Photo by Kelly Bracken.

Photo by Kelly Bracken.

Watching the 1972 movie "The New Centurions" the other day, I was struck by a scene in which Stacy Keach's fresh-from-the-academy boot speculates that probable cause will prove the determining factor as to whether or not a collar made by George C. Scott's veteran will stick. His cop audience regards Keach with a kind of stunned amazement. While the scene's purpose is to show how Keach's cop is plainly a cut above the others, I found myself thinking that if his character's speech smacked of some anomalous profundity then perhaps the academy of that era had been derelict in training its cadets on certain legalities.

I like to believe it was more a matter of novelist Joseph Wambaugh's creativity at work; failing that, some embroidery by the movie’s writer Stirling Silliphant that left me with said impression. But if there is a difference between generations, perhaps it is because a different kind of intelligence has been allowed to foster within the profession. Now I'm not talking the kind of intel that the feds kept from their Boston PD brethren, but the honest-to-God stuff that theoretically occupies the space between our ears and, if applied properly, would have made damn sure Boston's finest had been privy to the information regarding the Brothers Tsarnaev, a.k.a., the Boston Marathon Bombing suspects.

I'm talking the kind of intelligence that has been manifest in a variety of corners, on everything from community-based policing, to officer safety, to crime predicting algorithms and analytics. I'm specifically alluding to the very intelligence that would theoretically preclude its being exercised.

And what do I mean by that?

Recently, a link was posted to the Police_L listserv. Click here.

The article detailed a case decision upholding the right of the New London, Conn., police department to deny Robert Jordan a position as a peace officer on the basis that his IQ was too high. (The implicit irony that a smart man would be too dumb to recognize his vocational limitations is glossed over). Many cops on the listserv were unfamiliar with the case and expressed dismay upon reading the story.

While some noted its 1999 date of publication, anecdotes concerning people "too smart" to be cops pre-date Robert Jordan's sad affair. That Jordan's was judicially sanctioned may have had something to do with the peculiar prejudice that the best and the brightest are categorically unfit to be cops. One friend's comment summed the prevailing attitude of many on the sidelines: "Cops are pretty much people who didn't know what the hell else they wanted to do and decided to live off the public dollar. They're welfare recipients with a working title." Ouch. (To be fair, the profession's fates do have a tendency to deal many a cruel hand to its supplicants and applicants. How many of us have seen the guy who lived, breathed, and slept the prospect of being a cop get bypassed in favor of his friend who, on a lark, accompanied him to the testing?)

It probably doesn't speak well of me to say that my own motivations were largely mercenary, and in the absence of the recession of 1981 I might today be a shrink. But at the time, the opportunity for decent pay and good benefits seemed a no-brainer. I just didn't expect that I was expected to be a no-brainer, as well.

And yet that appeared to be the case, if not for legal precedent then for the instructors' tastes. It wasn't that they wanted blank slates. They wanted us to be able to read, write, and do arithmetic, as these skills were required for regurgitating data in other forms such as traffic or arrest reports, or radio codes. But ideologically speaking, the more tabula rosa you were, the better. Cadets were desired to toe the line both literally and figuratively and become models of conformity in appearance, conduct, and—ideally—ideals. If you were unfortunate enough to show up with a European surname, a manifesto, and unseemly compassion for a fellow cadet heaving his guts out on a run, your days were numbered.

Like most life forms, I'm adaptive and so suppressed my more libertine bent when in such unmixed company. Camouflaging my smarts was nothing new, and perhaps my greatest genius has been an uncanny ability to conceal it (even my 2.2 high school GPA only lends credence to my affected imbecility). But while it may have served me well, I was always resentful of the imposition.

But throughout, I knew for every dumb ass policy and practice that was promulgated within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, there were a good many others that were instrumental in saving lives (including my own). I knew there were those who plainly were a cut above who were doing some hard thinking on a variety of fronts. These included everything from keeping abreast of evolving case law, to steeping themselves in the limitations of man and vehicle when it came to high-speed driving, to studying the psychological and physiological dynamics that came into play in use-of-force situations. Why this kind of intelligence wasn't more manifest in what was being communicated through the news media is a mystery that remains with me to this day. It was as though the best and the brightest were perpetually relegated to the sidelines while others basked in the limelight. Unfortunately, too often this "out of sight" came with the whole "out of mind" thing, too. It wasn't kosher to "over-think" things.

Sadly, cops enjoy no monopoly on the bias. Nor do Americans.

From across the pond, Robert Heaton notes, "Here in the U.K., despite the fact that many graduates are recruited to the police nowadays, it is still viewed by a segment of society, including the political elite, as a job that anyone can do—to be laced with patronizing platitudes about bravery. That a person of above-average intelligence should want a police career, is seen as an offbeat choice and lacking in ambition.

