What’s up with that cop?

Why was he such a (insert your adjective)?

Speeding and, speeding and…

Have you ever had an experience with a police officer where you thought the cop was kind of a ____? You can insert your own adjective.

As a manager in a mid-sized police department, I get to hear quite a few stories about the good work our officers do. I also get to hear the complaints. Probably the most common complaint about officers has to do with their perceived attitudes. There can be for a number of reasons for that, and now that so many law enforcement contacts are captured on body-worn cameras many of those complaints can be resolved quickly. Sometimes the complaints are false, and sometimes there is just a misunderstanding about what the police can or should do. On a fairly small percentage of the complaints, we realize we could have done a better job.

In some cases it seems like we get more complaints about newer officers. At one of our recent citizen’s police academies, one man talked about how he’d been pulled over twice and given tickets. The first time it happened was with a young officer. He said the young cop didn’t necessarily do anything wrong but he came off as unfriendly and aloof, not wanting to engage in any conversation. He didn’t “sell” the ticket, and the driver went away feeling kind of ticked off. I mean who feels good after dealing with someone they thought was rude or uncaring?

The next time our citizen’s police academy student got stopped was by a gray-haired veteran. He got a ticket that time too, but the officer spoke to him in a casual, friendly way, explaining the ticket so that the driver ended up thanking him as he signed the citation. What was the difference? Why do we come off as jerks sometimes and nice other times?

The truth is there could be any number of reasons. Cops, like the rest of the human race, are just ordinary people and sometimes we get ticked off, take a tone, or respond in ways we shouldn’t. I can think of a few times in my career when I’ve smarted off to someone who I let push my buttons. To prevent that behavior we train in community policing techniques, procedural justice, and crisis intervention, among other skills.

Unfortunately, our line of work is one in which the customer is not always right and we are frequently in a position where we have to take an action that someone is not going to like. There are also times when we just can’t resolve a problem to someone’s satisfaction, which can lead to frustration from all involved and complaints from citizens.

Then there are the cases where we have to remain focused and can’t take the time to answer a question or take our attention away from the task at hand. Traffic control is a perfect example. If we have a line of cars to move through an intersection, we probably don’t have time to stop that line of cars and give one person directions to the mall.

So why do more people complain about younger cops being less friendly? I have a theory. I think it was accurate for me at least.

How many of you have taught a teenager to drive and watched with either amusement or fear as they become so task saturated that they can barely stay in their lane and turn down the radio at the same time? Driving is a very complex task, but once you’ve been doing it for a while you master it to the point where you don’t even think about it. It just comes naturally.

Police work is the same way, but even more demanding. When I got out of the police academy and went into the field-training program, everything was new. I’d been trained to think in an entirely different way, evaluating every situation for potential threats and response options. Every decision and action is under a microscope: where you drive, how fast you drive, where you park, how you speak on the radio, whether you search someone, how you search someone, how you investigate a case, write a report, talk to people, etc. There was so much going through my head as I drove the police car while listening to several different radio channels, looking for traffic violators or criminals, thinking about the penal code, vehicle code, court decisions, and listening to the advice or criticism of my training officer that it was almost overwhelming at times. While you’re learning all that you also have to learn to go through mental rehearsals and contingency planning for every car stop and call for service. I call them the “what if” drills.

At that point in my career I did not have the ability to be on guard and appear relaxed at the same time. I was too busy thinking about all the things I had to do. After a while, much of the job became familiar enough that I didn’t have to devote conscious thought to each and every task I had to perform. When that happened, and when I became better at reading situations and people, I could make a car stop and focus more on how I came across to the people I stopped. I got better at recruiting informants or getting confessions because I could help even my arrestees relax and open up by appearing to be “cooler” to them. I also got better at avoiding foot chases, uses of force, and complaints because I got better at talking to people.

We’ll never be able to avoid all complaints or negative interactions, because some people will still make bad choices, but with experience we get better at being proactive without ticking people off. When we earn a complaint, we will own our mistakes, learn from them, and be accountable.

If you do want to make a complaint about an officer, or commend one for a job well done, you can call the police department, send an e-mail, write it out and drop it off, or mail it, send it to our auditor, etc. If you can get it to us, we’ll address it.

Thanks for reading. Be safe, be kind, and look out for each other.

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