Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Trouble with The Cops

The trouble with "The Cops" is that there's no such thing.

The term implies that US law enforcement is a homogeneous monolith, a single,blue entity recruited from the same population, trained the same way, paid at the same levels,
performing the same functions, and governed everywhere by the same laws and policies.

Nothing could be further from the truth.
And, unlike most topics, the Gordian knot of modern policing becomes more intricate the more you learn.

When a citizenry is already frustrated, partly because their only frame of reference for The Cops is the last TV show they watched (or a dimly remembered Civics class in high school), how do you explain that words they use don't even mean what they think they mean?
(You may go now, Inigo Montoya.)

Just look at 'sheriff'.
It's so traditional an office that cliches are built around it (there's a new sheriff in town!),
songs are written about it (I shot the sheriff...), and people who pretty much hate all other forms of law enforcement build romantic fictions around it.

It should be easy, then, to define 'sheriff'.
Everyone knows what they do.
Except, they don't.
No, Mr. Sovereign, the Olde English shire reeve wasn't your hero. He was an appointed judge and tax collector, answerable only to the king.
It gets more complicated from there.

In some states, sheriffs and their deputies have full police powers throughout the state, and consistent, mandated standards of training.
Those states (sometimes) also require that candidates for sheriff be POST-certified officers in their own right.

There are places (hi, Virginia!) where all you need to run for sheriff is to be a county resident, and registered to vote.
There are states with no sheriffs (Alaska, Connecticut, and Hawaii....although Hawaii has deputy sheriffs. So,that's weird.)
There are places where sheriffs don't investigate crimes--Pennsylvania, for instance--and states where each county decides whether or not to have one.
Los Alamos, NM, still has a sheriff, just one without significant police powers. The sheriff serves process and keeps track of sex offenders, mostly. Last fall, the position was nearly abolished by the city council who see little point in preserving it, when effective law enforcement authority has been delegated to the police department.

In New York, each county has an elected sheriff.
New York City, though, has one sheriff appointed by the mayor, who performs mostly civil and fiscal functions, with criminal investigation limited to matters of fraud.

Confused yet?
Try understanding what a constable is. Or does. Or doesn't, for that matter.

Texas constables are fully sworn and trained peace officers ; they are elected, and their deputies are also sworn and certified. They work alongside police and sheriffs, all with slightly different responsibilities, but more or less the same authority.
In Pennsylvania , constables occupy a grey area, elected and self-employed. Their compensation is the fees they collect for the warrants and civil process they serve. They're required to have 80 hours of training, a little more if they carry a weapon. The depth and breadth of their authority is a constant source of disagreement within the state's law enforcement communities.
*Pennsylvania state constable*

In other states--Kentucky, Massachusetts, and so on--constables are variously elected, appointed, trained, untrained, regarded as law enforcement, process servers, or filling roles other states manage with reserve officers, or CSOs.
California abolished the office of constable in the 90s, when it consolidated the courts.

A police officer may be one of thousands in an agency with state of the art everything, or they may be volunteers with a day job, in a village patrolled solely by reserves. Their authority may end at the city limits, or not till the state line.
In some states, city governments choose between a police chief, or marshal.
In others, marshals provide court security and civil process.
Or, all those offices may be filled by the sheriff's department.

It just depends.
It's confusing.

And if it's still a learning curve for me, part of a blue family for decades, who sits in on conversations with officers from across this country and at least two others, how much more so is it for teachers, and nurses, payroll clerks and Piggly Wiggly night stock help?

US citizens are highly resistant to far-reaching national standards, for anything.
For law enforcement, that insistence on local control (and therefore, local funding) means that officers from agencies that require college degrees and train constantly, make headlines right alongside officers working where they may be hitting the streets solo weeks, or months, before ever attending an academy.

When every single state---sometimes every county, or city--sets its own standards for certifying, training and hiring its officers, there has to be an understanding that The Cops are as diverse as the nation itself.

Somehow (I'm going with too much TV, again), news readers acquired the idea that every officer in a uniform should be a SWAT-trained, ninja marksman with a law degree.
That's not realistic, of course, or reasonable.

In a nation this fractious and individualistic, there's never going to be a case for a cookie-cutter cop.
I do believe there's a case for professionalism, at every level, and in every state, no matter what the uniform looks like, or what's written on a badge.

Ultimately, that's the decision that needs to be made:
How do we define a law enforcement professional?
I don't know if we can agree what it means to hire, to train, to compensate, to equip and retain professional law enforcement at every level.
I do know that if it can be achieved, the differences between The Cops won't matter.
There still won't be a big, blue monolith, but the differences won't be obstacles--they'll be strengths.


  1. Great article and very informative!

  2. Although the differences are frustrating, it helps to remember that the USA is more like the EU (European Union) than it is like England, France, or even Canada. Harking back to that 'half-remembered civics class', the terms "state" and "country" are synonymous. Provinces (also called "counties", as in Great Britain) are subsets of a "state". Our "states" are not provinces of a larger country, they are quasi-independent countries which have gathered under an over-arching government, which is run by the collective of themselves. --- Although it doesn't help with the confusion, my frustration with our differences becomes less when I remember that our "states" started out nearly as distinct as European Countries. --- I hope that this is helpful! - Fr.Mick

  3. Very good article and point well made. My dad always loved the police. When he was young he became an auxiliary police officer for the Houston Police Department. He never had more than a 10th grade education but in the 1950’s he created and ran the police department for a newly incorporated town outside of Houston called Spring Valley Village. He was the only policeman in the beginning, doing this job while maintaining a full time job as a foreman in a machine shop at Cameron Iron Works. I remember as a kid helping him put up stop signs around town as the need developed. I also remember someone throwing a brick through my mom and dad’s bedroom window one night while they slept and the time my dad stopped me for speeding. Once, one of the football coaches called me into the coaches office and told me to grab my ankles while he proceeded to give me a “swat” with a planed down baseball bat because my dad had given HIM a ticket. I never told my dad. On a good note, one night at a local drive-in some guys started hassling me because of my dad and suddenly half the football team gathered around me and told the guys to buzz off. Those were the “Happy Days”.

    In the late 60s my parents moved to Trinity TX, a small town about 90 miles from Houston, where, after owning a liquor store for a couple of years, dad became a deputy sheriff for Trinity County. After a few more years he was elected Chief of Police for the city of Trinity. On visits to see them I remember watching him prepare to go patrolling alone at midnight and thinking how brave he was to go drive the dark roads of east Texas all by himself.

    At the end of his career he returned to his job as deputy sheriff and became in his words “the county gofer”, running errands and transporting prisoners. I have been told that dad would often pass on a few dollars to prisoners to make sure they had some resources as they went into the prison system. He did this until one day the sheriff called my mom to tell her it was time for my dad to retire. He was just siting in the car in the parking lot. He was diagnosed with Alzheimers at age 75.

    By this time I had moved to New York City and later Oregon and with work and raising a family never found or took the time to ask my dad what his life had been like and why he was drawn to police work. This void was particularly poignant three years later after my dad slipped into dementia and eventually moved to a nursing home. The first day after signing him into the home, I walked out on the front porch where a black gentlemen resident was sitting and he motioned me to come over. As I walked up he said, “Don’t worry, I will look out for Mr. Rosie (my dad’s nickname)”. I thanked him and went home. The next day I saw the same man sitting on the porch and thanked him again for his offer to help dad and asked him how they knew one another. He said, “Well, when he was Chief of Police we had some run-ins and he always treated me with respect.” I have never been more proud of by dad than at that moment and ever since I have regretted I never really got to know the man who was to me just my father.


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