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by Peter Moskos

December 21, 2013

“Why are cops such assholes?”

This is a question I’ve been asked a surprising number of times (Once by a national TV host during a commercial break). Usually the tone is joking (ie: completely serious). A certain lazy and rude cop in Chicago got me thinking about it.

My answer: “Because they can.”

As a non-asshole (in my humble opinion) former police officer, this is a question I take quite seriously. I think rude policing is actually a bigger problem corrupt and/or brutal policing. The latter categories, quite honestly, are rare. Rude cops are more common and are probably more damaging to policing as a whole.

First let me say that most cops are not assholes. If you think all cops are assholes, there’s a good chance you are one.

But when you ask, “Why are some cops such assholes?” are you really asking, “why was this cop rude to me?” If it’s just the latter, consider A) you refused a lawful order, B) you incorrectly asserted “rights” you don't, in fact, have (often related to A) or C) you asked a really stupid question

But what if the answer is D) None of the above. Then read on.

But certainly we’ve all seen some cops act like dicks. But think about it: if you had to deal with the public at your job, and you could be rude, would you be? Maybe not all of the time... but some of the time?

Have you never been rude to another motorist? Your partner? Your kids? The TV? A minimum wage employee? Well if that’s your personality and you’re a cop, you’re going to be a rude cop. This is not unique to policing (I’ve also heard some rumors about DMV employees). Public servants can be rude because 1) they don’t like their job, 2) they have job security and 3) they have to deal with the public at the public’s discretion.

But it gets more complicated because there are cops being rude and there are rude cops.

Think of three situations of rudeness: sometimes cops should be rude; sometimes cops can be rude; and sometimes cops are just plain rude.

Yes, there are times when police should be rude. Sometimes a stern talking-down-to is needed. It can be an alternative to arrest. Other times something needs to be done quickly and yelling and cursing can sometimes quickly achieve a desired goal. Sometimes.

There are other times when police don’t have to be rude, but I’ll still cut them some slack. Sometimes people do, in fact, ask for it. If you treat police (or anybody) horribly, insert Golden Rule here. I’m not saying these instances represent the apex of police professionalism, but asking a cop “why?” or asserting your “rights” (especially incorrectly, which is usually the case) is not going to endear yourself to an officer of the law. This is John Van Maanen’s (1978) concept of “The Asshole.” Police have a "moral mandate" and need to “maintain their edge” against those who are “culpable and blameworthy for their affronting action.” And if you are not an “asshole” or a “suspicious person, then you are, in Van Maanen’s trichotomy, a “know nothing.” That's the best case scenario. So try and put yourself in the officer’s shoes. Or maybe they’re just having a bad day. Try not to make it worse.

But there’s still the third category of rudeness, the one people ask me about, when police are assholes “for no reason.” “Yes!” they say, “Why was the cop rude to me. For I am not an idiot!” Well, actually...

But let’s assume the officer was just a dick. Yes, even I have seen such instances. There were times when even I couldn’t help but say, why is Enser being such a dick? (just to pick a random but rhyming name)

Because he was a bitter man. Because he was not a better man.

Because he can.

How to prevent assholes who are cops from acting like the assholes they are is not an easy task. Pity the sergeant, but this is where both supervision and peer pressure come into play. And bad officers do not get promoted out of patrol. (And of course, unfortunately, nobody is ever promoted into patrol.)

Here’s my problem with asshole cops: it’s not so much that they’re being an asshole. I can often rationalize that away (see above). No, my problem is that the rude cop is a bad cops. I’m not saying this in a moral sense (“who am I to judge?”) but in a tactical sense.

Rude police are bad police because they don’t do their job efficiently. The witness was going to say something until the cop yelled at him for sticking around.

Rude police are bad police because they don’t do their job safely. The rude cop shows up at a scene, recently calmed, and immediately gets into a pissing contest with some drunkard idiot. The rude cop turns a routine arrest into full-on brawl.

I often half-jokingly (ie: completely seriously) propose that four of the six months of the police academy would be better spend waiting tables at a good restaurant. Restaurants are the perfect training ground: stressful, real world, but rarely life and death. I learned a lot working for tips: multitasking, prioritizing situations (triage), staying calm under pressure, dealing with idiots, communicating efficiently, standing up for a long hours, eating quickly, holding one’s pee, and washing hands as often as possible.

