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Friday, January 4, 2008

An Ex-Cop's Story

While it's not a Seattle story, I think this former police officer's reflection on police misconduct is very interesting and, judging by the types of messages left by officers here and on other local sites, seems to accurately explain the "Us vs World" police mentality.

His post was left on a message board in response to an interesting story from Radly Balko's TheAgitator about officer Sam Costales, his "officer of the year", who has recently filed suit against his own police department for being harrassed due to his testimony that confirmed a case of police misconduct by officers in another department, (in other words, for busting down the blue wall of silence).

Coming from a former LEO, that is hosed up, but not horribly surprising to me.

While I can only speak for the single department I worked in (and maybe for the dozenish I had regular contact with officers from), this isn't something that is isolated to a single department or even a bad apples issue. It started when we were in the academy. From one side of the field, you have instructors teaching you about honesty, integrity, and how once those qualities are questioned in you, that you are forever tainted as a credible witness in any case you testify in. Then from the other side you have the instructors, mostly in defensive tactics and at the range, drilling it into your head about backing up your fellow officers no matter what, the mantras of "I'm going home tonight no matter what" and "Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6."

Which is all well and good, until you get on the street at your department and the first two things that your FTO tells you are "Don't listen to anything I say about the other officers, you need to form your own opinions" while at the same time badmouthing everything and everyone in the department, and "You don't want to be out here alone, so make sure you don't do anything to make anyone not want to back you up."

Then it starts out with small things. You see someone swipe the money from a found wallet before they log it into evidence, and you don't say anything. You bust up a party and confiscate all the alcohol, but "Hey, we don't need all this for evidence, and they're just going to pour it down the drain, lets have a party after work," and you play along. Because, you tell yourself, it's minor poo poo on the grand scale of things, and noone is really going to care.

Then you get into a knock-down drag-out fight with someone. There's 4 or 5 of you trying to subdue one suspect, and he's going apeshit. You get popped, or spit on, or scratched, or some other minor insult that goes with the job. So once he's down, your buddies give you a couple free shots on him before he goes in cuffs. Or while you're still fighting with him, maybe you crank his arm a little harder than you should, or dig your knee into his groin, or some other "minor" retaliation. Hell, maybe you get out the tazer and zap him a couple times. He deserved it, right? But because you're already heading down that road, you don't realized that for all intents and purposes, you're no better than the guy laying on the ground in cuffs with the ruptured testicle, or the bloody nose, or the tazer wires stuck in him. He committed assault, and so did you.

I guess I don't really know exactly where I'm going with this. It's been over two years since I left the PD after I started calling people on their bullshit. It ended up getting me a job offer withdrawn 4 days before I was supposed to start, and after it was too late to withdrawn my resignation from my current job. And I've been defending officers tooth and nail in a lot of incidents on this board since then, because I know how scary those situations really are, and I know what if feels like to have to make a major decision in a split second with little to no information, and then have dozens of people scrutinize it for weeks and months based on information that you didn't have available to you at the time.

But some of this poo poo just kills me. The corruption, the arrogance, the belief that they can get away with anything because the only people who would ever testify against them are people that would never be believed. Who's gonna believe the crack dealer with no front teeth, or the single mother addicted to meth who witnesses it, compared to 4 pressed and starched officers of the law.

It's hard to explain the mentality of all of this to people who've never worked the job before. It doesn't help that the officer selection process is geared to weed out many of the most practical candidates for the job, leaving you with malleable, impressionable wide-eyed no-life-experience young people on one end, and pathological liars who can tell anyone exactly what they want to hear on the other end. Nowhere near everyone falls into these two extremes, and the process is getting better as minor transgressions of youth are more and more overlooked, but you still get a solid number of people that are either already partially corrupted and dishonest, or are so impressionable that they get molded into being that type of person.

Again, it's hard to explain without doing the job. You have it drilled into your head that everyone out there would rather kill you than say "hi" to you, that around every dark corner lies a cop killer in wait, and you must exercise CONSTANT VIGILANCE (to quote JK Rowling) to make sure you go home at night. Which is a good theory to have in the back of your head to bust out when you need it, but it makes a lot of people paranoid and weapon-happy, and then they end up having to cover their asses to save their job.

For the most part the job is 90% the same old boring poo poo. Theft reports, speeding tickets, baby momma drama, etc, stupid poo poo that once you handle a couple of them, you can pretty much do on autopilot. But bad stress management can lead to bad handling of the other 10%, the fights, the gun runs, the crime scenes, the nasty auto accidents. It also causes the adrenaline to bleed over into other stuff. You pull someone over right after you just had to watch EMS scrape a 5 year old off the street, and you're testy with him, see or hear something wrong and flake out, and the next thing you know Joe Citizen is in cuffs with tazer wires in his back.

Again, hard to get the reality of it across. The longer I'm away from the job and the more I read about this poo poo happening, the more I realize that this country does a piss-poor job of training it's officer for real life policework. There's a huge emphasis on cultural diversity and street survival, and precious little on how to manage the adrenaline and stress effectively so you don't turn into a little ball of rage in a goofy hat on a daily basis.

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