The civil problem: What to do when it isn’t criminal

New graduates from the police academy are very well equipped to handle a masked criminal climbing out a bedroom window with a pillowcase full of loot over his shoulder or a felony stop of a stolen vehicle. Graduates can usually recite the elements of a crime and are up to date on all the latest case law and patrol tactics. What the academy does NOT prepare a new officer for is also one of the most frequently dealt with incidents…the infamous civil problem.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not law enforcement’s job to handle civil problems. In fact, except for a few rare instances, the police have absolutely no authority over civil law. As a new officer there is nothing more baffling than trying to figure out whether something is criminal or civil. There are times when you think a situation is absolutely screwed up and feel you should be able to do something to resolve the situation…but can’t. Not only do you not have the authority, but you also don’t have the time or expertise to mediate things like: Property line disputes, family law, tenant landlord law, breach of contract law and tort laws.

Sorry Sir / Ma’am…that’s not my problem…

In my personal opinion, there are very few calls where emotions run higher and people lose there minds more than the civil problem. Normally calm, productive members of society become frothing at the mouth, raving animals wearing people costumes over such egregious offenses as: “The neighbor cut off a branch of the tree that hangs over my side of the fence” or “My girlfriend won’t give me back ‘my’ cellphone that I pay for.” Nothing enrages these people more than being told, “Sorry it’s not my problem.” Trust me, you do NOT want to tell someone that their problem is not your problem. There is no quicker way to see an average civilian freak out and go into animal mode.

As a new officer, I struggled to figure out a way to explain to people WHY I wasn’t able to help them with their property line dispute or communal property problems following a separation or divorce. Eventually I came up with a sort of script that I use to explain to people what their options are and why their problem is not a law enforcement issue.

First: Identify the problem

As soon as I realize the situation is a civil problem, I stop the person I am talking to. I explain that what they are describing to me is a civil problem and that I am unfortunately NOT going to be able to resolve their situation. I then explain why.

What they are doing may be “Illegal” but…

One of the things people find most difficult to grasp is why I refuse to arrest the other party, when what they are doing is clearly “illegal.” I explain there are different kinds of “Law” and give the following spiel:

“If you were looking at the “Law” there would be two different bookshelves. On one bookshelf is CRIMINAL LAW. Criminal law is the sort of thing that gets a suspect thrown on the ground, their neck stepped on and the suspect placed in handcuffs and hauled off to jail kicking and screaming. On the other bookshelf is CIVIL LAW. Civil law is all the other crap. All of the family law, tenant landlord law etc.”

Here are your options…

I then go on to explain there are two different court systems out there. One is the one where you go to prison…the Criminal Law system. That’s the law that police have authority over. The other system is the “Judge Judy” type courts that have authority over the all the other stuff. I explain that law enforcement is not allowed to get involved in their civil problem. It is outside the scope of our authority and needs to be handled in civil court.

After my little spiel, the person I am talking to still isn’t happy. They do however understand the difference between what is a criminal problem and what is a civil problem. And more importantly they now know what they need to do to resolve their problem. They also aren’t enraged about the cop who told them “It’s not my problem” and hung up on them. Over the years I have found this approach to be the quickest way to disengage from the situation while still trying to help inform the person as much as I can.

Do any of you have any other interesting spiels or ways of handling civil problems? I would love to hear them!

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Originally published at So you wanna be a cop?.