Last weekend I put up an excerpt from Adam Plantinga's excellent book "400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman".
It received a lot of attention and plenty of comments, both here on the blog and in e-mails from readers. The latter included requests for more of the same: so today, I'm going to post an entire (long) chapter from Sgt. Plantinga's second book, "Police Craft: What Cops Know About Crime, Community and Violence".
This chapter is titled "Policing the Community". It's particularly important if we want to understand how cops feel when they're confronted by a rioting mob, as is routine in places like Portland, OR and Seattle, WA these days; or when cops have to shoot someone, only to be accused of brutality or racism by local communities; or they have to patrol neighborhoods where radicals have an anti-cop agenda. It's a very tough job, and they have to walk a very fine line. I have enormous sympathy for them. (Yes, there are bad cops who give all the rest a bad name; but there are far more good cops than bad. We need to keep that firmly in mind, because the mainstream media won't report that.)
PROFANITY ALERT: Sgt. Plantinga uses the F-word on occasion, because it's the sort of language he's describing from those whom police encounter. I try to keep this blog family-friendly, but in this case I've left his language "as is", because it's the reality of the situation. I encountered it myself as a prison chaplain. I think the vernacular form of the verb "to copulate" is probably used in every second sentence on the prison yard, and on inner-city streets as well. (And no, "copulation" does not refer to sex between consenting police officers!)
Now and again, a member of the community will call the police on the police. You’ll respond to a dispatched assignment and the citizen won’t like the way the conversation is going so he’ll get on his cell and ask for different cops. Dispatch will ask you if everything is all right, because another 911 call for your location has just been received by the telecommunicator. You tell Dispatch all is well. And you let the caller know that you sense his anger and frustration and you will renew your pledge to help him in the best way you can, but he had best get off the line unless he wants to be cited for 911 abuse.
Some callers won’t be satisfied with the police services you’re providing and will request an officer of a specific race. “I want a black cop,” they might insist. Now if a female assault victim wants a female officer, you accommodate her because it can help make her more comfortable and forthcoming. If it’s a translation issue, you find an officer who speaks the language. But other than that? You don’t do such special requests. Because it’s a police department, not a restaurant. You can’t tailor your order. You may not demand an athletic, bi-curious Tongan officer with just a tinge of rakish insouciance. As the old saying goes, which I sometimes use with my five-year-old, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.
If the aggrieved caller wishes to file a complaint against you, they’ll demand your name and badge number, which you are required to provide. If the person requesting your information is drunk or high, some officers have been known to take a few liberties with this policy. You’d like my name, my good man? You bet. It’s Officer Nasium. Officer Jim Nasium.
One type of fellow who frequently asks for your name and badge number is a member of the community who holds a special place in the hearts of law enforcement. He is a white male, typically heterosexual, between sixteen and thirty years old. He is well-off, or at least his family is. He favors pressed khakis and designer golf shirts worn with the collar popped. His hair is artfully tousled. He is not battle tested, unless you count Twitter wars. A bad day for him is when his tennis racket comes unstrung. He probably drives a Fiat and he tends to get huffy if you pull him over, because stop signs aren’t for him, they’re for other people. He tends to lack perspective but ooze entitlement.
This storied individual is known in police parlance as a Chad. Because that’s usually his name, or something like it. It could be Lance. Trent. Damian. Blake.
Still confused about this terminology? I’ll use it in a sentence.
Cop 1: “What’s your victim like on the 9th Street robbery?”
Cop 2: “He ain’t much. Some Chad from Marin County.”
Not every rich kid is a Chad and, moreover, there’s nothing wrong with Chads per se. Their heavy reliance on styling gel and valet parking stimulates the economy. But when they leave their high-end laptop on the coffee shop table and go to the bathroom and are shocked when it’s stolen, you have to let them know that, sorry, we can’t call in the gunships and ground-penetrating radar. If you have tracking on that thing, we’ll do our best to run it down. We’ll check for video surveillance and put your serial number in the system, but other than that, you’re going to have to chalk it up to a loss.
If they don’t like the way things are going, Chads are known to invoke the lame standby “Do you know who my parents are?” The automatic cop response is “Excuse me, can anyone locate this young man’s parents? He does not know who they are.” Which is kind of lame in its own right. But you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes.
