There are two professional groups for which I generally have more compassion than cops: teachers and firemen. I respect teachers because they have to put up with the little brats—and by extension, their parents—all day long. As for firemen, they have to go a lot of places that we do and, when somebody shoots at them, they can’t shoot back.
But that doesn’t mean that either profession is perfect, and the mistakes they make can be further complicated by the mistakes we make.
As any cop who works day shift will attest, teachers are often the front line in identifying problems. Tagging, dope dealing, and gang activities are often identified by vigilant teachers. But vigilance is only half the battle. What the teachers do with the information they acquire is just as important. As such, teachers sometimes make well-intended mistakes.
I was reminded of this when I read of a suspect who was identified as a voyeur after the discovery of a camouflaged video camera in a seemingly abandoned backpack on school grounds. A staff member found the backpack and took it and its contents to the principal and together the two watched the video in the camera. Upon reviewing the tape, they found that the camera had been positioned below a cluster of desks so as to accommodate viewing of students sitting at those desks. The tape had recorded the image of a female second- or third-grader wearing a skirt as she sat her desk.
Now there is no shortage of perfectly valid reasons for the person who looked inside the bag and reviewed the videotape to have done so, including determining if it was a possible explosive or attempting to identify its owner.
But the people who found the camera and incriminating videotape made a fatal error in deciding to err on the perceived side of caution—a decision that was abetted by a police dispatcher who advised them that they had violated the owner's rights in accessing the tape and reviewing it.
The school officials returned the incriminating videotape to its owner prior to the arrival of a police officer.
This incident goes beyond merely illustrating the hazards of erroneous information being imparted to concerned callers. It shows how a well-intentioned act by a fellow civil servant can hamstring our abilities to do our job—to make an arrest and successfully prosecute criminals. In this case the lowest of the low—a child predator.
While many teachers have more than a passing familiarity with the law, especially those who are cops moonlighting as teachers or teachers moonlighting as reserve police officers, many do not. They can be adamant in telling us to make arrests when we can’t, and can refuse us the opportunity to make arrests when we must.
Educators have their job, and we have ours. But we can educate the educator. Advising them of the law and our agency’s policies can help foster a sustained dialog that is profitable for them, for us, and the community. This is where school resource officers or their equivalent can be instrumental in preventing problems.
It is equally important that the people answering the phone lines know their jobs and the limits of what they should be communicating to the public when it comes to matters of law. As such, they should allow officers the opportunity to handle such calls when they arrive.
Maybe in this manner we can teach some old dogs some new tricks and everyone involved in the equation won’t pay an exorbitant price for the lessons learned.