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Defining "professional courtesy"

Editor's Note: PoliceOne welcomes to our roster of writers Duane Wolfe, who previously has contributed to our popular "First Person" series, where members candidly share their own unique cop’s-eye-view of the world, from insights into issues confronting cops today to observations and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. Duane has been a Minnesota Peace Officer since 1988 and presently serves with the Parkers Prairie (Minn.) Police Department.

In a one-squad-car-town, shift change means you get picked up at your house by the officer who worked the previous shift. In my case, that other officer was often my chief. Usually the conversation would run the gamut from what had been going on at work to whether or not the fish were biting.

One day as we drove, the chief started talking about how cops needed to help other cops when they were in trouble. I could tell: that day’s conversation was going to be different. He used the example of an off duty cop who had crashed his car while driving drunk. He said if there were no witnesses around he wouldn’t have a problem with the responding officer, “looking the other way” and giving the officer a ride home and cleaning the accident up. He explained to me how cops had to watch out for one another, to take care of each other.

I was a rookie. He was the boss. So I listened. He called it “professional courtesy.”

That conversation took place a long time ago but I still remember it. Since then I have been “badged” by other cops during traffic stops. Attitudes toward “using” the badge seem to differ between cops and what region of the country you are in.

I was at a conference in another part of the country with cops from across the United States, and in one of the classes two officers from the same jurisdiction were loudly complaining about the health club across the street. It seems they had gone over to see what a workout pass would be for the days we would be there. The employee told them the price. They decided that was too much so they showed their badges and asked for the “cop price.” The employee said the price would be the same. They were particularly offended because this was their home state. If their account was accurate, they made quite a scene in the health club. They continued with that same attitude, obviously angered by this affront, loudly and profanely when they returned to the conference.

I was shocked that an officer would even think of showing his badge in an attempt to get a discount, let alone complain about it after. But as I said, different officers in different parts of the country do things differently. Where I come from that wouldn’t fly.

As a patrol officer, I’ve had off duty cops show me their badges when I pulled them over for traffic violations. Some had the badge in plain view inside the wallet. Others took the effort to present their ID to me.

I learned long ago that keeping your badge in plain view inside your wallet is poor off duty officer safety. Every time you open your wallet you advertise your profession to anyone in the area. That could invite assault or robbery or worse if the wrong person sees it in the wrong circumstances.

I have heard and read the advice that if you are stopped off duty you should produce your credentials along with your driver’s license and other pertinent papers. That might be good advice. However, every time I have stopped a cop who “produced” their ID I always wondered if they did it for no other reason than to get out of a ticket. In case you’re wondering I have never ticketed one of those officers.

Why? Because the situation didn’t require it.

I know of other cops who expect — even demand — to be let off during a traffic stop. My personal belief is that when stopped, and I have been stopped for speeding, I act like anyone else and produce the required requested documents and leave it up to the officer’s discretion. I would only produce my badge if the officer requested me to step out of the vehicle where, I might be subject to a pat down or if the fact that I was armed was likely to become known during the stop. I’ve already been embarrassed enough — I’d actually prefer that the officer not know I’m a cop.

I recall a scene in a movie — the name of which I can’t recall — that depicted two officers patrolling down the street they are passed at a high rate of speed by guy driving recklessly. As he passes he gives a hand signal indicating that he is a police officer and continues down the road driving wildly. The officers recognize the sign but pull him over anyway. It turns out the driver is a cadet at the academy who has been drinking. The driver demands to be let go because he is on the job. The officers respond by placing him in the trunk of their squad car and driving him back to the academy where they dump him off with an explanation of the incident. It was a very entertaining solution to the problem, although completely unrealistic. (What cop car has that kind of room left over in the trunk with all the equipment we carry?!)

How you handle the situation is up to you. What is the offense or crime? What is the attitude of the offender/suspect? Will a verbal warning solve the problem or not? Just remember that badges can be bought anywhere by anyone. Do you know what the ID of an agency 2,000 miles, let along 20 miles away looks like?

A friend and chief of police ordered a badge from a police supply company. When the package arrived he got two badges. He sent the extra one back. Several months later the sheriffs department got a call from another agency 200+ miles away asking about the chief. It seems someone had been committing low level crimes (disorderly conduct, simple assault, DUI) “badging” the responding officers with a chief’s badge and being let go by the responding officers. It wasn’t until this became a reoccurring problem in multiple agencies that the officers bothered to check on it. The suspect was later charged with Impersonating a Police Officer. A check the first time would have would have avoided those problems. Needless to say, I don’t condone using the badge as a “Get out of jail, free” card.

Some would say an officer letting another officer go is “professional courtesy.” My definition differs. To me “professional courtesy” means that when you are in my jurisdiction you conduct yourself so that your behavior doesn’t require that I come into contact with you. You act like a professional and show me courtesy by not placing me in the position of having to deal with you. In return I do the same for you.

In situations that warrant it, a call to a supervisor to verify the ID can solve several problems. First, you know your dealing with a real cop; secondly, the supervisor knows about the incident. It’s not quite a ride in the trunk but it may be what is needed to get somebody straightened out.

I know that this idea might not be popular with some officers and that’s OK. Attitudes differ. It’s been my personal experiences that the more strongly someone feels about cops “looking the other way” for other cops are also the more likely to need that kind of treatment.

That conversation with my chief took place several days before I was interviewed by agents of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension regarding an investigation into crimes “allegedly” committed by the chief.

My new chief told me if I ever caught him breaking the law to arrest him. He was a great chief.

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