Photo by Kelly Bracken.
It's been said that a truly good cop could have worked any era in law enforcement and done quite well. When my mind revisits those cops that I used to work with, around, and to varying degrees tolerated, there are two groups that stand out predominantly for their diametrically opposite approaches to patrol.
On the one side there were those that would sit roadside patiently like a spider waiting for vibrations in its web, always vigilant for that optimal traffic stop, the one that would pay off with dope, or guns, and at least one body in custody.
And then there were those who adopted more of a "spray and pray" technique, hoping that through a vast number of detentions that maybe one or two unwary motorists might take a backseat. Their probable cause was often as light as a feather and weighed just as heavily on their conscience.
Their realities—as it relates to the "any era" adage—suggest that some of the spider cops of yesterday would prove to be quite capable still today.
Those other guys? The ones who gambled on large volumes and laws of averages to make their arrests? Not so much.
My prejudice on this issue is heavily influenced by the sheer number of checks and balances that mark this era as the most formidable that the profession has thus far known. By policy, by procedure, by videotape, every field decision by today's street cop is subject to omnipresent review by those within and without the department. And it is as much because of this as despite this that I believe that those old-school sleuths—the ones who would profile and factor in everything from the driver's physical appearance; to his suggested emotional state; and the year, make, model, and condition of his vehicle—would somehow find a means of passing judicial muster today.
And yes, I consciously used that horribly stigmatized word "profile."
What a great word to apply, what a sound practice to employ. To appraise the likelihood of another's criminal bent upon the observed confluences of comport and behavior, to assert one's own initiative and common sense in optimizing one's available time, to transcend the idiocies of randomness and the "one size fits all" mentalities of the TSA—what a time efficient concept! At least, in my admittedly biased book…
Ironically, it's when I am not betraying any particular bias that I get taken to task for it. For instance, I still get comments lamenting the tack I took with the dispatcher articles in Police Magazine a few months back, especially the one "10 Things Officers Want to Tell Dispatchers." I consciously duplicated the same degree of candor that was communicated to me by both dispatchers and cops in this piece and in its predecessor titled "10 Things Dispatchers Want You To Know." Interestingly, no cops complained about the dispatchers' comments, but I can't say as much for dispatchers.
On a more agreeable front, I have truly appreciated some of the comments received on recent blogs. Even a coupe of critical ones have proven of profit, in some cases forcing me to rethink a posture, in others reminding me that reading comprehension skills are not something our profession screens for.
Honesty is, however, something that is allegedly sought in a law enforcement officer, but rarely appreciated when encountered. If it was appreciated, both Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka might have saved themselves some headaches by listening to disagreeable truths that'd been communicated to their likes years ago.
I see myself as pretty honest, and if given the obligation to rate myself on candor, would rate myself a solid seven and an unimpeachable nine compared to most men I have known. Certainly, I am not above admitting my operational failings as a cop, a writer, a husband, a father, and a human being, and take great pride in my less abstract opinions.
Still, I have been known to couch sentiments, lie by omission, and resort to timely dissemblance when I deem it necessary. And if I occasionally conduct my affairs with the kind of "transparency" normally associated with the likes of the Obama administration, it is because, like the politicos, I find myself uniquely capable of determining what needs to be revealed and when.
Such situational honesty is hardly unique. There are other areas where the need for honesty is broadly hoped for if not wholly expected.
Outside of time and the usual allocation of county supplies, I have never stolen anything on duty. The only time I was accused of such I was working patrol as a trainee, and I lost the wallet of a detainee. That’s a cautionary reminder against taking stuff out of peoples' pockets and leaving them atop your car hood.
That's not to say that I never thought about it. While babysitting corpses, I have contemplated what manner of hidden treasures might be in the general vicinity (admittedly, such action was not long contemplated when the treasures in plain view were rap CDs and makeshift bongs). But outside of checking prescription bottles or telephone directories for some attending physician or next-of-kin, I have never snooped into their drawers, closets, or elsewhere and never did I remove any personal belongings.
But where I have had probable cause to search I have done so leisurely and liberally. I have put myself in the shoes of criminals while sitting in the seats of their cars, wondering where and how I would stash my ill-begotten stuff. As a result, I have discovered contraband insinuated into head liners and found holes fashioned into floorboards for smuggling. I have found drugs in phony bottles of air freshener, in Zip-Loc baggies insinuated into the hollowed brims of baseball caps, and in balloons wrapped up in children’s socks.
I have not, like Kevin Yang, decided to exploit this amoral aspect of my creativity by availing myself the condiments of my fellow officers. Nor have I, like Michael Reichert, inconvenienced my fellow citizens by planting narcotic scents on vehicles to "train my K9."
Of course, there are even worse crimes committed by those who have donned the badge (Chris Dorner immediately comes to mind). Aside from the just out-and-out inherent wrongs of their actions, I tend to resent their lack of any intellectual justification for their actions. It is perhaps one reason why I—and I suspect most people—are somehow intrigued with Bond villains. They're smart. For all the criticism of Javier Bardem's character in "Skyfall" as being too generic or "mincy" a bad guy, the fact remains that he was more intriguing than 99.44% of the lowdown, no-good sociopathic dirtbags that I came across, both in-house and out.
Being the heathen that I am, I would probably be less judgmental of such badged dirtbags if they exhibited some philosophical foundation for their behavior. But too often they are not reflective enough to evaluate their limitations, and so like the guy who shoots Niagara Falls in a barrel and believes that his miraculous emergence on the other side testifies to some innate genius, they attribute their success to what is actually a defective technic.
I will readily admit to a vacillating life philosophy that basically boils down to try and hurt as few people as possible but don't put up with anything. And even within the context of such humble aspirations I fail, too.
In fact, every once in awhile someone on this site articulates a thought that forces one's hand: Put up, or shut up. A comment left by a reader to a recent column very much had this effect on me. Forced to go back and re-read what I'd written, I was likewise obligated to re-examine my reasoning behind it. On reflection, the author had a point. I won't identify the matter at hand, as it could be well applicable to several articulations. More than that, I don't want the son-of-a-gun gloating. But rest assured, I read what you have to say, and often take it to heart.
In closing I want to mention the passing of Brian Stover, a man I once worked with at LASD. Brian was a member of the Advisory Board for Police magazine, as well as a member of the Advisory Board for Police Marksman for 10 years. He was a consultant for Calibre Press and the author of numerous training articles and texts that appeared in a variety of law enforcement publications.
Brian, a good cop who always led with his heart, succumbed to stage four melanoma skin cancer a day before his official retirement date. I ask that if you're inclined to maybe say a prayer for his family in the hopes that they get the support they need to get through this period.