Even worse is the “Do you know who I am?” question, which is still alive and kicking among the upper crust. Everyone from Reese Witherspoon to Alec Baldwin has trotted it out when stopped by the police. I’m not aware of it ever working. (“Dammit man, you can’t arrest him! He played Agent Nick Kudrow in Mercury Rising!”) However, there is one circumstance under which “Do you know who I am?” can potentially reap dividends. I’m talking about diplomats. It doesn’t quite go like in the movies where they can murder away with impunity. But if a diplomat commits an act he claims is performed in the exercise of his consular function, you can’t arrest him except in the case of a serious felony that endangers public safety. And if you pull over some ambassador and have reason to believe that she is blitzed out of her mind after a consular visit to the local brew pub, San Francisco Police Department General Order 5.13 essentially states that in lieu of a drunk driving arrest, you are to escort her back to where she’s staying and write a report that will later be reviewed by the FBI and the State Department. The bottom line is if you stop anyone who flashes fancy international credentials, you need permission to take police action and will end up setting off a string of phone calls that will run from your Special Investigations Division up to at least a deputy chief, which might mean calling them in the middle of the night, which I am told they do not care for.
In addition to celebrities and diplomats, another class of people vying for special protection these days seems to be United States college students. Quite a few viral videos of late show some college kid being arrested by law enforcement. There’s a violent struggle during which a young man is taken down and handcuffed and comes up bloodied. At some point, tomorrow’s leader proclaims, “But I go to State!” Yep, the public seems to think, there the police go, assuming everyone is a hoodlum and brutalizing all in their path. Look at that educated young man with the scraped-up face—de facto proof of police terrorism.
But what the police see is someone they have just cause to detain or arrest trying to pull away from them. Someone showing the beginnings of fight or flight. This is against the law. It’s called Resisting/Obstructing an Officer. If you don’t think the police are justified in stopping you, have your friends videotape the whole thing and file a complaint afterward. But if you resist the police, you are probably going to the ground. Hard. This is what police training dictates. A member of the public isn’t just allowed to ignore your lawful directives without consequence. Otherwise you’d just have a bunch of police out there shrugging and saying things like: “I tried to arrest him, but he pulled away and I was like, rats, there goes another one!”
When the kid cries out “But I go to State!” you search your brain for any blanket immunity from prosecution one receives upon enrolling in college, even a well-thought-of institution. And you don’t come up with anything. You aren’t high-fiving your partner because his face got scraped up. You are not in the pain game if you can help it. Moreover, suspect injuries, however slight, are just more paperwork for you and likely a hospital run.
Here’s some good news for all young undergraduates. There is a simple yet elegant solution to avoiding this fate and it is this: refrain from resisting arrest, especially whilst standing on hard pavement. Pavement hurts. And it is unreasonable to expect the officer to say to his partner, “Hal, we got a violent young adult on our hands. Let’s try to maneuver him over to that soft, dewy field I saw three blocks from here.”
Regardless, when the fight is over, you clean the university student up and guide him through the arrest process. Maybe he gets a few stitches. Perhaps he spends a weekend in jail. He is left with a painful lesson about submitting to just authority. See. You do learn stuff in college after all.
* * *
Professor Stephen L. Carter, in his magnificent book "Civility", holds that we can be civil without being familiar and cautions against the danger of saying the first thing that comes into your head. “Words are magic,” he writes. “We conjure with them. We send messages, we paint images.” Saying Please and Thank You to the public is simple but goes a long way. It can also be all too rare. Some officers mistake civility for weakness. And we aren’t always careful with our words. When the community says “Fuck You,” it’s tempting to respond in kind. But as the old aphorism goes, never wrestle with a pig, because you both get dirty but the pig likes it. So you gotta take the high road. Because when you police neighborhoods where the citizens’ reaction to you ranges from mistrust to hate, the wrong word at the wrong time can be the spark in a mine full of coal dust. When you talk down to or outright goad a member of the public, be it a career felon or just some regular Joe you happen to find annoying, the damage is twofold. First, you have sunk to a level not befitting someone who is supposed to be a trained de-escalator and problem solver. Second, you have made the road tougher for both yourself and the next cop who works with that person. When you approach citizens and ask for their cooperation and you don’t get it, maybe it’s because you look quite a bit like the last cop they dealt with—same uniform, same gun belt—and that cop gave them the strong impression that he found their problems amusing. And then he called them “fucksticks.” The citizens saw inscribed on the side of that police car the words Integrity, Dedication, and Professionalism, but they weren’t shown even one of those things. As a result, when the police need help from the community, they’ll be stonewalled. That’s why one of key rules of law enforcement is this: Don’t Be a Dick.
