Arresting Tales

Cops and Complainants

Lately I've been thinking about how cops communicate with non-cops, and how those encounters can end well or badly.  Two things got me thinking about this.  The first was a party we attended last weekend, to which the police were called by an irate neighbor.  More on that later.

The second thing was an exchange I had with one of the nice people at NEMRT (North East Multi-Regional Training).

The party was a blast, and featured a fair amount of drinking and general whooping-it-up.  (No, it was not a cop party.)  The party got thrown at a beautiful first floor condo in Buena Park.

Some time around 11:30 a squad car pulled up in front and shined a spotlight in the front window. 

The host went outside and was greeted by a female officer, who seemed to be laughing.  The officer confirmed that, yes, someone had complained about a "loud" party.  The host apologized, the officer said "no problem".  Then the host and the officer commiserated for a minute or two on the sad state of affairs, when someone in the city of Chicago would actually complain about a "loud" party on a Saturday night before it was even midnight .  The host went back inside, and after a brief round of raucous yelling for the benefit of whichever cranky neighbor beefed, the party quieted down and continued.  The host mentioned several times how "cool" the cops were.

The problem--a "loud" party--was solved, and the cops in that car generated a ton of good will among those party goers.  Of course, for the person who called the cops, it might just be another example of how those lazy Chicago cops do nothing but sit in their squad cars. 

Lately I've been talking with @NEMRTLibrary about ideas for training classes, and the conversation turned toward how officers communicate with the public.  They mentioned some examples of officers being less than tactful; I'll quote this small part:

"The essence of the problem was the officers' failure to look at the situation from the subject's point of view.  One was about a woman who locked her keys and her 2-year-old (in its car seat) in the car, who was asked by the responding officer to have the kid open the door for her." (emphasis mine)

I cringe when I hear about exchanges like this.  What was the officer thinking?  Was it a misguided attempt at humor?  Most panicking mothers of toddlers aren't really receptive to joking at times like that.  Was it sarcasm, or just an effort to make the woman feel even more stupid than she already did?  Here's a scary thought--was the officer actually stupid enough to think a 2-year-old could unfasten himself from a car seat and then unlock the car door, if given the proper instruction?

With those two stories in mind, I think I have a theory as to why so many people find cops to be lazy, indifferent, rude or worse.  "What?" you're saying, "I love the police, I think they do a fine job and I thank them every day for their fine service to our community.  I don't know what you're talking about."


Ok then, I am not talking about you.  I'm talking about all those other people, the ones I run into at parties and social events, the ones whose angry letters I read in the paper.  The folks who have stories about cops who abruptly cut them off as they tried to explain something.  The ones who had their house ransacked or their car broken into and the cops "didn't do a thing."  The ones who experienced long-running vandalism to the cars parked in their driveway that they just know that no-good neighbor kid was responsible for, and who would've been arrested and thrown in prison if the cops hadn't bungled the investigation.  Those people.

Here's my theory:

When someone calls the police to make a report, the subject of that report is probably the single most important thing in that person's life at the moment.  It might be a theft from an unlocked car, it might be a few harassing phone calls.  Whatever else the complainant had going on before the incident, now that the police are called that incident is front and center in his or her life.  It is the fodder for countless conversations with concerned friends and family, it is the source of creeping anxiety and fear.  The person making the report becomes someone with an interesting story to tell.  It is drama.

This effect is intensified when a person is the target of possible police enforcement.  The anxiety of a normal, law-abiding citizen when being stopped or questioned by the police can't be underestimated.  People worry about being publicly embarrassed, ticketed, or worse.

To the cop it's just another job.  From the moment that cop gets dispatched to your address, or approaches  you on the street, she's already begun to classify you and put you in a category based on all her prior training and experience.

It might be the third or fourth incident just like it that she's handled that month, that week or even that shift.  While the crime you report is yours and yours alone, full of menace and nuance, chances are that the cop who comes to your door can name another half dozen almost exactly like it, and she'll have more waiting as soon as she's done with yours. 

Now, if only we could get the cop and the citizen to both understand this dynamic and try to be a little more understanding...then we'd have something.  I'd like to know why some guys with 3 or 4 years on come across as bitter 30-year veterans, whose every sentence drips with contempt for the people they encounter.

More importantly, I'd love to know why some cops with 15 or 20 years on the job to still manage to treat everyone they meet as an individual, with courtesy and respect.  

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11 Comments

MarianneSp said:

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Maybe it all comes down to why that particular officer was drawn toward the profession to begin with. The very best cops take "to serve and protect" to heart, and have the patience and stability to take on an endless stream of complaints, human failures, and tragedy without bitterness. If the idea of service and personal strength is not as deeply ingrained, those who decided police work was for them may regret the choice.

Jennifer Healy said:

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I think people forget, being a police office is a job. In fact, it's a type of "customer service." While no, we as "customers" are by no means always right, police are, in fact, here to serve the community. (I mean, it's on the squad cars!) Obviously being an authority figure as well make it unlike any other job out there. The bottom line: Cops are human. Like you said, your experience is very likely not new; they deal with the same incidents, complaints, attitudes day-in and day-out, just like anyone else who works directly with people. And like those professionals, some are perfectly polite and chipper to every person they encounter. Others are clearly burning a little faster at the wick. They have good days and bad days too. And like any other business, if you treat an employee with respect and understanding, you're a lot more likely to get it back. But I'll step down from my soapbox. I don't need to tell you you're a person!

P.S. I have no doubt that party was nothing but civilized and cultured.....

seank130 said:

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I was a police officer for twenty five years, the last twelve as a supervisor. You hit the nail right on the head. I always tried to remind the officers that when they respond to any call for service, that those few minutes that they spend with the victim/reporting person, is at that time, the most important event in that person's life at that point in time. I told them that they had the power to make it either a more pleasant experience or a horrible one.

