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Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Associate Editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.
Patrol

Bad Assumptions Can Bite You in the Ass

Asking the right questions at the right time can save you medical expenses.

August 02, 2007  |  by - Also by this author

Here’s a variation of an old joke that actually played out in reality for one of our deputies:
Before entering a property, the deputy asked the home owner, “Does your dog bite?” The owner said no. Satisfied, the deputy entered the property…and was promptly chomped.

“I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!”

“That’s not my dog,” the homeowner replied.

Sometimes, it’s the unasked question that comes back to bite us on the ass.

Indeed, a simple question can save a lot of problems. Particularly when the question seems a pretty obvious one to ask, at least in retrospect, by administrators and lawyers.

Example One: Deputies get a call of a girl who has sequestered herself in the bathroom of a commercial establishment and is refusing to come out. Her parents want the deputies to make her come out. They open the door and find a male—whom they correctly infer is the girl's lowlife boyfriend—lying on the floor asleep. They nudge his feet and say, "Get up." What they do not infer is that the startled boyfriend is wanted for robbery and is armed. The fight is on.

Example Two: Officers respond to the scene of a CHP request for assistance. A subject has just fled from a vehicle after a pursuit. Units are coordinated and a containment is effected. Everyone patiently waits for a Sheriff's Department K-9 unit to respond, which it does. "Ok, so we're looking for a g.t.a. suspect, right?"

"No," says the CHP officer. "Vehicle's not a stolen. Failure to yield, only."

As the sheriff's department doesn't deploy for such crimes, everyone packs up their shit and goes home.

Example Three: Cops ask a resident if she minds if they search a bedroom.

“No problem,” she says.

The search is conducted and evidence seized, only to be suppressed at trial. The reason? The person that granted permission had no legal standing to do so.

Example Four: One officer placed a detained suspect into the back seat of a conveniently situated black and white. Since he didn’t ask whose car it was, he didn’t anticipate that his Department’s K-9 would be returning his dog to that same the back seat later that night. Poor bastard got chewed.

What if the deputies had simply asked if the girl was alone? What if someone had simply clarified what the pursuit suspect was wanted for instead of assuming it was a g.t.a.? What if they’d asked what recognized access the resident had to the room in question? What if the officer had simply asked who the patrol car belonged to before putting the suspect—and some liability—in the back seat?

"Never assume, because it makes an "ass" outta "u" and "me." We all do it. But sometimes it pays to reconsider our assumptions and ask for clarification.

A simple question can sometimes prevent a complicated response. Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising to find cops failing to ask questions; they are take-charge kind of guys and gals, after all.

Examples of questions that often go unasked include:

• Do you want to prosecute?
• Can you recognize the suspect if you see him again?
• Are there any firearms inside the location?
• Is he on parole or probation?

A desired quality of a law enforcement officer is initiative and, if he can take charge, so much the better. But taking charge also means being responsible and doing things in a manner that is both legal and tactically sound. The more intelligence that we can get on the location or suspect, the better off we collectively are. Never assume that a fellow officer has asked a question you find yourself considering. Sometimes, it's better to ask a question twice, than to let it go unasked at all.

That way, you’re less apt to get bitten in the backside later. 


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