The Don’t Be a Dick rule is also why you’ll find yourself performing various tasks that aren’t technically part of your job at all. Like helping a kid fix a flat tire on his bicycle. Or assisting an elderly woman with a blown fuse in her darkened home. Or taking phone calls at the station from senior citizens who are having problems with their credit or want to complain about the state of the world and public morals. This is why all across America desk sergeants are on the phone with citizens attentively sort-of listening to a litany of complaints that they can’t do anything about. “Okay, Mrs. Hargreaves,” the desk sergeant says. “I don’t quite understand those rollerbladers either. Thank you for keeping me informed. I’ll talk to you again next week.” My old Milwaukee partner Rolf Mueller (remember his name because I’ll be talking about him again) used to sweep up the broken glass caused by vandals, especially if the homeowner looked at all elderly or ailing. He’d politely ask for a broom and dustpan and then go to work, emphasizing the second word in the title Public Servant. No, you’re not a bike tech or an electrician or a member of a cleanup crew. It’s not written anywhere in your mission statement. But it is your mission to connect with the community. To build goodwill and a sense of trust. So in a sense it’s precisely your job. There are, of course, limits to this. “Go get me a beer,” an especially soused weekend reveler once demanded of me during a disturbance call. The beer remained ungotten.
Civility and good community relations call for giving the backseat of the patrol car a once-over before you give a citizen a courtesy ride home or take them to a crime scene to look at a suspect. You respond to a lot of assignments in the city, which cuts into opportunities for vehicle maintenance and beautification. This means that although you put a lot of gamey characters in the backseat, you also wash out those back seats infrequently. You want to avoid a “Hey! I think I just sat in piss!” moment with your citizen passenger.
Community relations also means looking professional but still approachable. So take the aviator shades off once in a while and limit the number of tough guy upward head nods to no more than three per shift. And if you put on latex gloves to search someone because you are wary of hep C and staph infections, the suspect you are searching will sometimes protest: “What, you think I got AIDS or something?”
The proper diplomatic response is “No. I’m trying to protect you from my germs.”
* * *
Community organizers concerned about police-society relations say officers should live in the kinds of black and brown neighborhoods they police. I understand why they say this and I believe it comes from a well-meaning place. And some cities have programs where cops can live in public housing for free or at a greatly reduced rate. The federal government has a HUD initiative called Good Neighbor Next Door that allows for teachers, firefighters, and police officers to receive a 50 percent discount on a home price on eligible properties in certain low-income zip codes provided they live there for a certain number of years.
It wasn’t part of any program, but I tried living in such a neighborhood for a few years when I was a Milwaukee cop. I was single at the time with no kids. I figured if anyone was to do it, it might as well be me. To call my experience a nightmare might be melodramatic, but not by much. I went in with honorable intentions. I thought I could add stability to the block. Maybe troubleshoot a few neighborhood problems. Generally be a force for good.
I was shockingly naïve.
