Online Exclusive

We Have A Responsibility

As I sit to type out this blog entry I am all too aware of how easy it would be for something I “say” to be misinterpreted, taken the wrong way, considered critical or insulting, etc.  Please, if you take issue with anything I say here, comment with your question or disagreement below in a polite fashion OR email me (in whatever fashion you see fit) and let’s make sure my meaning is clear.  I need to add that the opinions stated here are mine and mine alone and do not represent the opinions of Cygnus Business Media, the Cygnus Law Enforcement Media team, or any member/employee of either.  That all out of the way…

I recently read two articles that caused me to ask, “Why?”  I completely understand that “news reporting” today is far from reporting and closer to opinionated editorializing either for the purpose of pushing an agenda OR for sensationalizing a story to increase advertising sales (or both), but even at the most basic level, I don’t understand how these two incidents occurred.

First, I’d like to discuss this event:

In a search for three armed bank robbers, the police involved shut down a major highway (ten lanes wide in some places, four at a minimum) to go car to car searching.  There have been the usual (and expected) critical articles written about police states, etc.  One Maryland delegate has blogged about how this does NOT violate the 4th Amendment of the Bill of Rights because that only limits FEDERAL powers, while this event MAY have violated a section of the Maryland constitution.  I give the delegate credit: he was at least fair and impartial and attempting to correct an incorrect perception… but the question remains: what justification was there for shutting down a major highway and searching potentially hundreds of cars while denying the free travel of hundreds (if not thousands) of citizens?

It’s quite easy to understand how this could have occurred.  An officer who arrives at the scene of the bank robbery reports that the robbers were last seen in such-and-such a vehicle on the exit heading south onto such-and-such a highway and a hasty roadblock gets put in place in an attempt to stop the vehicle.  Then the radio report comes out that different witnesses describe a different vehicle and the next thing you know you’ve got four or five different types of vehicles that you’re looking for.  Do you remove the roadblock?  Or do you, since it’s already in place and you have the manpower available, go car to car, looking into any vehicle that might even remotely match one of the descriptions given, looking for three armed robbers?  And since you have no description of the driver of the get-away vehicle, might you want to look in the back of vans and trunks of cars?  You ask politely if people will allow you to look…  And of course they say yes.  After all, you’re standing at their window holding a rifle or shotgun while asking politely.  Many folks don’t feel like they really have the option and, at that point, the rubicon has been crossed.

We all know that “exigent circumstances” can justify quite a bit.  What we have to consider, with every decision we make, is whether or not we’re being reasonable in our justifications and explanations.  On the scene, someone had to make the decision that there was a reasonable time limit… or an acceptable number of vehicles… or some other limit.  At some point, shutting down an entire highway (in one direction) and going car-to-car with shoulder weapons is GOING to cross the line into unconstitutional (at best) and unconscionable (at worst) behavior.

Tuck that one away and let’s talk about this second story…

In this story we read about a man who works overnights and is awakened by tree cutters working on his property.  He pulls on a pair of pants and goes out to ask them to leave and they report him to the police for having a gun.  Why?  Because the TATTOO of a gun on his lower abdomen was showing since he didn’t have on a shirt.  The police reportedly respond with patrol rifles to confront the man. I have to shake my head and ask, “Why?”

Let’s think about this.  There is no report of the man threatening anyone with a gun.  How could he have?  It’s a tattoo.  There is no report of the man brandishing a weapon.  How could he have? It’s a tattoo.  So what we have is the report of a man, on his own property, allegedly carrying a weapon (a pistol stuck in his pants) while telling tree cutters to get off his property.  My question is, “What crime was even allegedly committed that required a police response?”

I know that if the dispatcher sends you, you have to go.  I know that HOW you respond and what weapons you take is going to depend entirely on the information you get from the dispatcher and what s/he says in the dispatch assignment.  I know this is probably a training issue that needs to be dealt with in that particular emergency call center.  All that said, the police officers who respond, patrol rifles in hand, are the visible target of all the media hype that will follow.  If there’s ANY way we can head off such an unnecessary (in my opinion) response and waste of time, we should explore it.

Now, with those two stories briefly discussed, let’s take a moment to remember a few things.  We all take an oath to uphold the Constitution, whether it’s federal or state (or both).  We all protect and serve.  Too often we get focused on protect and enforce, but that’s another training and policy issue.  We have a duty to act impartially and minimize, as much as is humanly possible, the impact our own political beliefs, religious beliefs and any other prejudices have on the professional performance of our duties.  Prejudices? Yes. We all have them. We all learn them.  Whether we learn them from our parents, other family members, friends, television, whatever, wherever, whomever.  We all carry around some prejudices.  Some of them are political; some of them are gender oriented; some of them are sexual orientation focused, etc.

That all admitted, we owe it to ourselves, our agency and the communities we serve – perhaps them first and foremost – to act professionally and impartially and with as little attention our own prejudices as possible.  Both of the two stories discussed, when you think about it, had a firearms element involved: ARMED bank robbers; an ARMED home owner.  The very concept puts us on high alert because, well, we’re not STUPID – ARMED means THREAT, right?  THREAT means we HAVE to respond to fulfill our duty to PROTECT, right? Well, not always…

I think, to some extent, society has evolved in such a way that the majority of people believe that anyone carrying a gun is a threat.  My perception may be skewed and that may only apply to urban areas; certainly it’s less of a concern in rural areas and states that have very relaxed weapons laws.  My point is that just because someone is reported as being armed doesn’t mean that they’re a threat nor that they’ve committed a crime.

Bank robbers with guns? Oh, hell yes: they’re a potential threat.  Is the risk SO great that we can justify shutting down a major highway and searching car-to-car, potentially infringing on the rights of hundreds of people?  That’s for the commanders to determine but every cop who was involved carries some of the responsibility because they performed those actions fully aware of what they were doing and the legal ramifications of such.

A home owner with a gun TATTOO?  Um, no; he’s not a threat.  Not only does he NOT justify a response from officers carrying rifles but he doesn’t justify a response AT ALL.  If he was a home owner who had walked out of his house, still on his own property, with a handgun holstered on his hip; never drew it; never touched it; never did anything involving it except to be wearing it when he stepped outside to tell those tree cutters to get off his property, he STILL wouldn’t have committed any crime and the incident STILL wouldn’t warrant a police response.

Let’s think about what we do and what we’re (as a group) doing.  There is so much current dislike and disapproval for government – at every level because the average citizen doesn’t separate them in his/her mind – and we are a uniformed representation of that government.  To the discontent citizen we are the embodiment of a police state that doesn’t exist but that they perceive.  Let’s not give them any reason to think they’re right, eh?

I’d appreciate your thoughts on these incidents and the philosophy I’ve espoused about acting professionally, minimizing our prejudices and maximizing our image.

Stay safe.