The nice thing about a consensual contact is that it doesn't require informed consent. It's no wonder police officers enjoy an advantage in the field. When it comes to the prospect of striking up a conversation or striking legs, there's no parity involved (just kidding). Officers can ask any number of questions without being obligated to answer any in return. Moreover, they can even lie to the very person they're playing "riddle-me-this-20-question-Q-and-A" with. One such popular ruse involves telling a person being interrogated that his associate has implicated him in a written confession.
One day shortly before the end of my shift, I observed two young men standing near a bus stop. The two conversed briefly with one attempting to hand the other a bulky paper sack. But the man shied away and then walked off, leaving the first literally holding the bag. That the two were completely unaware of my presence made me even more curious as to the man's hesitancy to accept it.
My probable cause was light at best, but in a world of nothing ventured, nothing gained, I ventured a little closer. As I pulled in behind the bus bench where the man with the bag had taken a seat, he glanced back at me and did the proverbial double take.
I decided to strike up a conversation with the man and we commiserated about the summer heat. I noted that carrying that heavy sack probably didn't help matters. He laughed and said he could hardly wait to get rid of it, then stared down the street for the bus that wasn't coming. I asked him why he didn't get rid of the bag then and there. He seemed flustered.
"Well, they're my radios."
I casually asked him where he got them. He said from cars of his he'd wrecked. I idly asked him for the license plate number to one of his cars. I didn't expect him to know; I just wanted to see what he'd say.
Rather than saying that he didn't know what the license plates were—like most of the population—he quickly rattled off a seven digit license plate number. No letters. A red flag, at least in California.
It was plain to see that the man was overly anxious to please, and when he finally said, "Look, my dad lives right around the corner. We can go over there right now," I decided to take him up on his kind offer.
As I turned down the street where he said his dad lived, it soon became apparent that it was going to end long before we got to the alleged hundred block. The man, seated in the back seat of my patrol car of his own volition, suddenly indicated a house on the (numerically) wrong side of the street.
"That's it," he said. "But it doesn't look like anyone's home, so I guess we can forget it."
I parked the car and knocked on the door. It turned out he was right: No one was home.
But the neighbors were.
In speaking with them, I found that the residents of the house were an Asian man and his wife…and their daughter.
Confronted with this information, the man said, "I lied. I don't have a dad. I just wish I did. Now, more than ever."
The conversation went on, with the man making painstaking progress in piling one lie atop the other so that my curiosity evolved into suspicion and my suspicion into probable cause. I ended up arresting the man for reasonable cause burglary. He, in turn, ended up clearing up some 500 residential and vehicle burglaries from Temple City to Santa Clarita. It turned out that he was the Chapman Woods burglar that our station detectives had been searching for for the previous two years.
I was only four days off training when I made the arrest, and while my career probably went downhill from there, it taught me several valuable lessons.
First, to rely on my senses. I learned to keep an ear out for what people weren't telling me as much as what they were—the conversational gloss overs and all those things that they'd leave out of their stories. I kept an eye out for body language that didn't mesh with an otherwise nonchalant demeanor. I touched their wrists or necks for accelerated pulse rates, learned to smell and recognize their bullshit, and developed a taste for hooking those who tried to con me.
Finally, it taught me that by just getting into the habit of shooting the shit with people and listening to them—really listening to them—you didn't always have to worry about looking for probable cause. Sometimes, they'll just open up and give it to you.