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by Peter Moskos

February 12, 2008

Candid Camera and Why Waiters Make Good Cops

There's a story in the Baltimore Sun about a police officer that got suspended over his conduct as shown on a YouTube video.

You can’t skate in the Inner Harbor (why, I’m not sure). You can’t bike either (I got busted once for biking through an empty Inner Harbor at 6:45AM on my way to the police academy). These kids were skateboarding and the cop goes off on one of the kids. Really, you shouldn’t call a police officer, “dude.” But on the video, the cop is being, well... a dick. I showed it to my class and my students think, well, the same.

The reporter, Annie Linskey, called me and asked for my thoughts on the video. I told her my first reaction. But I also said I couldn't be sure. At least not sure enough to go on record in the Baltimore Sun criticizing a Baltimore City police officer.

We don't know what happened before the video starts. Is it a school day? (probably not) Did the cop already tell the kids three times to stop skateboarding in the Inner Harbor? Did the kid flip off the cop right before the video starts? I think there are lots of possible situations that could justify the cop's behavior. As a former cop, my first instinct is to give a cop the benefit of the doubt. Patrolling the Inner Harbor is a plum assignment and the officer had no previous complaints. So he’s probable a good officer.

The truth is that cops, including myself, are all too willing to excuse other officers as to how they do they job. Though I would tell a cop in private how I think he or she could do better, I don’t think everything a cop does should be second guessed by people who don’t understand the nature of the job and the specific situation. In legal jargon, the totality of the circumstances.

Different cops handle different situations differently. Some cops are better at being aggressive. Some are better at talking to people. Sometimes cops should be courteous. Sometimes cops shouldn't be polite. Cops have to make quick decisions. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re just having a bad day.

Now let's say, for the sake of argument, that the video shows the whole story. If that’s the case, then the officer handled the situation horribly. If your goal is to get three kids to stop skateboarding, there are much better ways to do it.

To put it bluntly, how do you get cops to stop being dicks? It’s a serious question. And I’ve thought about it lots. I still don’t have a good answer. I think cops are rude simply because they can be. If you deal with the public at your job and you could be rude, would you? Nobody starts a job wanting to be rude. But if you’re dealing with a random selection of the public (or worse), it often ends up that way. Every wanted to really tell somebody off? Well, cops can. And some do.

I often half-seriously propose that the six months of the police academy could be better spend waiting table is a fine-dining restaurant. I’ve waited a lot of tables in my life. And one thing you learn in a fancy restaurant working for tips is an important lesson for police (and everybody). In stressful situations where people are rude to you, good waiters learn how to be polite to people they hate.

[Other skills from waiting useful for police: how to multitask, prioritize situations, stay calm under pressure, deal with idiots, work without sitting down, eat quickly, and bathroom breaks, and wash your hands a lot.]

Still, sometimes a person does need a lesson. Sometimes an arrest isn’t appropriate. Or legal. So as good police, you’ve got to put on an act: yell, threaten, cajole, lecture. All these are part of the job. But it’s important to have an objective when you deal with a situation. Then you have to figure out the best method to achieve your goals. Yelling for the sake of yelling isn’t good policing. I rarely felt I had anything to prove as a police. I had a job to do.

Cops tend to be scared of video cameras. Precisely because of videos such as this. How would you like it if you were suspended because of an incident at work seven months ago you may not even remember? But in the long run I think cameras will help police more than hurt police. It would be nice to have videos of criminals misbehaving. It would be nice to have videos backing up cops’ version of stories. It would be nice to see cops handling situations well.

It’s good to police assuming you’re being watched. These days, you probably are. If videos make cops less rude, all the better. My problem with asshole cops isn’t so much that they’re being an asshole, it’s that being an asshole is usually bad policing. It escalates. It has no ultimate goal. And it’s dangerous. I don’t want to backup a cop who provoked a fight because he and some kid got all macho with each other. I don’t want my work defusing a domestic ruined because some cop shows up and feels (sometimes incorrectly) like he’s being dissed by some idiot.

A police friend of mine saw the video and wrote this:
I saw part of the video and I know the cop. He is your typical Italian to say the least. He is a pretty nice guy but I guess by the looks of it he had a bad day. You know that I always give the cop a very heavy benefit of the doubt, but the kid was skateboarding. I mean shit, find a drunk or something. Shit, I felt bad just watching the tape. Granted the kid smoked or huffed way to much earlier but still they were riding skateboards. To top it all off, it was at the Inner Harbor in daylight for god sakes!!! I will stop ranting now.
So will I.

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