Monday, March 23, 2009

Who Are Police?

by Andrea Campbell

Alarming Realities

In an older book called Protecting Your Life, Home and Property: A Cop Shows You How, a seasoned police officer from Indianapolis, Captain Robert L. Snow, explains that we should try to understand and treat police as individuals if we are to truly comprehend the dynamics between crime, law enforcement, and prevention.

Snow says one of the first questions usually asked by citizenry is, “Why become a police officer?" And after hundreds of police applicants under his review, Snow classifies police officers as falling into basically four different groups.

The first type, Snow says, are people who from their earliest years thought of law enforcement as the only career conceivable for them. They usually made all the right moves, took courses in law, participated in law enforcement internship, studied criminal justice in college and applied and joined a department.

The second type of individual saw a career with the police as a secure, fairly well-paying job with good benefits. The work they assumed would not be boring, and he believes they may have worked at a monotonous job previously, became disenchanted, or laid off.

Another group, he says, came to law enforcement by falling into it. The local police department happened to be hiring, they heard about it from a friend and applied without knowing much, but wound up loving it. S
now says he, himself, fell into that type.

And then, unfortunately, he says, there exists the last type of applicant, who, no matter how much psychological screening is heaped, possess personality quirks or inadequacies that go undetected and they inevitably exhibit large amounts of suppressed anger. Often their darker side thrives with the power that comes, and they cause police departments embarrassment before they eventually come to be fired.

What does this type of examination tell us? Well, despite the applicant’s general perception of the kind of excitement the job portends and the prestige they came to associate with law enforcement, police are still representative of the public at large. Often, few have considered the dangers involved and few others had a burning desire for public service.

Altogether, they represent all levels and all segments of society. A police department then, it follows, despite our media’s depiction of the police in films and novels, are not a homogeneous group, but individuals with a distinct personality who work the same job. Police are human, with human fallacies and prejudices, but it is their power of discretion, that has the most effect on the ability or inability to exact justice.

Case Handling: A Misnomer?

Considering the plethora of information and statistical data available about all aspects of crime today, one area of police investigation remains neglected: the actual pattern of police investigation response to citizen complaints of serious crime.

In today’s milieu there are numerous constraints on investigative activities. The first and major factor for this limitation is enabled by bureaucratic set-up: Investigator’s have found themselves shackled to their desk. For every case assigned, the detective must produce a completed investigative report within 14 days. The report account must consist of:

1) description of relevant information about the incident;

2) the type of investigation undertaken; and

3) the classification of the status. For classification purposes, three designations are possible: *one, a case is closed, assuming an arrest has been made and no further action is required; *two, a case is suspended, whereupon the available information has proved fruitless and no further investigation is warranted; and *three, the case is open, which indicates that a continued investigation beyond a 14-day period holds some promise of arrest (generally “major” cases are classified “open” with special justification required).

The discretion of the investigative officer colors all areas of the report. For example, his personal assessment of the “typicality” of the event is factored in—meaning, for instance, that a type of crime is:

• common for this area;

• considered routine; and

• only low-effort treatment is required.

Also, the discretion of the officer appears again when he is dealing with the victim of the offense, and here he may often give the impression that, "everything is being done” to solve the problem (a short-cut type of public relations).

Supervisors seldom challenge the content of the reports, but their main input into the process is that the time deadline of the report is monitored, and findings are often used as a basis for performance and evaluation. A component in this supervisory technique is that the police investigator comes to understand there is an informal pressure on him to produce a number of arrests, or his assignment can change—read this as a “demotion” in nature—and said officer can find himself back on the beat.

Detective work carries some prestige, not necessarily in wages but in attitude and demeanor, number of shifts, and detectives often wear civilian clothes and drive around in unmarked cars. One other note of interest here, is that the public’s conception is often that the detective is doing the “real police-type work,” that is, crime control; whereas the other, regular-type cops are engaged in peace-keeping.