The highlights of my stay included waking up to a gun-related homicide down the street, being surrounded by an angry crowd when I tried to break up a street fight off duty, and going to the laundry mat and coming face to face with a violent drunk I had arrested the week prior. The whole block knew who I was. I wasn’t trying to hide it, but it didn’t matter, because the toothless drug addict next door told everyone; I might as well have worn a blinking neon sign that said Cop. I became embroiled in a running conflict with the crack house across the street, which culminated in one of its occupants throwing the extension to a socket wrench at my head while I sat on my front porch. It whizzed past my left ear. I began creeping out my backdoor and crossing over the rear neighbor’s vegetable garden so the crack house wouldn’t know when I was home—it didn’t help, someone broke into my place presumably looking for my gun, which they didn’t find because, ironically enough, I always had it with me due to the wretched neighborhood. One night while off duty, I was flagged down by a man who said his sister was getting beaten up by her boyfriend inside their house—I responded alone even though I had no radio or backup—a foolish decision that I wouldn’t have made if I had been on duty, but somehow felt compelled to do off duty because, well, I was the cop on the block. A series of armed robberies close by had me walking to and from my car with my hand on my unholstered gun hidden in my front sweatshirt pocket, ready for close encounters. It was an extended period of danger both real and imagined, stress, hypervigilance, and unrest. I would spend all shift at work dealing with violence and strife and come home to more of the same. I looked over my shoulder a lot. I felt constantly under siege. Made it a bit hard to unwind.
I did, however, enjoy paying $375 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. As a guy living alone with low overhead, I didn’t have a lot of stuff so I used one of the bedrooms just to store my single raincoat. A raincoat storage room. I bet not even the Koch brothers have that. At night I would open my window and listen to people argue about unpaid bills, infidelity, drug abuse, and loneliness. It was the kind of neighborhood where the police had to fight the feeling to just let crime go, to battle the attitude that these people, in the end, deserved each other and the fate they had accepted or been dealt perhaps long ago.
Not all of my neighbors made me wary. Among them was Andre, the cheerful Frenchman next door, who shook my hand so enthusiastically when he found out I was a cop that I wasn’t sure if I’d get that hand back. He’d regularly invite me over for coffee and tell me how the neighborhood used to be better, some twenty years ago, before the dealers moved in. And I wasn’t in the same lot as those who lived around me. I wasn’t trapped there. I could have afforded to live elsewhere. And eventually I did. I have a family now, and our home is near a serene cul-de-sac far from the city I police. It’s an oasis away from work. There’s no chaos and little drama. People clean up after their dogs. They jog. They wave cheery hellos to each other. They take pride in their properties. In many ways, it’s the exact opposite of work. That’s why I like it. I feel my family is safe here. I want my family to be safe.
So this is just one man’s account of living in a rough neighborhood. Maybe another cop could pull it off. Maybe they wouldn’t have abandoned Andre as I did. But if so, they are forged of stronger stuff than me. As police officers, we are willing to put ourselves in harm’s way for an eight- or ten-hour shift, but when we’re off, we’d prefer to live in peace. There has to be some separation between the worlds of work and home. Otherwise, it’s liable to drive a fellow just past crazy.
* * *
The dissenting voice in society. Nothing could be more American. Protestors aren’t always right, and sometimes they fail to meaningfully advance the discussion and just yell a lot. But civil disobedience has created profound, lasting change in everything from women’s suffrage to civil rights, and if you think you’ve been marginalized, you’re gonna want to make some noise. However, if you are taking to the streets and clogging up traffic in support of a cause, especially if your demo is spontaneous and without a permit, allow me to present a modest proposal. It is this—have a point and a plan. A point is a clearly defined goal—get City Hall to change a policy, support a gay marriage amendment, rail against soybean tariffs. A plan is something like, we will march for thirty minutes, be peaceful, and stay off the freeways. Because if you have no point and no plan, you are just protesting for protesting sake. People are less likely to be drawn to your cause when you annoy the crap out of them by blocking intersections and spray-painting their property. You’ve just given them more reasons not to listen to you. And you are burning up a tremendous amount of finite police resources to swing traffic and prevent violence from breaking out among your ranks. Bet you’d be steamed if you got robbed at knifepoint and there were no available police cars to send to you because all units were tied up dealing with the gridlock, vandalism, and melees generated by the Occupy Anarchy Everything Sucks Demo.
Now, if you are a protestor who hates the police and everything about them, perhaps this argument won’t sway you much. But you know the kinds of people stuck in your manufactured gridlock who you may want to consider?
—Parents, especially single mothers, who are paying a dollar for every minute they are late to pick up their child from day care.
—People who are trying to get to a job interview on time.
—The sick, injured, and dying whom ambulances are rushing to the ER.
—Folks who really have to use the bathroom.
When you’re standing on line at an angry protest equipped with your long baton, your professional game face, and your riot helmet (which will start to smart after a while, like your head is wedged deeply in a metal waste basket), the protestors on the other side of the line—many of whom may not care about any particular cause but are just using a social controversy as a convenient hook to hang violence and looting on—will have quite a bit to say to you. Not much of it is a tribute. It’s a lot of this: “Fuck you, pig, you’re all wife-beaters, oink oink, bad cop—no donut, sucking at the public trough, faggot-ass cops, hope you all die.” They say these things both to express their heartfelt disdain for you and in hopes of eliciting a negative reaction from you. And you are not to respond. There’s absolutely no upside to it. It’s not the time or place for a civic-minded dialogue (you shouldn’t even point out to the protestor with a cardboard sign that there are two l’s in Orwell), and under those circumstances, even your most benign utterance can only serve to inflame a crowd that is already inflamed. You are there to keep the peace and facilitate their constitutional right to assemble and repeatedly call you vile names. That there is the police nurturing democracy.
But even given the whole sticks and stones philosophy, sometimes their rants can get to you. Some punk is in your face calling you worthless and commanding you to suck his dick and you’re thinking, hey, I helped catch a trio of armed robbers the other night and this week I solved an attempted murder case. What, pray tell, have been some of your own recent accomplishments, assface? And getting to level 38 of World of Warcraft doesn’t count. Let’s compare achievements and see who is found wanting. It’s a bit childish, but you do it anyway. And you can’t get in trouble, because it’s all in your head. Your thoughts, although exceedingly unprofessional, are still your own.
One thought you may wish to share with the protest community is that being disenfranchised isn’t a license to do whatever you want. You can understand the rage that stems from a divisive police incident and still hold people accountable for the crimes they commit during protests. But sometimes the chaos unfolding all around you reaches such a critical mass that your righteous indignation flames out and is replaced by something more coldly analytical. You’ll see a rioter coming out of a store with something that doesn’t make any sense, like three left shoes. Hey man, don’t you want to go back in there and get a right? If you must loot, do so properly.
* * *
Police-citizen community meetings are where the rubber meets the road, especially if the mood is especially testy between law enforcement and the public. Some supervisors will look frantically for a subordinate to send in their place.
“Kuchac, I need you to go to the public safety forum at the Santos projects tonight.”
“But lieutenant, I went to the last one …”
At such meetings, cops addressing a skeptical if not outright angry crowd will emphasize their roots, i.e., “I grew up four blocks from here.” Some familiar words words and phrases get trotted out. “Stakeholder.” “Gatekeeper.” “We’re working with our community partners.” “We’re working with the mayor’s office.”
If done right, community meetings can be an invaluable way of bridging the gap between the police and the public. A prevailing police weakness is our inability to seriously consider a point of view other than our own. The public might be wrong on some issues, or have unrealistic expectations of the police. But we have to listen to them. What was it that Atticus Finch said about really understanding someone? How you have to climb in their skin and walk around for a while? A lot of cops aren’t willing to do that with people. And a lot of people aren’t willing to do that with cops.
But if things go south, what you get is a free-for-all where everybody shouts, no one can understand anyone, and nothing gets done. The ugly irony is that protestors who (rightly) demand police accountability and transparency will attend these meetings and make it a point to drown out the cops with chants, name-calling, and boos so the police aren’t afforded an opportunity to demonstrate either accountability or transparency. The representative from the department usually tries to hang in there as long as he can. But there comes a time when there’s really no point in trying to make a lone voice heard in a cacophony. So he’ll leave.
“Yeah, fucking run away,” someone from the crowd will say.
Then the protestors will go to their websites and brag about how they shut the system down. Way to go guys, cutting that meeting short so everybody loses. Do you see how you’re working against yourselves? For your next trick, why don’t you go scatter antilittering pamphlets all over the town square.
