If you are chatty and buddy-buddy with people, they will use it against you. It quickly becomes, “Hey, we’re friends, aren’t we? How about letting me slide on running over these kids or having twelve kilos of marijuana for personal use.” So a cop who laughs and tells stories about his kids in the squad car turns into Robocop when he gets out to talk with a speeder.

Most departments could do better in dealing with people, and ought to. I can’t think of anything that would do as much to raise cops in public esteem.

Comments are closed.