But the most important thing is dealing with obnoxious customers and maintain a professional cool. A lot of customers are assholes. A lot of customers are having bad days. So good waiters learn to achieve their goal while being polite to people they hate. A professional gets the job done and goes you home in one piece. And that’s police rule number one.

(I wrote a similar post 5 years ago)


Gotti Rules said...

Hey Pete,
I know you hate to name names, but let's suppose I know a name that rhymes with Enser who might have been an asshole cop. However, karma is a bitch and sometimes you get what you deserve. He is now terminated from the force. Now your other example of an officer who stirs the pot after you get suspects calmed down, let's call him Vatts. I remember on more than one occasion, getting into the "full-on brawl" after the situation had been calmed down and I had the problem resolved. These two officers were really the minority. Most officers were not assholes. Wouldn't you agree?
Have a Merry Christmas!

PCM said...

...Says the man who politely informed a carjack victim to "call 911!"

But I do agree with you (even though I wasn't actually thinking of that other officer you didn't mention).

I think part of the problem in public perception is that the police officers most accessible to the public -- the guys sitting in car on the Chicago corner doing nothing because of some "safe streets" program (or guarding a camera) -- are the most punished most pissed officers on the force. And these are the cops by which all police are judged.

What do you do to punish officers? You make them walk foot and/or deal with the public. God save the poor pedestrian who happens to be walking over the Edison Hwy Bride at 3am and comes across an officer walking that post!

Lenard Neal said...

Cop work in Chicago is unusually political, racial, and socio-economic in its' scope and, in my personal opinion and experience, can't be compared to other cities at all. Not even St. Louis or Kansas City or Cleveland. It has it's own history and culture. Chicago cannot be compared to other cities. Period.

PCM said...

You're not much on comparisons, are you?

DB said...

I agree with most everything you said here and I got a good chuckle out of some of it. The biggest problem I see in policing is there is too much emphasis on stats or this program and that program. There simply is not enough emphasis or training placed upon good old fashion customer service. If cops were rated more on the positive reviews they received from customers (victims who actually call the police) rather than how many tickets they right - well, then you might solve part of this problem right there.

PCM said...

They kind of do that in England. And I think it basically works.

But keep in mind, and I simplify a bit, most victims are criminals, too! So it's not quite so clear whom the police are supposed to be satisfying...

Unknown said...

Dude the reason most people think cops are assholes is VERY simple... the profession attracts assholes, cut and dry. As a cop you must know the statistics on domestic violence within cop families as opposed to the national norm right? 40% to 25%. Damn near double. There is an easily explainable reason for this... give a HS grad a job they can barely even comprehend the complexity of (the majority of cops cant tell you all the laws they're even supposed to enforce), give them a fraternity which enforces a code of silence (much like the "snitches get stitches" code of street gangs), a job when they shoot an unarmed civillian they get PAID leave (you won't get that as a 20 PG&E employee who got caught smokin a doob), and authority over any situation they deem fit (random traffic stops, checkpoints, stopping people for merely WALKING at night [has happened to me multiple times going to work]) and you have a recipe for the assholes to come in and take all the jobs. Cop accountability is notoriously bad, there general treatment of people (apparently even their own families) is notoriously bad and they don't get even get fired for such actions... often times they are still promoted and never reprimanded for such outrageous actions. Really though... this is why we the general public do NOT feel safer when a cop is around. Detroit cops play cops and robbers, bay area police routinely shoot at unarmed individuals, NYPD has admitted to racial profiling and LAPD is FAMOUS for abuses of power. This is why many of us will NEVER call you for ANYTHING.

Not all cops are assholes... this is true, but the problem is just like muslims; you are complicit in letting the actions of bad cops go unreprimanded in a systematic code of silence and therefor facilitate the assholes to keep abusing and harassing us. I have not called you out of name, nor have I declared all cops assholes; I have merely stated EASILY researchable facts, considering we all have google here. I would be surprised if this comment doesn't get thrown away though as the majority in your profession are not known for their appreciation of open discussion or the first amendmant. Please be willing to prove me wrong.

PCM said...