One of the recurring themes at community meetings is the complaint about the over-militarization of law enforcement. And it’s true that the police don’t have to respond to every whiff of unrest with armored vehicles and long guns with scopes, because it can make us look less like public servants and more like shock troops. But this anti-militarization movement has its limits. Like when citizens say, “Why do those cops have helmets and shields? That just incites the crowd.” Don’t know about that. Most crowds seem to have a way of inciting themselves on their own just fine. You like your shield and helmet because it can stop a brick or bottle from knocking you unconscious. You hate being unconscious, especially in the midst of an angry mob. How about this tentative social compact—stop throwing dangerous shit at our heads and we’ll lose the helmets.
* * *
As a cop, you are out there to serve everybody equally with dignity and professionalism. From the stumblebums to the Chads to the male hipster with a Faux Hawk, gauged ears, and iridescent green shoes whose name is Thistle. You don’t have to necessarily understand them all, mind you. Just serve them.
But serving them requires getting out of your patrol car. Your relationship with folks must be more than being their arresting officer. Police departments organize toy drives, deliver food to elderly shut-ins, and referee youth sports leagues not just because it is right to do so but because it lets the police have positive contact with the citizens we serve. The societal problem does not exist that the police can buckle down and arrest our way out of. These issues are too complex, too entrenched. A guy I know on the Milwaukee Police Department used to aggressively pursue street hoodlums, and once he nabbed them, he would just as aggressively try to help them find meaningful work.
“Get a job with UPS, man,” he’d say. “They got clean uniforms. They teach you how to lift boxes right.”
I don’t know how successful he was with this approach, how many jobs were obtained, and how many were held down for any length of time. But regardless of the statistics, he understood that the police aren’t just in the crime-fighting business. We are also in the business of housing anytime we take someone to a shelter or refer them to Homeward Bound, which can provide a bus ticket for a stranded traveler to go home. We are in the education business when we go to schools to read to students. We are in the mental health business when we approach someone in crisis, assure them that they aren’t in trouble and we’re there to help, and transport them to an assessment center where they can be stabilized.
There are cops, especially old-timers, who resent these additional duties and bristle at being labeled anything that sounds even remotely like “social worker.” But if you’re serious about leaving your patrol sector just a bit better than you found it, you better get used to it.
Even when you do all you can to bridge the gap with the community, you’ll still occasionally return to your patrol car after completing an assignment and find one of your vehicle windows punched out or your door awash in graffiti, like “SFPD sux dix.” You’re irritated at the vandals. What a bunch of dix. But you know what never gets vandalized? That’s right, fire trucks. They remain immaculate, even gleaming, thanks to the frequent hose-downs by the fellas at the station house. And if they did ever suffer graffiti, it would probably be something tasteful, even honorific like: “Metro Fire: could they be any more courageous?”
* * *
In terms of bridging the gap, on my last day as a police officer before I was promoted to sergeant, my partner and I were on the unit block of 6th Street and I encountered a man I’ll call Mike. Mike was a man in his late fifties, a constant on the corner, usually drunk, although not so drunk that he couldn’t warn the drug dealers we were coming. He would occasionally threaten to kill me, although it was hard to tell because he always mumbled. I told Mike I was leaving to become a sergeant. He mumbled something. Then I took out a pack of Newport Lites that I save for suicidal jumpers and reluctant witnesses. I gave him one and had one myself. We sat at the corner and smoked.
“Hey,” I said. “You remember all those times you threatened to kill me? What was that all about?”
Mike just smiled his mysterious smile and kept smoking as we continued to broker an uneasy peace. For just a moment, the gap felt bridged.
But although Mike doesn’t quite crack my top ten list of favorite community members of all time, one of the slots on that list definitely goes to Ms. Vickie Williams-Tillman, a fifty-six-year-old woman from Baton Rouge. In the spring of 2017, she was listening to gospel music in the car on her way to Sam’s Club when she saw a man repeatedly striking a Baton Rouge police officer in the head with the officer’s baton. Williams-Tillman called the police and then jumped on the attacker’s back, helping fend him off until other officers arrived. She hurt her wrist in the process.
“I could see in his eyes he needed help,” she told a reporter. “You don’t have time to think about it … I did what God needed me to do.”
Thank you, ma’am. I will be sending Ms. Williams-Tillman a copy of this book. Plus a gift card to Sam’s Club.
Thought-provoking and intense. I recommend reading both Sgt. Plantinga's books. They're worth your time and money.