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Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

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Engage Your Brain Before Acting

Ham-handed law enforcement by unthinking police makes this job harder for us all.

June 14, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Our unique empathy for what our peers go through means that, save for the most misanthropic among us, we cops can probably be counted upon to act as one another's advocates. In my case, so long as the guy isn't some martinet motor cop, an obsequious climber, some anal-retentive lieutenant, or amoral dirtbag with a badge, he or she is apt to find me solidly in his or her corner.

Still, I sometimes find myself wondering what is percolating in the ol' grey matter of some officers when I hear of some cop whose decision-making process makes the news.

Consider the case of the officer who cited a dad after the man had abandoned his ride to save his 5-year-old boy.

For the click-impaired, here's the story: A father and son in Union County, N.J., are out on an outing to feed some ducks when the latter darts toward a precipitous 35-foot drop. Dad, up to this point mobile in his Jeep Commander, abandons it to chase the lad down and save him. The rescue effected, son and dad look up in time to see the Jeep swan dive over the cliff and into a lake. Fade out.

Fade in: Image of responding officer issuing citation to dad. Make that two.

The violations? Failure to set the parking brake and failure to present proof of insurance (Given its watery confines, if I was the father, I would have considered saying, "It's in the glove box. But there may be a gun inside with it. As I am sure that you would want to retrieve it instead of me, you have my permission to do so.")

Not knowing the lay of the land or what was happening in the seconds preceding the child's self-declared emancipation from the Jeep, I can arguably see a point being made for the man being cited for child endangerment. But my speculations will go little further than that when it comes to taking some enforcement action against the man. To my mind, it would appear that both man and duck—I don't think he'll be revisiting Huey, Dewey, and Louie anytime soon—have already paid a helluva price in his gaining the scare of his life and giving new meaning to "off-road vehicle."

And it's not like the man did not react to the situation as a father should. No doubt there are some who faced with similar circumstances might well have suffered some internal debate as to what to do—a Socratic moment that might well have resulted in the losses of child, car, and driver.

One can allow for an objective concern for the man's failure to set his brakes; no one wants unmanned cars allowed free rein, after all. But the imperative need to cite for failure to provide a submerged insurance card? Rosie O'Donnell's g-string doesn't stretch that much.

That smacks of either petty-assedness, or chickenshit revenue-generating opportunism (while I am naturally sensitive to the possibility of there being some combination thereof at work, I am trying to keep in the spirit of the handling officer's sense of absolutism).

It's not like any failure at wrist-slapping in this incident might establish a fad. I don't think we'll start seeing parades of driverless Jeep Commanders cascading lemming-like over the nation's numerous cliffs.

Let me ask you this: If the driver had been a fellow cop, would you have cited him? And if you wouldn't have, would it be because of "professional courtesy" or something else?

Like it or not, this is the kind of thing that is absolutely disastrous on the public relations front. Sure, you can say "Well, it's my officer discretion, and I stand by it!" Really? Think about the headaches it has caused for the agency (yeah, I contacted it). Think about how something like this impacts the whole of the law enforcement community vicariously at a time when many citizens are already looking at us askance over what it perceives to be "exorbitant" pensions.

And when even Union County Police Chief Daniel Vaniska has said, "It probably could have gone either way," do you think that just maybe it should have?

Look, there's something to Ben Foster's maxim of the journalist being the first chronicler of history. True, you and I may regard him as the proverbial "unreliable narrator," but do we really need to needlessly avail him ammunition against us? Will history not look back at us and wonder, "WTF were they thinking?"

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