An officer on patrol is expected to know their beat; who lives in it and what the normal rhythms of the area are. This is an essential element of police work and something we can all understand.
If we see a person we don’t recognize we take interest in what they are doing and where they go. This is also an essential part of providing a security net in the towns and cities we work in.
Of course seeing someone we don’t know does not mean we are to assume the worst and assign a malevolent motive to their presence. Nor does it meant that we should stop this person and check them out without any other articulable reasons. That would be un-warranted and could be viewed as harassment.
But is it?
Anyone who has worked in law enforcement for any time knows that you develop a sixth sense about what goes on in your patrol zone and the people you encounter. A very experienced cop once told me, “You can recognize a criminal from a mile away regardless of who they are or how they look.” I think that is true for many cops, if not most.
It has nothing to do with race, creed, religion or how they speak or dress. It is all based on the thousands of contacts we have made, the thousands of arrests we have made or participated in; it comes from recognizing the patterns of behavior we have seen over and over. We see things with “Police eyes.”
Now the concept of police eyes has been rejected in many courts, instead they use the standard of the “reasonable man”. If a reasonable man would think something was wrong then it is OK for the officer to think so. The question you must ask is “What is reasonable and who decides”?
The courts seem to take the politically correct point of view, but what they neglect is the street experience of our cops. The truth is a reasonable man may see a particular incident as “suspicious”, but those incidents are usually blatant.
What we do as cops is see beyond the world the average, inexperienced or reasonable person sees. Our senses are more highly attuned to the things that are not blatantly obvious; we see the lighting fast eye twitch, or the fake casual glance, or the nonchalant way a person walks up a street looking into backyards.
All of these things we know to be tell-tale signs or criminals plying their trade and we take actions based on them. Those actions often include a stop and frisk or following a person and stopping them for a conversation and on scene investigation.
Unfortunately, if we were asked why we did what we did we might not be able say specifically what it was that made us suspicious. And pointing to the fact that our stop recovered drugs or a gun or a wanted person if not always sufficient for the courts. We must learn to describe what made us suspicious, and not just expect people to accept our experience as the deciding factor.
These actions all fall under the Pro-Active style of police work. We aggressively monitor what’s going on in our neighborhoods and we look for those tell-tale signs of problems and take action to protect those who count on us to do so. Cops that act in a pro-active way very often make the best arrests or uncover well-hidden activities of the criminal element.
That all sounds great, who could argue with it? Well in the real world our “Cop eyes” aren’t given a lot of play. Defense attorneys will see these actions and in an attempt to thwart our good work they will say we acted because of race or dress or speech or any one of thousands of excuses they conjure to get guilty people out from under the weight of their actions.
The other problem our pro-active cops have to deal with is the stigma associated with this treatment and aspersions on our motives. If the media get involved it can be even worse and when combined with a weak or feckless administration the officer doing a good job can feel like they are hung out to dry and alone.
The consequences of this type of police work is that criminals are emboldened, the quality of life in an area is diminished, the officers feel negatively towards their job and boredom and frustration grows. In the end the community suffers.
What then is the answer?
It is a combination of things; the administration must state their goals and expectations very clearly. They should make it unmistakable that they support their officers and encourage them to act in an aggressive, fair and smart manner when conducting patrols. And they must stand with their officers if things go bad as a result of the natural outcomes of conducting good police work.
Re-Active police work is a symptom of a broken system. Pro-Active police work is the best way to control crime, protect your community and ensure a safe environment for the law abiding citizens we have sworn to protect.
Let me know what you think.