Please do give me a cite on the D.V. figures. I am not only not familiar with them, I don't believe it, for cop and for non-cops. (I also suspect any cop figure isn't adjusted for age.) I don't think one-in-four wives are getting beat up their husband (or vice-versa or any combination thereof).

Unknown said...


Here's the link man. Apparently the numbers are worse than I thought. Its 10% compared to 40%, although this is simply the headline it is backed by quite a few studies and all foot notes are sourced as well.


Apparently a lot of cops also suffer from major depressive disorder or bi-polar disorder as well... this would be all fine and dandy if it weren't for the fact that you all are regularly THEE heaviest armed citizens of the nation with the law upholding your judgments and unlike the general military population your work isn't done against foreign people (still distasteful to say the least) it is done against the people that live here.


Or how about these ridiculous new laws protecting you all from THE LAW you all are supposed to be upholding.


Or how bout this video of a paying customer of a store whom was never asked by the owner of the premises to leave, whom was racially profiled and then arrested for drinking an Arizona iced tea (which was later changed to trespassing at a store of which he had peaceably just bought the beverage from)

This comment literally took 5 minutes to do research for and not only were the three articles sourced, the tearsofacop article was written BY A COP and the last was video.

There is a REASON you as a profession are seen as a paramilitary force of government oppression by minorities, gays, women, a significant part of the returning vets and any freedom minded individual... it's because you generally are.

Lets get to the crux of it... does anyone EVER feel at ease when a cop patrol car is behind them? Even if they've done nothing wrong, the answer is still no. Do you as a profession stop even a quarter of attempted murders? How about rapes? What about strong arm burglary? No, no and no. You show up after, write a report and hope at best you find the perpetrator, and at worst steal the victims stuff and harass them some more.

Your profession is paid for by MY and my families taxes and if any teacher, fireman or state-trans worker acted in such a fashion they would be fired and most likely sued into financial oblivion. Your profession however, is unique in the fact that you all have a very real and consequential code of silence, on top of already much improved legal standing in the courts and legal jurisdiction to steal and ticket someone's rightful property.

You as cops and us as citizens let it get this way. You as a profession do not deserve all the heat, but, but ,but... You are (as a profession, I don't know you personally) the ones who more often than not are stealing, ticketing and laying trumped up charges at the feet of people often times financially less stable than you to pay for your salary. These are the most BASIC procedures for any department to make quota. This is profoundly disturbing... you literally rob those who make your livelihood a viable job with good benefits. Not all of you once again... but the majority. The mere fact that you have a QUOTA is profoundly disgusting. I have seen personally a decent person who was a cop apologize for giving a ticket once, even though the crime was a MINOR traffic incident, he had too he said... they had a quota to fill.

I hope you understand I do not hate you personally, I don't have the time nor is it productive. I simply call it as I see it... if it legally can steal your property, ticket you simply because they feel like it, shoot someone and get paid leave it's most likely the person was a cop right?

Anonymous said...

Far too many cops act as if they are above the law when they don their uniforms. About a year ago, a drunk driver wrecked in front of my house. He wasn't injured, but his vehicle was blocking traffic. Finally, after over an hour, a cop arrived. A month later, the 7 year-old daughter of a cop who lives down the street disappeared, and within 5 minutes, 21 police cars, (I counted them), were in his driveway. Interestingly, she had received a bad report card and was afraid of how her father would respond. Go figure. The main reason I despise all cops is because one raped me several years ago and dared me to report him, claiming no one would believe me. I knew he was correct and kept silent. May he rot in hell.

vitic said...

How about instead of self-praise and self-respect you behave like a human being and have other human beings appreciate and praise and respect you. Then it would be true honour. Just because you feel like you are a good cop doesn't mean you are one. Stand against police corruption, don't support the cop bullies, speak out against the self-serving/self-protecting department policy, reveal the lies on police reports etc. You know well that you will be fired if you do that, hence there is no choice but to join the ass-holes. And that's what most cops do. And that's why there are no good cops.

vitic said...

Another thing -- every single job out there requires you to be polite. Police are the only employees who are permitted to use profanity. Why is that OK? You feel completely comfortable with that. A person who uses profanity on the job can NEVER be professional or outstanding or respectful or honourable. But ass-hole he can be. Only ass-holes use profanity on the job.

