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20 cultural faux pas in police departments
A question posted recently on Quora asked, "What are some cultural faux pas in police departments?" Former police officer Justin Freeman gave his opinion on the topic, below. Check it out and add your own thoughts in our comments section.
This is hard to pin down across the board. In addition to there assuredly being different pet peeves harbored by officers in different locales, law enforcement is not a monoculture; you'll find eggheads, meatheads, and everybody in between. In thinking of things I think would constitute irritations regardless of where you work, though, the following comes to mind:
• Exhibiting sub-par uniform presentation. This might include fabric deterioration, a dull finish on your duty boots, or having tarnished brass — especially your badge. We used to ply veteran officers and those with retina-searing badges for tips on how to keep a sharp shine on them. If your badge started oxidizing and you didn't pick up on the snickering you inevitably got in passing, your sergeant would soon give you a heads up.
• Being a safety liability at the firing range. This would include lasering people (swinging your gun barrel so as to put people in its direct trajectory), firing out of turn, ignoring protocols, not clearing your weapon properly, passing off a loaded weapon, and so on.
• Letting loose with double entendres during defensive tactics training, especially in ground fighting tactics, where you're often in variations of guard and mount and in close proximity. It was always annoying with someone your own gender; and while I never witnessed or experienced it between genders, it would obviously carry the potential for a sexual harassment issue.
• Milking calls for service. If you habitually stay on a simple call for service (false alarm, simple shoplifting, minor traffic accident, etc.) for inordinate amounts of time, you're going to be accused of "milking" your calls, or staying on them for the sole purpose of avoiding being dispatched to other, potentially more complex or time consuming calls.
• Lacking beat integrity. Most departments section their jurisdiction into areas of responsibility, sometimes called 'zones' or 'beats.' In my department, there was usually one officer to a beat, with one or two 'relief' drivers who covered calls if a beat driver got tied up on something. Beats were sized according to historic call load (large beats where calls for service were rare, small beats in busy areas). If a call came out in your beat and you were available, you were usually sent automatically; if not, you'd better get on the radio and tell dispatch to send you. Even if I wasn't quite done with my present call, if a call came out in my beat I would tell dispatch to "stack it to me," which put it in a queue for me to address. I sometimes had five or six calls waiting (if they were non-time sensitive like check the area and patrol requests — I'm not going to do this with an active threat call like a domestic assault or felony in progress). Officers who let peers be dispatched to time-intensive calls in their beat and minutes later came off of the call they were working, or who magically happened to drum up a car stop when dispatch was trying to send them to a call, were murmured about in the locker room.
• Writing what we called "ticky-tack tickets," or citations written for issues a warning should have sufficed for, just to make a show of turning in a pile of tickets at the end of a shift. Yes, even other cops think cops who write needless tickets are jerks.
• Not offering to cover a call for an officer about to end tour (at the end of their shift), thus preventing them from going home on time.
• Making car stops when there are 911 calls holding which have yet to receive officer response. Calls for service were our number one priority, and a car stop opens any number of possibilities for time consumption — a DWI could eat anywhere from one to five hours, depending on the circumstances, and a minor warrant is still usually a mandatory arrest. If we're getting slammed with 911 calls and you're ferrying a warrant arrest to jail because they didn't pay the $10 fine for their seatbelt ticket, you're going to make yourself unpopular very quickly.
• Eclipsing your allotted time on breaks and lunches.
• Having a dead flashlight on second or third shift. I tried to always carry two on my person and another one or two in my gear. When it comes to flashlights on duty in the dark, two is one and one is none. There are few things more terrifying than searching a building in the dark with your gun drawn at the low ready position, and watching your flashlight fade to black.
• Being a bad building search partner. This might take the form of either being too uptight, when you're so wound up you have to fight the urge to shoot the first shadow that moves, or too laissez-faire, when you get lazy and start plodding through the building, ignoring clearance tactics and protocols. The former is usually the sin of the rookie; the latter the sin of the veteran.
• In the Academy, having to be accommodated in any way, or bringing trouble to the rest of the group. You learn from the first day that you will succeed or fail as a group, because that's how it will eventually be on the street. True, and necessary, but it establishes a dynamic in which the weak and slow are the near-immediate target of derision. I still remember the seventy-five pushups we had to bang out when someone lasered everyone with a shotgun, the excruciating strain of having to carry a failing recruit at the end of a run, and having to sustain an upright pushup position on sharp limestone gravel when someone missed a knife during a search, while an instructor passed a knife in front of our faces and ominously repeated recruit by recruit, "This will kill you."
