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The State of American Law Enforcement - Rules of Engagement

Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

October 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

By definition, policy is a course of action, a guiding principle or procedure considered expedient, prudent, or advantageous.

By practice, the policies of a law enforcement agency dictate the protocol by which officers are expected to conduct their duties, often carrying with it the added responsibility of mitigating potential liability resulting from those duties. By all accounts, it is often more restrictive than what the law requires, than what cops desire, and more than what their employers would want in an ideal world.

As a result, many officers increasingly view policies as de facto restraining orders inhibiting their peace of mind and, therefore, their initiative.

In response, administrators are quick to point out that cops are often their own worst enemy, saying that much of the blame for disagreeable policies can be traced directly to the doorsteps of dunderheaded officers whose practices gave them genesis.

Conformity and Consistency

Lt. Rich Daniels of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD) says there are two basic purposes for a policy. The first is to restrict the use of prerogative. The second is to establish an expectation of standardization.

The paramilitary strictures of law enforcement have conventionally led to public expectations of uniformity, but is standardization necessarily coveted in all areas? Is it reasonable to expect that a deputy working the beaches of Malibu would wear the same attire as one assigned to the arid landscape of southern Utah? Is it truly reasonable that female officers perform the same feats of strength as their masculine peers?

Reconciling expectations of uniformity in a non-conformist world isn't always easy. Nonetheless, the LASD has relaxed policies on a variety of fronts. In doing so, it is hardly unique, as many other law enforcement agencies have relaxed rules pertaining to tattoos, body piercings, and alternate lifestyles. Increasingly, the prevailing attitude seems to be one of, "We may not all look or act alike, but we're all in this together."

It's Not Your Prerogative

While society has encouraged law enforcement to loosen up on some fronts, it has simultaneously expected it to tighten up on others. This uneven treatment often harkens back to that first concern: the restriction of prerogative.

Deadly force, driving immunities, and search and seizure are but a few areas where an officer's prerogative comes into play on the job. Policies governing use of discretion in these areas seek to prevent abuses of authority, minimize threats to the community, mitigate the need for civil redress, and generally keep the employing agency out of the headlines.

It is the overzealous nature with which some agencies' policies restrict officer prerogative that concerns Tom Aveni, a New Hampshire law enforcement officer who works with the Police Policy Studies Council.

Aveni sees a growing phenomenon of law enforcement agencies that tailor policies to suit ends beyond what has historically been their purpose.

"Conventional wisdom states that we modify human behavior by changing the way people think and react to certain circumstances," notes Aveni. "That's the whole purpose behind training and we've always embraced that. That's the reason there has been historically so much emphasis on bettering police training.

"Policy is supposed to be instructive to the extent that it codifies what we do under general circumstances. The problem with policy today is that we tend to make it a one-size-fits-all proposition. We've attempted to minimize discretion in ways that certainly suggest that we haven't trained officers well enough to use discretion wisely. That's really the root of the problem as I see it: more restrictive policy in some of the more extreme cases," Aveni adds.

As an example, Aveni cites LAPD's moratorium on an officer's ability to shoot at a moving vehicle when that vehicle is being used as a weapon. Aveni openly wonders what the attendant cost will be for an officer's hesitance to use deadly force if faced with an incident of a motorist intentionally mowing down pedestrians, as has happened in Las Vegas, Reno, New York City, and even Chapel Hill, N.C.

"It is to me indicative of the fact that police administrators are trying to squeeze more out of policy than they should. Training operationalizes policy and somehow we're putting the cart before the horse by putting so much reliance on policy and restricting what our officers do on the street."

Officer Friendly

Within law enforcement circles some agencies enjoy a reputation for having more "officer friendly" policies than others.

The Phoenix Police Department has only recently allowed its officers to inquire about the citizenship status of its contacts. In contrast, Maricopa County (greater Phoenix) Sheriff Joe Arpaio has for years encouraged his deputies to not only make such inquiries but to arrest illegal immigrants.

Aveni is sympathetic with the plight of police administrators in some communities and the "no win" positions they often find themselves in.

"I think the first thing we have to accept, whether we want to or not, is that agencies serving some communities are really behind an eight ball," Aveni says.

"If you're a police officer in Detroit and your mayor has just been locked up, the vast majority of the people probably aren't favorably disposed to supporting law enforcement," Aveni explains. "The mind-set of police administrators in a community like that is going to be different than police administrators working in a rural setting, where for the most part people are law abiding and support police. If somebody there is shot or TASERed by police, they are more likely to shrug their shoulders than engage in any violent disobedience. We've got to make that concession.

"Police administrators are under extreme pressure to do things that they probably don't want to do. Do I like that? Not at all. Does that mitigate police administrators doing all the wrong things with policy? I don't think so. I just realize that they're under a lot of pressure."

What the Hell Were They Thinking?

The pressure exerted on police administrators can reach geological proportions. Geological forces can convert coal into diamonds. Unfortunately, in the world of law enforcement, policy making sometimes results in something far less refined.

The situation is often one of administrators looking at the actions of some officers and asking themselves, "What the hell were they thinking?" then promulgating some new policy to prevent a recurrence in the future. The new policy is presented to patrol officers who, in turn, sometimes find themselves asking the same question of the administrators.

William McKechnie, former president of the Transit Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, certainly thought as much in response to the New York City Transit Authority's one time decision to man toll booths with police officers in a bid to impact toll evaders.

"This system of putting a uniformed cop in front of a booth is asinine," McKechnie said at the time. "That would be fine if everything else was fine and people were not more and more victimized by homicide, robbery, and rape. I believe it's misplaced priorities."

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