PCM said...

Gosh. Sometimes I use profanity in the classroom!

vitic said...

I am not originally from USA, so I can compare the police of the former Soviet Union and USA and there is absolutely no difference. American police cheats, lies (all the time), deceives, assaults, murders and the American Justice System blatantly, in your face, lets them get away with it. From what I have researched so far, the American police has never been good. In fact, every time the police agencies are forced to change or improve, they do it kicking and screaming. The only reason that the police has any appearance of being good because they are forced to.

I remember time growing up when I would hear of people being murdered by the Russian police and I remember feeling helpless and scared. In USA, everyone is used to it. It is normal for the police to do crimes and and get away with it.

American police creates anger among the population and is on the path of never ending continuous escalation (which one day will blow up in a big way). The politicians create bogus laws, like the "war on drugs", the most idiotic of which is the war on cannabis and the police is just too happy to enforce them. The American police (and the Justice System) has ruined millions of lives and that's not a joking matter. These are crimes against humanity.

The only difference between the old Soviet Union and the USA is that the Soviet Union was all about ideology and the USA unapologetically is all about MONEY. It's like a pig that is all about food. Dirty and disgusting.

So, even if you are a good cop, you have absolutely nothing to be proud off. You implicitly and often openly defend your buddies REGARDLESS of what they do. And that's criminal and dishonest.

My personal experience with the police in the USA was mostly good. Only one time I had really bad experience. But I try hard to stay away from them. Plus, I am not poor and I am white. I am in the "protected" class, just like the communists were the "protected" class in the USSR. So, if you are a communist in USSR or a white, middle class and upper class individual in USA, you are much less likely to be wronged by the police. But I wasn't in the "protected" class in the USSR and many people are not in the "protected" class in the USA. So, if justice depends on me being "lucky", this is not justice. It is an ugly caricature.

Everyman said...

"First let me say that most cops are not assholes. If you think all cops are assholes, there’s a good chance you are one."

Are one what? A cop, or an asshole?

Anonymous said...

One very rude cop encounter in my early twenties ruined my opinion of all of them. That stuff sticks with you.

Anonymous said...

The law enforcement field atracts a certain type of person. Usually these folks have a need for instant authority and respect, because they went through 6 months of training. I get respect because I show respect to my fellow man, not because I have a badge and tell another man or woman that they must respect me, "Just Because".

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this today. I have encountered rude copes and very nice and polite ones. Some cops I could tell really have the best intentions and really do care about people and making this country great. i honor those cops very much. But this one rude cop in particular really made me question why in the world did he choice this profession? He was very condescending and disrespectful to me left and right over a very small vehicle violation. I thought cops got into the field to make the world a better place? right now there is a lot of trust issues w cops and the rest of the country.. and being rude is just going to make things worse for everyone. kind of reminds me of this nursing home i used to work in. you would think all the people who work in nursing homes want to make the residents/patients feel great and have compassion towards them... unfortunately some are just their for a paycheck and dont care. its very sad that most of our "moral code" professions are filled with people who dont have any.

Anonymous said...

I am a mother of three sons. When my kids started driving they were pulled over numerous times for not putting a blinker on or some other BS reason. Every time the first words out of the cops mouth was "where's the weed?" They searched their cars, threw everything all over the place and made a mess. And not once did they find anything. One of my sons even gave him the keys to search the glove box and trunk. One officer didn't find anything and actually called the dogs in. Really? And found nothing. And called my kid not so nice names. I got pulled over once for rolling a stop sign. My children were small all three under 10 and the cop just stood there. I asked if he was going to give me a ticket and he said "that's up to you" I then apologized for going through the stop sign and he said the same thing again. At this point I dropped a name of someone I knew on the force. He was making me so uncomfortable and nervous I just wanted to get me and my kids out of there. This is one family and the same police force over a 21 year period. It doesn't make me have much trust. I will say some are very professional and very nice. A few bad apples ruin the reputation for the rest. In retrospect I should have asked for badge numbers and names and filed complaints. But who thought it would happen so often? It's sad because they wear the uniform some think they can do whatever they want. I know I'm tired of it where I live.

GregC said...

