Being a former police officer and former Secret Service agent, I end up in a lot of conversations with people who want to tell me about some experience he or she has had with law enforcement. Nine out of ten times, the experience was a somewhat negative one for the individual who was upset about getting a traffic citation, or felt the police did not adequately investigate a crime of which the person was a victim, or the individual was somehow inconvenienced by police activity.
I understand this. I’ve gotten used to these talks during which I make sure I listen well and do my best to remain objective. After all, cops aren’t perfect. There are some patrol officers who are jerks on traffic stops. There are lazy detectives who fail to follow-up on leads. There are federal agents who have giant egos. It happens. However, most of the frustration that is conveyed in the telling of these stories comes from a misunderstanding of processes, the profession, and what are realistic expectations. This is something officers experience every day and it happened to me. I recall a victim of a theft becoming extremely frustrated with me because I didn’t “… force the suspect to take a polygraph.” Of course, I explained that the police cannot force anybody to take a polygraph test and that the results would be inadmissible in court anyway, but the victim of the crime had already labeled me as inept or apathetic since I hadn’t pursued this unrealistic avenue.
Now while every profession has to endure some level of skepticism and scrutiny, law enforcement is unique in the way many people will attribute the circumstances of a specific officer or incident to any police action. On the surface, this can make sense to an individual. However, when one does this with other professions, the exercise becomes a bit silly. Below, let’s compare some complaints / stories about law enforcement with what would be the equivalent for other professions.
Police story: “Hey, you were a police officer in Virginia, right? Well, I was driving in Georgia and this police officer pulled me over and gave me a ticket for going three miles per hour over the speed limit. Three! And he completely ignored the cars that were passing me!”
Equivalent in another profession: “Hey, you work for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, right? Let me tell you about this time I was driving in Delaware and had to sit in a construction zone for an hour and there was no real construction going on!”
Now, obviously most people would not think to connect a construction zone on a roadway in Delaware to a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation employee, but that’s exactly what people do when discussing policing. Another example:
Police story: “Oh, you were in the Secret Service? Did I tell you about the time I was late to work because the Governor’s security people wouldn’t let me use the elevator because she was visiting our building?”
Equivalent in another profession: “So, you just retired from Xerox? Man, we had this Konica copier at my old job and that thing always jammed. What’s up with that?”
I know. The conversation with the former Xerox employ would be a ridiculous conversation. The complaint about a different product created by a different company is essentially the comparing of apples and oranges. Aside from that, in law enforcement discussions, sometimes people try to compare apples and oranges and what people think are oranges are really tangerines.
In law enforcement, there are tens of thousands of employees in hundreds of agencies who are responsible for a variety of jurisdictions. So, why do people tend to associate what happens with one agent or officer in a particular region or jurisdiction with an entire profession? We usually don’t do this with construction workers, accountants, museum curators, or lawyers. Well… maybe lawyers. The answer is easy. Because television, movies, and novels have made us a society of EXPERTS in all matters surrounding the administration of justice.
Many people have derived their knowledge of policing from television shows such as Law and Order, Castle, Criminal Minds, NCIS, CSI, or crime novels. There are far fewer shows and books about construction workers, accountants, and museum curators, so people don’t believe themselves to be experts in those fields. However, if we see NCIS Special Agent Gibbs do something on NCIS, then we know it must be partially true. Right? I mean lots of agencies have a computer wiz on staff who routinely, and illegally, hacks into the Pentagon in order to get classified records. Right?
It’s natural for people to be apprehensive about law enforcement. Many of the interactions we have with the police are negative. Often our contacts with cops involve either being pulled over for a traffic violation or with having been the victim of some sort of crime. The overall experience may not be pleasant, but every encounter with each individual officer or agent should be evaluated independent of each other. If an officer yelled at you in Pittsburgh, then the retired L.A. cop you are talking to at a picnic had nothing to do with it. If you felt a detective in Austin, Texas was unfair to you, the investigator from St. Louis really can’t weigh in on the matter. If you got jammed up in traffic because of a motorcade rolling through Washington, D.C., then don’t complain to me about… actually, that could have been me. Sorry about that one.
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology