The Behavior of Police: What Would Perfect Cops Do?

I hear a lot of grousing about the behavior of cops. People are mad because they think they didn’t deserve that ticket, or the officer had a bad attitude, or 911 didn’t respond fast enough. The cop didn’t seem to think that getting the cat out of the tree was up there with blasting John Dillinger. Blacks think cops only stop them because of racism, and whites in DC sometimes think they also are being hassled for racial reasons. And so on. Forever.

Depending on who and when, maybe people are right. Maybe they aren’t. All of the aforementioned sometimes happen. On bad departments, they happen more often. An interesting question to ask yourself is how a perfect police force would handle things. At the same time, ask how you would do it yourself if you were the cop.

For example, how do you, how does a perfect cop, treat a guy who just blasted by at twenty over the limit, which is, let us say, thirty-five? Or went through a red light without even slowing?

To begin with, either you stop people who do these things, or you don’t. If you don’t stop them, the offense becomes de facto legal. Do you want this? Maybe so, depending on the offense and your view of it, but that’s the choice.

Suppose you stop him. He’s not going to like you. How do you, or how can a perfect cop, come out smelling like a rose? The guy is likely to adopt an attitude: Why aren’t you catching murderers instead of bothering me for a few miles over? There wasn’t any traffic. The law is silly. Etc. The fundamental problem is that he doesn’t want a ticket, and he’s about to get one. You can’t make it into a pleasant encounter. Perfection won’t help.

A lot of things cops do involve trade-offs, often made by legislatures but enforced by cops. For example, if you let scruffy young males in Washington congregate undisturbed in parks, you will get a bumper crop of open-air drug markets. If you check them out and hassle them to get them to go away, they will be angry and charge racism. (“Hey, why can’t I talk with my friends in my own city?”) Occasionally they will be innocent. What does a perfect cop do?

Reasonable people may disagree. Some may see freedom to congregate as more important than discouraging the sale of drugs. But more of one means less of the other. One may not rationally blame the cops for checking out hangers-around, and then blame them also for not stopping the drug traffic.

Cities go back and forth between strict enforcement of laws and a laxer treatment. A popular theory today, which may well be correct, is that you discourage major crime by cracking down on the little stuff. The cops get told to stop the petty gambling on the hood of a car, the beer-drinking in the front yard with a buddy, the standing in clumps in alleys of young males who don’t live nearby.

To the people in the neighborhood, it can look like sheer harassment. To me, in the police car, it looks like sheer harassment. Here’s a guy, forty-five, employed, quiet, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house with a buddy and a brew–and the cops make him empty it or go into the house. Yeah, it’s the law. It sure isn’t public relations.

What would you do if you were the cop? What would a perfect cop do? Ignore the city council’s orders to stop this stuff? Having cops ignore their orders isn’t maybe a great idea. Telling the guy to take his beer into the house is the mildest thing a cop can do, short of ignoring the law. But the guy is going to resent it. (Again, “Why aren’t you catching real criminals, etc?”)

And of course different people have different views of what a perfect police department would do. Parents with young children think speeders in the neighborhood should get life without parole, preferably on another planet. The speeders think they’re in control of the car, they’re exceptional drivers, and the limit is unrealistically low. They figure a warning ticket at most.

Cops aren’t perfect. Some aren’t even close. Pick the right city, and a lot of them may be thugs. But, sez me, the baseline of criticism should be what you think a perfect cop should do, bearing in mind the downstream consequences. As, for example, that what you don’t ticket you get more of.

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