• Unnecessarily riling up subjects and suspects — we colloquially called this "pimping somebody out." Some officers just couldn't help but throw a few verbal jabs in when they were completely unnecessary, which sometimes led to people either getting defensive or becoming combative. You got to know who did this pretty quickly, and sometimes dreaded having to work a call with them.
• Being too wordy on the radio. Radio time is precious - you never know when someone will need to call for backup. If you're on air blathering about something, they won't be able to get out on air.
• Being passive-aggressive on the radio — trying to make a point with voice inflection or unnecessary requests for clarification about a supervisory decision, the actions of another officer or squad, or dispatch themselves.
• Working calls sloppily — not arresting someone when they needed it and making another officer respond to clean up the mess, classifying a call as GOA (gone on arrival) without checking the area thoroughly enough, classifying calls as HBO (handled by officer) when enforcement action should have been taken (or when, at the very least, a report should have been written), classifying genuine domestic disputes as civil and parental discipline situations just to get out of writing a report, and so on.
• Giving poor testimony in a hearing or trial. I called this "getting crucified on the stand." In practice, most matters don't go to trial because they're subject to plea bargains and other administrative dispositions. Every so often, though, you'll have to testify in a preliminary or revocation hearing, and very occasionally in a bench or jury trial. When that happens, you'd better have your ducks in a row. Defense attorneys have all kinds of ploys — your job on the stand essentially boils down to telling the truth and sounding intelligent. They'll attack your experience, your methodology, your investigation, your evidence gathering, your forensic analysis, your demeanor, your follow-up, and anything else they can think of. If you have to have your memory refreshed with your report more than a couple of times (or at all in a simple case), cannot articulate your methods of investigation, use an inordinate number of vocalized pauses, allow yourself to get flustered, or just generally look like a dunce, the defense attorney has successfully tacked you on a cross. Since hearings and trials are attended by judges, attorneys, officers from other agencies, the general public, and occasionally the media (in higher profile cases), the last thing you want to do is make it seem as though the officers in your department are dense.
• "Diming out" an off-duty officer. Most smart officers don't want the general public around them to know that they're police officers when they're off-duty — there's just too much liability at play. If someone with an ax to grind against LE personnel sees someone in civvies talking to a uniformed officer in a familiar way, they're going to surmise that they're LE too, and would then be able to ambush or harass them later on. If I was on duty and encountered someone I worked with who was off-duty, I'd usually silently nod in greeting and keep walking — unless they initiated conversation. This was a sensitive subject, and was taught early on in the Academy. You had to go so far as to train your kids to not do this. That may sound harsh or extreme, but imagine being an unarmed off-duty officer caught in the middle of a bank robbery and having your kid yell, "You can't do that — my daddy's a cop!"
• Being a bad patrol car neighbor. Leaving the gas tank empty for the next shift, leaving food and drink containers strewn in the cabin, or, God forbid, not taking your car to the service center when someone unloaded any manner of body fluids in the backseat.
• Writing minor citations to people in certain occupations, especially doctors, nurses, and other emergency personnel. I'll highlight "minor citations" here — I'm not talking about offenses usually resulting in arrest, I'm talking about tickets for slight speeding, license plates, parking, and so on. This may be construed as good-ol'-boy-ism, but think about it. If I write a ticket to an officer on another agency, and a mutual aid agreement causes us to work together in a major event, would I rather he or she get my back, or be thinking about that ticket I wrote them a few weeks ago? Similarly, if I get wheeled into the ER with gunshot or stab wounds, I don't want even the split second of hesitation in a doctor or nurse's motions as I'm recognized as the author of their recent ticket. Besides that, I worked with doctors and nurses in our local hospitals a lot. Good, benevolent nurses saved me literally hours of work sometimes in clearing red tape and expediting information requests — and the good will preserved in exercising officer discretion in this area was generally valued within the department.
It might seem from all of this that law enforcement is an impossibly complex ecosystem. In practice, though, much of this is firmly internalized by the time you get your badge at Academy graduation. Even when someone violated one of these, though, they usually got the hint from reactions or were quietly pulled to the side and given a heads up. In the end, it was often us versus them, in the truest sense of the phrase — the threats we faced and the despair we were confronted with on a daily basis were usually enough to galvanize us into the realization that, despite our differences, we were all brothers and sisters.