"I have lost count of the number of times I have been told by people that they had thought of joining the police but hadn't had the courage to do so. What they actually mean, by and large, is that they thought that, interesting as it was, they were of too superior a class or educational background. Naturally I can't speak for the U.S.A., but it seems to me there are some similar attitudes around."

With typical English refinement, Heaton declines to speak for the U.S. Nonetheless, I find his appraisal equally applicable here.

And the sad thing is that there are some within our profession that wouldn't have it any other way. I recall a conversation I had with a climber on the department regarding an individual who I thought was the smartest man I'd ever met on LASD.

"Yeah," the climber admitted. "He's book smart. But he's not the kind of guy you'd go drinking with on the river"

Yeah? Well, who gives a rat's behind if he’s not the guy you want to go drinking with on the river? I thank whatever deity there may be for allowing the man to be in a position to be one of the greatest change agents the department had ever seen. That the department would be better served with such think-outside-the-box men is as inarguable as is the fact that it doesn't want them (and a review of a recent LASD intent-to-promote list only underscores the assertion).

Even the public we serve wants it both ways when it comes to our IQs. They want us to be smart enough to divine the murderous intentions of society's miscreants and discerning enough to leave everybody else the hell alone, regardless of their petty crimes. An unfortunate number love to denigrate our profession, and call us pigs (although that in the metaphorical hierarchy of intelligent animals, an argument could be made that we at least fare well on that score).

As Christopher Karney of the Chicago Police Department notes, "Law Enforcement—the only job that everyone knows more about than the people who do it."

Unwanted as a cop, undesired as an intellectual, is it any wonder that this conundrum often left me feeling more than a little like my simian friend here?

Some have called me on the carpet for what they see as an ostentatious display of wordplay. I don't find my vocabulary particularly exotic. (Hell, I don't resent having to reach for the dictionary when I find words like "diaspora" (scattering of people) and "abnegation" (self-denial) in Wilfred Sheed's books. Such words are part of his charm as a writer.)

I like to employ a words that by sound, tone, and definition best convey a particular sentiment. And people who criticize me for using such “10-dollar: words routinely create arrest reports that showcase their own brand of unnecessary ornamentation: Utilize (instead of use), individual (person), vehicle (car), proceed (go), apprehend (arrest), place in custody (arrest), etc.

But I’m the one called on the carpet for using 10-dollar words. WTF?

Occasionally, I can find a justifiable explanation, particularly as it relates to describing use of force incidents when we tend to be as euphemistically apt as possible, e.g. "I fired a single round, which struck the suspect in the head" as opposed to "I shot the bastard in the face." Conversely, more graphic descriptions of victim's injuries can make the difference between getting a case filed, let alone successfully prosecuted.

Lest the reader think I’m merely off on another of my insufferable tangents, my little diatribe herein serves a purpose. It illustrates just one more example of how it is deemed dumb to be smart.

This prejudice against intelligence tempts a degree of defensive arrogance. Do you know of anyone who resents the drug-free athlete who can drill a hardball 455 feet or slam-dunk on the tail end of a 360 spin?

But the guy who speaks his well-exercised mind? He has to be out of it to endure the defensive hostility he’s apt to encounter.

I don’t get it. If such cerebral discrimination extended itself to other arenas, Batman wouldn't have made the cut for the Justice League; Pinky wouldn't have had his Brain, and Sherlock Holmes nemesis Moriarty would be running things.

Look, it's not as though I'm expecting a cadre of badged Nobel Laureates. But I know that I'd sleep better knowing that those tasked with the power of making life or death decisions were those most capable of doing so. I’d also feel better defending a profession that truly catered to a culture of diversity wherein differently abled men and women recognized one another’s inherent worth and respected it as opposed to waiting until such time that previously resented skill set somehow profited them. I can’t tell you how many times people who’d resented my vocabulary appreciated some timely display of it on their behalf.

Explicit herein is the acknowledgment that the current environment fostered by law enforcement is perhaps better than it might once have been. But it can still stand to be improved a hell of a lot.

Or can it? Do the dummies have the numbers and just enough foresight to keep the reins, whatever the ultimate cost to the profession, the citizens and themselves? Just what can be done to get the kind of policing we all clamor for but all too few see realized?

"For me, the answer is quite simple,” asserts Heaton. “One of the few elements about policing which has been entirely predictable over the years, is that it only ever gets harder and more complex. Police are expected to solve individuals and society's problems, and are held accountable for doing so by a population which has in the main, lost deference. They have to be able to juggle considerations, hold an argument, and make defensible decisions against those who have the advantage of hindsight and/or axes to grind. In general, those who only just make the recruitment grade, quit early or are struggling by the end of their careers.

"The police need to recruit the brightest people possible, if only in the interests of future-proofing."

Anything else is just dumb.


Dean Scoville
Dean Scoville

Associate Editor

Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

View Bio