Thursday, January 18, 2007

Most police do the best job they can and do it well

Last week I wrote a post on the two boys recovered from a kidnapper in Missouri. And as was confirmed today, the man who held at least one of the boys for four years was a child molester.

In the post I wrote, Kudos to the police officers who noticed a rusty white pickup truck with a camper shell like that used in the kidnapping while they were visiting the building where it was parked on an unrelated case.

This is a sterling example of police work done right. So was the arrest of Warren Jeffs last August in which a police officer on a routine traffic stop sensed that the man in the back seat was unreasonably nervous and couldn't give a straight answer. Jeffs is now on trial and hopefully the nightmare of young girls being forced to marry old men and become their fifth wife, or of teenage boys being dumped out on the street without being ready to meet the world will now come to an end.

I've also been critical of police at times. For example, in this post about a kid being killed after a taser was used unnecessarily or in the post where I wrote about my experience serving on a Grand Jury in which I wrote, in part:

Observation #4: A few police officers will cut corners (not what you want when you are deciding on matters that affect people's lives). On one occasion, we heard from a police officer who mentioned a person's prior criminal record and the representative from the county attorney's office had to advise the jury to ignore that comment and told the police officer he shouldn't mention that. So five minutes after that case ended, we had the same police officer back on the stand in regard to another case involving someone else, and he did exactly the same thing (and got the same warning.) He should know the law on this, and the first time could have been an honest mistake but I really felt the second time was intentional. Now, the evidence was easily sufficient even without that, so I have to question what his motives were. There were also cases in which the investigation seemed to be particularly slipshod, with even basic information either not collected or not put into the report, which is unfair to the cop testifying when he has to look in the report and can't find the answer to a question such as 'how tall is this person' or 'did someone verify that the item this person had was the one stolen?' I have a lot of friends who are police officers, and I believe that most of them act honorably and do the best job they can, and certainly deserve respect and support (support meaning better equipment and higher pay-- our cops are underfunded by our misers down in Phoenix as well) for the dangerous and thankless job they do. But I'm also convinced that there are some of the other kind out there, and we saw both types testify.

And we have seen a number of high profile cases out of large cities like Los Angeles, New Orleans (particularly during Katrina) and New York where individual or small groups of police officers have become the criminals themselves. In cases like the Abner Louima case, we have certainly seen how a criminal in a uniform is just that much more dangerous.

I had an experience myself with what might be considered a police excess (though certainly not on the scale of what we have seen in some minority communities). In 1995 I was involved in a traffic accident in Albuquerque. While I was waiting for an ambulance to take me to the hospital and make sure I was OK, I could hear distinctly a police officer rifling through my car (without a warrant). I couldn't see it because I was restrained by the paramedics and couldn't turn my neck. Later when I visited my car at the yard where it had been towed to I could see that what I had heard was correct, the glove box and other things had been opened and dumped out (which the accident did not cause that) and a locked briefcase I had was forced open-- which did bother me because the briefcase had belonged to my late father and was one of the very few things I had which had been his.) I don't know what they were looking for-- probably drugs, but I don't use drugs and whatever they were looking for they didn't find it. The long term harm to the police is that (at least speaking for myself) if I were serving on a jury and a defendant's lawyer were to suggest that the police broke the law and violated his or her civil rights, I would tend to take that suggestion much more seriously as a possibility than I probably would have before that episode. And when I read about charges like that in the media I tend to consider that it may well be true (so for example, I believe that Mark Furman might (or might not) have planted evidence in the O.J. case, which most people I've asked are sure that he did not-- although they don't say why they are sure, they just are).

I do believe that it is important that the public have full confidence in the police, both that they will protect their communities and that they will obey the law in regard to treatment of suspects and procedures in exercising their authority. Where failures to carry out these duties are found, then we should not be afraid as a society to prosecute police officers just as we would anyone else who committed a crime.

However, I also believe that police get the bad end of the old adage that if you do 99 things right and make one mistake then you will get hanged for the mistake. Police officers have a tough, tough job (one that can get them killed)-- and most often they do get the bad guys and don't bother the good guys-- but they are held up to a theoretical standard of perfection. Yes, we've all met the 'badge and a gun' kind of cop who likes to harrass people just to feel big, but the truth is that most police departments don't want to hire people like that, both for reasons of public opinion and for reasons of liability (people can still sue in the civil courts if they want to-- and it usually is the department that they sue, not just the individual officer.) Yes, some investigations are slipshod and sometimes police don't follow up leads because they are either oveworked or just plain too lazy to look beyond the first suspect they can think of (remember Richard Jewell-- who ironically is a good cop). But the large majority of police officers (and some of them are my friends) are good people who will go out of their way to do their jobs, which also includes helping people if they need it. My son in law wants to go to the police academy. I am tremendously proud of how good a husband he has been to my daughter (working two jobs night and day to put food on the table) and a father to my grandchildren. I am sure that he would be a good cop if he does go through the training for it (right now he is a prison guard-- another dangerous job that doesn't pay enough.) Most of the police officers I know in the little town where I live (a lot of them live there) are good people. My kids go to school with their kids, and I see them around town all the time. I'm sure they are not so friendly to people who they arrest, but let's face it-- would you prefer that they not do it? Some cases are very tough for police, such as if they get called to a domestic dispute at midnight, but they still have to go and if necessary may have to arrest people and drag them out of their own homes. It's what the law says they should do and we expect them to follow the law-- but the people they arrest will probably tell it much differently. In rural communities it may even be harder on the police because of how often they end up having to arrest people who they know, or sometimes even people who they are related to.

1 comment:

Jamie LaJolla said...

Your lucky your not black or latino. Police don't see you driving a nice car and just assume you are a drug dealer or a pimp and pull you over and hassle you.