How to Handle Hecklers

There's something about asshole opportunists successfully baiting cops and getting paid off for it that just rubs me the wrong way.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Last month, some dude walked out of a courtroom a few thousand dollars richer - for having been arrested.

The alleged offense?

Disorderly conduct.

His actual transgression?

Flipping the bird and yelling "**** YOU!" at one of Olathe (Kan.) PD's finest.

There was just one problem.  The ACLU contended that the officer had overstepped his bounds in arresting the man. The court agreed and the city ended up shoveling $5,000 to the man for having his right to free speech violated.

There is no shortage of case decisions protecting an individual's right to express dissent with authority. Unfortunately, the situation in Olathe is hardly unique, as quite a few cops have hooked up people for flipping the bird, telling them to go **** themselves, and generally failing the Dale Carnegie School of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

It follows that some people actually will go out of their way to provoke confrontations with cops. Some identify themselves as police watchdogs and activists (Diop Kamau comes to mind); others simply recognize an opportunity for an easy buck when they see it (some might say the same of activists).

Did the Olathe plaintiff have any litigious intent in escalating a situation with the cop? Who knows?

But there's no shortage of people who've baited cops and profited by it.

In New York City, cyclist Christopher Long not only walked away from charges of assaulting a police officer, but got the officer fired after footage of the incident showed up on Youtube. The arresting officer was cleared of harassment allegations, but was fired for filing false statements in conjunction with the investigation. Again the PD had to pay the arrestee. The cost this time: $65,000.

Working patrol, I had a lot of patience when dealing with emotionally or mentally compromised souls. But God help me, I recognized an asshole when I saw one and was inclined to treat him or her accordingly. Mea culpa.

Sometimes when confronted with some "F-bomb" barrage, I'd use the same language right back at them. Call it cultural sensitivity. Call it responding in kind. In my heart, I felt that if this was the chosen speech of my audience, who was I to come across as some stuffy linguistic elitist?

The one thing I generally tried to avoid was making precipitous arrests, the kind that not only get shit-canned but that get me sued.

To some degree, our need to tolerate people's outrageous comments goes along with the job. So much so that it plays into my bias against most hostile workplace grievances. It always amazed me that someone who'd been told to stick his head up his ass could take offense at an innocuous in-house joke. Such are the mysteries of life (and the means of choice transfers).

Throughout the animal kingdom and up and down the food chain, we're all looking to see who's gonna blink first. Cops don't want to be caught with their pants down and looking like idiots. Unfortunately, in trying to keep this from happening they often cause it to happen instead.

That's why when it comes to the prospect of dealing with some loudmouth antagonist, you have to anticipate his crap ahead of time. That way you'll have a better idea of how you're going to end up dealing with it.

Knowing just how much latitude you have both by law and your department's policies is crucial. Guys who used to brag about "pencil ****ing" some guy to jail would be well advised to reconsider their word choice as their version of events may be compared to video footage (see above).

Still, I'll not argue against the temptation to "p.f." or beat someone, only the need to act on it. Stress ain't fun. In fact, there's no shortage of choice quotes on the matter that you've probably read through the years. Here's a couple of my favorites:

"Stress: A condition brought on by overriding the body's desire to choke the living shit out of some jerk that desperately deserves it."


"Picture yourself near a stream.

"Birds are softly chirping in the crisp, cool mountain air. Nothing can bother you here. No one knows this secret place. You are in total seclusion from that place called 'the world.' The soothing sound of a gentle waterfall fills the air with a cascade of serenity. The water is clear. You can easily make out the face of the person whose head you're holding under the water..."

There's no question that beating the snot out of some loser can improve one's disposition. Hell, cathartic violence has been a Hollywood staple for decades. Remember Charlie Bronson capping those subway muggers in "Death Wish"? Or maybe you recall William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones blowing the hell out of those banditos in that Mexican brothel at the end of "Rolling Thunder" (if you haven't, you should). Ah, reel life...

But in real life, beating the hell out of someone can beat the hell out of your career, your family, and your freedom. After Rodney King there was a cartoon of four cops standing around King's prostrate form saying, "Well, we just beat the hell out of ourselves."

And making questionable arrests is only one step below that.

But there are ways to deal with these idiots. Some of what follows is good advice, some of it is bad, but all of it has been practiced by cops with varying degrees of success:

Deescalate the Situation.

Use verbal judo (or, The Art Formally Known as Good Bullshit). Get the irritant off to the side and one-on-one, away from an audience that they may otherwise feel the need to grandstand for. If it's early in the game and viable, you might even want to be self-deprecating.

On my better days, I had no problem telling some dude, "Hey, you can probably kick my ass up around my shoulders. But that's not what this is about and then you'll find a bunch of other cops wanting to meet you, too..." I usually made this latter case when the offender was 4'11", or under, and under the age of twelve.

Ignore Them.

Some people live to get under your skin. The less they get a rise out of you, the more apt they'll be to push the envelope, and eventually put their own asses in a sling.

Be Smarter.

Wrap their delusional asses up in a verbal blanket. Intellectual battery isn't against the law and nobody wants to have their noses rubbed in their ignorance. (Note: This practice can backfire when dealing with the likes of smarty pants like Don Rickles  or some Pulitzer or Jeopardy prize winner. As Clint Eastwood notes in "Magnum Force," a man's got to know his limitations.)

Conduct Peripheral Enforcement.

Disgruntled motorist? Is his air pressure good? Does he have window obstructions? Hang a docket on his ass.

Wait For Them to Actually Break the Law. Or Your Window.

Perhaps they'll tear up the citation and throw it on the ground and refuse to pick up their litter. Or they'll mal/mish your car. Or maybe our li'l cage fighter will challenge you to fisticuffs (Queensbury Rules, of course). Then you can take the person to jail.


There's all manner of things that should factor into the kind of rhetoric and tact and actions we decide to take. They include the state of the individual (asshole vs. asshole drunk vs. poor bastard who's righteously out of his mind); the sensibilities of others at the scene; our own physical, mental, logistical, and environmental limitations.

The one thing we don't want to do is get caught knocking some asshole on his ass when his only transgression is being an asshole. If that was the case, half of the entertainment industry and professional sports would be in ass slings. We also don't want to arrest them for crimes that they haven't committed.

To paraphrase Twain, if I had more time I'd have written a shorter rant. But there's something about asshole opportunists successfully baiting cops and getting paid off for it that just rubs me the wrong way.

Please don't let some jerk do it to you.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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