So... you mean that time that I told the cop who complained about me recording him during my traffic stop that he was wrong I was asserting rights I didn't have?


Moskos said...

Odds are you did have the right to record the police, but it's not clear cut, especially in those states with two-party consent. Or if it interferes at all with what the cop is trying to do.

Unknown said...

Got to love it when cops try to justify why other cops act as they do. Rather than just accept the fact that the general public no longer feel safe nor protected when police are around, the police would prefer to explain how WE should react and what WE should do when interacting with them.
We are not stupid...we KNOW there are good cops out there, but the problem is that the 'good' cops are not doing anything to stop the 'bad' cops being bad - and there we lose our confidence in our police officers and the entire system!

Imagine how we would rejoice if we watched someone who was mercilessly being beaten on and kicked and chocked for no justifiable reason by police officers, and one of their own was to pull his gun out and demand they stop beating him to death and was prepared to shoot if they continued. Wouldn't that be incredibly awesome to watch a 'good' cop doing the right thing!

But as we all know, that officer would be ostracized and treated as a leper amongst their peers - and with a better than average chance of being shot 'accidentally', or they would be forced/coerced into quitting the force.

Unfortunately, the rot is so deeply embedded that a good cop stands no chance of changing the systemic violence and corruption that exists in our police forces and I believe it is almost time to start all over again - and the only way to do that is a TOTAL clean-out of those in power.

It would seem that a need for a revolution is at hand!

Unknown said...

I think the mind frame is all wrong when someone says something like "maybe the cop had a bad day", like that is acceptable or something.

The problem is much deeper then many would like to accept in my humble opinion. I believe people who work for a police force aught to be humble personalities, also tolerating and understanding because those are the people who really put forth the effort into their jobs and every other part of their life. People we look up to. I strongly think the police force should be teachers of the public not assholes who make other peoples lives harder.

Here is a good example and many of you will disagree with me and you will probably think this is normal behavior or not. A man rode his scooter with his son on the back down to the market about 1 mile away from home. It was night time so he was violating basic laws in Massachusetts. Now 90% of the police officers look the other way when they see this type of behavior but this police officer approached the man on the scooter pulled him over and explained how much of a big favor he is doing for the man by not towing his scooter and writing up $425 in legal fees. The police officer told the man and his son to walk home and proceeded to explain how much of a big favor he is doing for the man.

Now is the police officer being an asshole or not?

I personally think he is being an asshole. Why you may ask? Well he pulled him over. If I was a cop I would never get involved with such petty bullshit. Many police officers wouldn't give a rats ass about a man in a scooter however there is always going to be that cop who is a douche, who must have such a shitty home life that he has to take it out on the public. We need people who don't let their own lives effect their jobs. Everyone drives over the speed limit, the speed limit is a grey area of the law, so police officers look the other way because they know the speed limit law is wrong. Humans can follow an absolute, it is against our very own nature though we are treated in this manner as if we are a mechanical machine. So that is my take on police officers being assholes I really think we need conscious police officers who give a shit about people.

I have dealt with the public when I worked at Family Dollar I never had a problem, we just need to pay attention to what we are doing and have a little patience.

Unknown said...

My neighbors had a cookout one weekend and a little scuffle broke out. I was not at the cookout and was doing work on my yard. The police charged onto my property and started hurrasing me, take you hands out of your pockets he says blah blah blah. Then proceeds to ask me if i saw what happened which i did see what happened, i didn't tell him shit. Mayne if he wasnt such a dick head i would've.

That Was Easy said...

This is a very intelligent response. And I wanted to add, some cops are nice. Others have issues about power and control, and are obviously miserable people. I think some consider the police training academies like college. But seriously I think they should have to go get at least a 4 year degree in ethics, political science sociology and psychology to have a job that impacts people on such a profound level. The sergeant I talked to the other day at the highway patrol office, while polite, thought that his department treated all civilians "the same", like, with the same degree of respect. I had to point out that it's not possible to treat everyone the same unless fines become payable on a sliding scale. To be fair the financial impact of things like tickets and misdemanors would have to be the same for everyone. The way the system is currently set up, a simple traffic ticket will always be far more of a burden to a single mom living under the poverty level than it would be to someone with more money. That's not treating everyone the same, even if the cops are polite.