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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...