I always felt that if you started out on the right footing, the rest of the contact would go more smoothly. You could always solve more problems, anger, resentment and distrust with a calm and empathetic demeanor than a cold, detached one.

EB said:

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Joe - I'll be honest with you. I don't love cops. I've always been on the receiving end of some rude, or, more fairly, brusque treatment. Your paragraph about how the person wanting to file a report, this is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, is spot-on.

8 yrs. ago, I was in a car accident. A taxicab rammed right into me, causing injury. When I called 911, the dispatcher refused to send a squad car, saying, "we're too busy." When I said, "get someone F**** over here," she made it clear she was going to hang up and not help me. (duh, she wasn't helping anyway.) Like a fool, I apologized to her, and she reiterated that I should just go home and report the incident later, at my local cop station.

Well, guess what? I did as she said, and once I showed up, the officer "assisting" me yelled at me and told me how it was "my" responsibility to get a cop out there, because they usually don't do reports days after the accident.

These were Chicago cops, for whom I have zero love. Joe, that said, you know I like you. Hope we're still friends.

and, yes, to cops, it's a *job* and not all jobs are fun or loveable, but when are the cops going to realize *I (and all taxpayers) pay your salary******?

ps-for another amusing tale of how cops screwed up someone's life, listen to Mike Birbiglia's tale of what happened when he was hit by a car -- and the cop reported it as Mike's fault. The cop refused to correct the story, and that landed Mike in $10k of debt.

Skylers Dad said:

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I wish I had answers to your questions, but to me it comes down to the same idea I use for religion. Why can't we all just treat each other with kindness?

DNA said:

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As the police, I will admit that I am occasionally rude to the citizenry. But I try to be nice and polite to everyone I deal with. Even if I couldn't care less about your problem I will blow smoke up your ass for a few minutes. As stated above, you people are paying my salary.

But, just as that rude, arrogant cops ruins a citizens perception of police officers. I think that after dealing with rude citizens who have completely unreasonable expectations of what the police will do, we begin to treat people poorly when they don't deserve it. I'm not sayin its right, I'm just sayin.

For example, some guys house get egged and he calls the police. When you show up he has collected the egg shell and a sample of the egg from his house for "CSI" evaluation. How do you resist making sarcastic comments to that guy. Its impossible.

Like they say in the academy, treat everyone like you would want your mother to be treated. . . Yea, well, my mom is not an asshole.

Deb B said:

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Your story reminds me of the time a neighbor called the cops to complain about my son's band practicing in our basement at 8 pm on a Saturday night. He was S.U.P.E.R.: Said he couldn't believe someone was complaining about the awesome music he was hearing coming from the basement, and particularly so early in the evening on a weekend night. He told all of the band members they sounded great, and to just try to ratchet down the noise level come 10 pm. He instilled SO much goodwill towards cops among those then-teenaged boys.

irishpirate said:

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Anecdote time.

Family friend was a local semi truck driver. Irish born with the accent to prove it.

The company he worked for had three guys named "Mike" driving trucks.

The radio dispatchers called one guy "Mike".

They called this guy "Irish Mike".

The third guy they called "Asshole Mike".

Three guys same job, same company. Yet one got his nickname because of his less than sparkling personality.

Same goes for cops. People just see a uniform and assume all cops are the same. Some cops are going to be professional all the time. Others will be good most of the time, but will have off days or have someone they encounter who just drives them batty. A minority of cops will be rude and belligerent nearly all the time.

I've only had one experience with an on duty cop that I would classify as "unprofessional". Others were mildly rude or sarcastic, but I can understand that happens. Maybe they were having a bad day, maybe they were always like that.

I do know that I generally TRY not to classify people as members of a group because people should be judged individually.

In my misspent youth I was an experienced traffic offender. I always found the State Police to be very professional. Perhaps because of training or perhaps because virtually all State Cops did traffic duty.

Now the CPD guys who were doing traffic at the time, a long time ago in a nearby place, were often mild jerks. My guess as to the difference? The dregs of the CPD were then sent to patrol the expressways leaving other cops to do other work. At least that's what a cop neighbor told me. By the way whenever I got pulled over, and it hasn't happened in over a decade, I was always polite and handed my license over right away.

Now perhaps I am a bit prejudiced in favor of State cops because they often just gave me a warning ticket. I never got a break from a CPD traffic guy. I recall one State Police Sergeant who pulled me over on I-57 laughing at my reply when he asked if I knew how fast I was going. I said "too fast" and I didn't get a ticket. Perhaps he was having a bad day and my attempt at humor and honesty amused him.

In any case cops should be judged as individuals.

Moshucat said:

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Great post Joe. Can't get my comments to post.

Moshucat said:

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Funny story...I once had to call CPD for an incident. I was very upset and when the officer arrived he was not a co-operative as I thought he should be. I mouthed off and said AFTER ALL I PAY YOUR SALARY and he politely went into his pocket serched his change and finally handed me a dime saying here's your refund. We both began to laugh and decided to back up and start over again. Take a breath, think and proceed.

retiredCCPD said:

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After having the unique experience of serving both in the north and south I can honestly say that People north of Lexington KY have a different attitude towards law enforcement. I can honestly say that for every one traffic stop were the driver was polite and co operative there were always two or three where you got the attitude. "Why Me?" "you guys have a quota" (actually no sir it's a contest two more movers and I get the toaster oven) or My all time winner "I'll have your badge" Where as down south I have men 30+ begging me to take them to jail rather than to there house. Nothing gives you a sense of true justice than watching a 60+mother taking a switch to her 30+ child for getting drunk and disgracing the family on Sunday.
In all my years I have always tried to treat the person with respect until they changed the plan,

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