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)