Between the incidence of this kind of self-reporting and the internal pressure that exists, the inadvertent results of the report are then somewhat skewed. For example, there exists a private notion called “skimming.” Skimming, in simple terms, is when police select from their workload cases that appear likely to result in arrest. Obviously, the effect of working in this manner is that other, more routine cases, receive only the most cursory treatment.

Detectives employ an instrumental kind of “shorthand” in this sense:

Cases with potential, versus time-consuming cases. Those with some hope of reward, versus those with dead-ends. Burglary and robbery are seen as routine and require minimum effort. Whereas assault, rape and homicide provide a higher level of effort, because of these factors:

Since these cases frequently involve:

• persons of acquaintance they may prove more solvable;

• information is readily available; and

• the case has characteristics (but interestingly, since no great investigative acumen is involved, less credit is accorded).

With cases where the suspects are strangers, the case is automatically tainted as being “major” by supervisors, and even the terminology changes, the killing becomes “murder.” The stranger-related murder then involves more methodically-processed information, even though the police have a difficult time in solving this latter type of case.

There are also discretionary politics employed in the investigative techniques of crime. For example, a routine burglary, often referred to as “pork chop” burglaries, are suspended after a brief interview or perfunctory investigation; (sometimes they are also reclassified as a lesser offense).

The ability or inability to provide information in “I.D.-ing the perp(etrator)” is the single most important feature and given the greatest interpretive significance. If the victim of lost property has a named suspect, the case becomes non-routine. Other characteristics of major importance in the weighing of a crime’s effort include: Character of victim; social class; position in the community; and race. These are all said to have a decisive impact.

In those cases which evolve in a so-called “respectable” neighborhood, a more detailed investigative report is prepared and the officer may even outline his reasons for justifying “suspension,” because the officer may feel the victim will be more likely to inquire into the process and progress of the case, often complaining to their supervisors. This can be defined among detectives as the cases that, “come back on them.”

It would do well to mention some other factors involved with case-solving efforts: public relations moves; reducing juvenile crimes to criminal mischief; awareness of changes in a neighborhood; and the organizational weight of the group committing the crime.

In summary, case stereotypes do happen, pursuance is vigorous and methodical in only a small percentage of cases and a differential treatment because of a victim’s status is not uncommon. The work orientation emphasizes practicality over product, and tends to encourage substitutions of assumption for information gathering due to time, money and supervisory restraints. Not quite the picture we citizens had hoped for. The image of a special arsenal of sophisticated technical methodology is substantially misleading. All the more reason to engage ourselves in crime knowledge and prevention.

I have a lot of law enforcement friends and this is not meant to be a diatribe, but I wanted readers to know what police are up against and to look at them as men and women who are doing the best they can in difficult situations to help keep us safe. They are putting their lives on the line in some way, every day—and we should try to do what we can as citizens to help them in their tasks.


FleaStiff said...

We have met the enemy and he is us!

Ofcourse 'crime shaping' and 'skimming' take place. The cops have to deal with bean counters too! A rape complaint will often be filled out to justify downgrading it to assault or date-rape. An arrest will be made off-campus so as to skew the crime statistics. Cops never sat out on freeways and stopped drug smugglers until asset forfeiture laws resulted in sending cops on all expense paid seminars. This Patrolman versus Detective distinction often is inefficient and unsupported by the evidence, but its like anything else: thats the way its been done for decades and those with the plum detective assignments sure ain't about to allow any changes to be made.
The bean counters want to see good numbers, so do the police brass, the Mayor and the TV-watching citizens. So thats what happens. Good numbers. Not truthful, just good!
When the County Agricultural Commissioner in Medocino County reported in his annual report that the number one crop in the county was "pot", the citizenry did not demand changes in the laws or changes in the enforcement of those laws. The citizenry demanded a new law that prevented the Annual Report from considering any crops other than lawful crops.
We are the ones who demand "good numbers" rather than the truth. And thats what we get.

Don said...

I've seen a lot of good cases go to the prosecutor's office, to get pled down so the conviction rate is up for the DA.