The Human Problem?

This morning as I was editing and posting content for the site it dawned on me that, as I edit, I often leave grammar and punctuation mistakes uncorrected.  Sure, there are times that I correct the mistakes; after all, that’s part of my job.  Sometimes, though, I leave them because I believe that the writer made them intentionally in an effort to get the message across with a particular tone.  Let’s face facts:  there is no emotional inflection in text/print so it’s up to the writer to create the emotional connection between him or herself and the reader.  If that calls for a grammatical or punctuation or some other writing “error” then I feel it’s wrong of me to cold-bloodedly fix that.

It also occurred to me that this same philosophy was one I always appreciated from my supervisors and agency leadership.  I believe that the ability to remember we’re all human – good guys and bad guys – is vitally important to successful law enforcement performance.  What am I talking about?  I’ll give you two examples.

First example: I know officers who had the operational philosophy of, “Show no mercy; cut no slack. Hook ‘em and book ‘em and don’t look back.”  In other words, if they committed ANY crime, arrest them, process them and don’t ever second guess your having done so.  Those officers handled every misdemeanor crime the same way they did every felony crime and they had personnel files that showed fantastic statistical performance.  They were also, to some extent, known as cold-hearted ruthless bastards in the community.

I know of one instance wherein a decorated hard-working veteran was shopping in the local hardware store.  He hadn’t picked up a hand-basket so he was carrying everything he wished to purchase and when his hands got pretty full he put a single packaged drill bit in his chest pocket.  It was not concealed; half the package and bit stuck clearly out of his pocket.  At the register he paid for everything else (almost $200 worth of items) but forgot to put the drill bit (priced about $3) down on the counter to be rung up.  The cashier admitted to having seen the drill bit in the guy’s pocket but didn’t say anything. Instead, he called the police after bagging the guy’s purchases and watching him leave the store.  The veteran/customer realized what he’d done after he put everything in his work van and re-entered the store to pay for the drill bit.  There was a line at the register and by the time he got to the counter to pay the first officer had arrived on scene for the report of the shoplifting.  In spite of the fact that the man had come back into the store to pay the officer still arrested him and charged him with misdemeanor theft.  The officer was well known as one of the “arrest hungry, hook ‘em and book ‘em” officers and even the other officers on his squad shook their heads at how focused he was on padding his personnel file with as many arrests as he could manage.  The charges were dismissed prior to court but a lot of time got wasted and that veteran had to jump through the legal hoops of getting the arrest expunged from his record.

Second example: An apparently homeless man enters a local convenience store late in the evening just prior to the store closing.  He wanders around the store under the suspicious and watchful eye of the cashier.  Finally the man picks up a prepackaged snack meal and, holding it in his hand, walks the opposite direction from the cash register, back around the inside of the store toward the front exit.  The cashier vaults the counter and tackles the man in such a manner that they both fall outside the front door which is pushed open as they fall.  The “suspect” doesn’t even resist as the cashier proceeds to sit on him and yell for help.  When the police arrive they find the cashier still sitting on the man, who is face down, half in and half out of the still open front door of the store.

An on scene investigation shows that the “suspect” has plenty of money in his pockets and isn’t homeless at all (he just had poor hygiene).  His path of travel inside the store was taking him past the front door to the refrigerators where the bottled drinks were – where he was going to get a drink to go with his snack.  The cashier, having made a bad assumption, essentially assaulted the man and then wanted the man arrested because the man had exited the premises without paying for the snack.  The CUSTOMER is more than understanding of the cashier’s mistake and states that he is used to such treatment because of his appearance.  He is offering to pay for the snack and the cashier is still demanding that he be arrested.

Obviously the officer didn’t arrest the customer and had to talk the cashier down from his anger and frustration.  The cashier finally calmed down but later filed a complaint against the officer for not having arrested the customer for theft.  (Thankfully the agency did the right thing and dismissed the complaint as unsubstantiated.)

In both those examples you can see that while an arrest may have been legally justifiable, a little human understanding… a little compassion… makes all the difference in the world.  I submit to you that such humanity is required both in good officers and in good leaders.

I’ve worked for supervisors and leaders of both “stripes” if you will. We all make mistakes and as much as it pains me to admit it, that statement applies to me too.  I’m not perfect.  It’s always been better, in my opinion, to work for a Chief who isn’t eager to hang his troops out to dry.  Not that he’d “cover” for them, but he’d understand mistakes can happen.

For instance, one Chief I worked for simply said, “Just don’t lie to me.”  He was the kind of guy who had worked investigations in vice, internal affairs and homicide.  There was little he hadn’t seen.  His door was always open and it was easy to go in and say, “Look Chief, I got this call; I arrived on scene; I saw this; I heard this; I thought this; I did this. This was my mistake.  What now?”  As long as it was an honest mistake and you had done as best you could, given your perceptions and the circumstances, he’d be as lenient as he could.  I also know another Chief who, if you did that, would thank you for the confession of the mistake, advise you of your trial board rights and immediately start the most strict disciplinary actions he could.

What was the difference between the two? Aside from their radically different ages and backgrounds, HUMANITY was what made them different in my mind.

So my question for you is this:  What kind of officer are you?  What kind of supervisor are you? What kind of Chief are you?  Take a look in the mirror and think about it…

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