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by Peter Moskos

September 30, 2014

Sometimes it's just a job

The seventh in a series from Sgt. Adam Plantinga's excellent 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman:
This job can turn sour for a variety of reasons. Maybe you got hurt in your last fight with a suspect. Maybe you have enough pending citizen complaints that it seems your solid, aggressive police work is actually being punished; you wonder if being a proactive officer is even worth the hassle. Perhaps a sergeant is breathing down your neck or your squad partner is good for nothing. Whatever the reason, you can adopt a lousy attitude rather quickly.

You start to show up at assignments not because you want to make anything better, but because you have to. Then you do just enough at that assignment not to get written up or fired. You look at citizens with a growing Us versus Them disgust, resentful of a community quick to criticize the police for being heavy-handed, but at the same time not exactly lining up themselves to take a job where there is a reasonable chance of getting shot at and an excellent chance of working weekends and holidays.

You will order zippers on your uniform shirts in addition to the buttons not because you want zippers, but because it will cost the city a few extra dollars per shirt so screw ’em. Or when the district captain comes into roll call and asks people to come up with ideas to stop auto thefts in the area, you might grumble, “I’ll take the assignments dispatch gives me, but you can’t order me to have an idea.” Or when you and your co-workers aren’t getting the off-days you request, you’ll band together and call in sick, the fabled “blue flu,” leaving the citizens short on protection, and leaving your fellow officers, who did choose to come in, short on backup.
These attitudes are most prevalent among veteran officers. As a newer cop, you look at them and wonder if you’re seeing your future.

At the same time, despite the challenges that come with the job, it’s good to keep in mind that this is the profession you chose. Not much point in bellyaching about it. During tough economic times when workers are being laid off across the country, you have a position that will not be outsourced any time soon. You are in an industry where business is always booming. Until the crime-fighting robot is perfected, you have plenty of job security.

September 29, 2014

When police-involved shootings aren't about race

There's still the strange belief among some people that police only do bad things to black folk. When I was on Chris Hayes the other night, some commentators thought the initial stop was racially biased. Chris himself questioned whether a white person would have been stopped for a seat-belt violation. I find that crazy talk. There was so much bad going on in that shooting that to be distracted by the initial stop seems to miss the greater point. I know the vast majority of cops don't give a damn about your race. And the idea that white people don't get stopped for seat-belt violations is also demonstrably false. (If you want to download and read a large and rather academic pdf report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the matter, knock yourself out.)

Bad things do not only happen to black people. Most bad shootings don't become issues till there's unrest and/or Al Sharpton raises a fuss. And sometimes, a fuss should be raised. (And the last time the Rev tried to help some poor white guy who claimed he was brutalized by police, well, Sharpton sure picked the wrong white guy.)

I've written a few times times about police killing white people, first on this blog in 2008. And then in 2009 there was the horrible police f*ck-up that resulted in police shooting and killing Rev. Jonathan Ayers. This was never big news. (In fact, to my dismay, my limited account of Ayer's death seems to be the most extensive on record.)

I'm not saying race never matters, but cops are not shooting black people because they're black. Cops are not stopping black drivers for seat-belt violations because they're black (though police may be searching your car for drugs after that stop because you're black). To believe that race is the issue in policing ignores and won't solve the problem of people of all races who are wrongfully shot (or tased, or maced) by police. The issues have less to with race than with bad training and police officers making bad split-second decisions.

So here's a black cop shooting Bobby Dean Canipe, an unarmed white person (and a 70-year-old disabled vet at that).

Clearly in hindsight this is not a good shooting. It's a traffic stop and an old guy with a cane. And yet when Canipe gets out of his pick-up truck, on the highway, and I see a long hard object turn toward my face -- and keep in mind I'm watching a youtube video and I *know* it's not going to be a gun -- I felt my ass pucker.

Would a reasonable officer have feared for his or life in that situation? Yeah, potentially, probably, I think so.

Sure it would have been great if the cop had known it was a cane. It also would have been great if the guy hadn't gotten out of his truck and reached for his cane.

A mistake. But I think a reasonable one. I'd let the cop off.

[Hat tip to a commenter for bring this shooting to my attention.)

September 28, 2014

There are good people, too.

The sixth in a series from Sgt. Adam Plantinga's excellent 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman:
There are good people in the neighborhood. They work hard. They try to raise their kids right. They’ll even help you push if your squad car gets stuck in a snow bank. You see them out there, tending to their lawns, cleaning the broken bottles off the sidewalk in front of their house, shaking their heads as a car with chrome rims drives by, the bass turned up so loud it rattles the stemware in their kitchen.

Some of them have lived in the same house for 20, 30, 40 years and now look around and don’t recognize the street they grew up on or the people that live there. The block has taken a turn for the worse and they’re talking about moving. They don’t want to move, mind you. But maybe they’d rather live in a place where they can watch their grandkids play without having to worry about stray bullets or vicious dogs. Maybe they want to look out the window and see kids racing each other on bikes instead of some teen in an oversized I Got That Snow T-shirt doing a hand-to-hand drug deal. You can’t blame them for wanting out. You don’t live there. You wouldn’t make it. Sure, you patrol those streets and alleys but at the end of your shift, you go home. That makes you merely a tourist. Not a guide, but a guest.

September 26, 2014

Cops and fitness

The fifth in a series from Sgt. Adam Plantinga's excellent 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman:
There are uniformed cops on the street who are grossly overweight. Their prominent bellies make their equipment belt hang so low it seems inaccessible to them and they can’t chase a suspect more than a block without collapsing. To them, a five-foot tall fence they need to scale might as well be five hundred feet.

In my current department, it is said that we have an officer who once dropped his gun and was too fat to bend down and pick it up so he just waited until a concerned citizen came along who retrieved his firearm for him. How can this be? Chalk it up to years of less than salubrious living, cumulative stress, drive-through Chicken Fingers, and indifference.

There are incentives for staying in shape on some police departments in terms of extra off-time awarded, but there are certainly no penalties, so once you’re out of the academy, you technically never have to exercise another day in your life. Is it fair to the general public that they are protected by such gelatinous first responders? No, it’s not. But police unions tend to have a lot of juice, and they would never go for a system that penalized overweight

But even given that, you know that some of the more rotund officers are among the best investigators. A detective with 20 confidential informants who can pick up the phone after a fresh homicide and get a line on the murderer in ten minutes is worth a dozen Cross Fit uniformed officers, even if he is packing 75 extra pounds and wheezes frequently.

But if you are someone who regularly responds to hot calls, some basic level of fitness is necessary. If you throw one punch and then are immediately ready for a water break, it’s time for some soul-searching. You have to ask yourself, if you were in physical peril and called the police, would you want an officer like you to be the first one on scene? If your answer is a resounding no, it’s time to get off the street and into police administration, investigations, or maybe retail.

S.C. State Trooper arrested for bad shooting

Here's me on Chris Hayes last night talking about the shooting of Levar Jones.

And yeah, that's my bolo tie. You got a problem with a little New Mexico sunshine on TV? Didn't think so.

Update: The officer pled guilty

September 22, 2014

Youth: The future (prison) leaders of tomorrow

The fourth in a series from Adam Plantinga's excellent 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman:
As a cop, it’s easy to get discouraged about the state of today’s youth. You don’t see much of the honors student bound for Dartmouth, because she doesn’t do anything that would cause her to come into contact with you. You mostly see the teen hustler wearing a jacket with dollar signs written on it gearing up to break The Ten Commandments but good. You patrol neighborhoods where toddlers chew absently on cigarette butts from the ground and 2-year-olds with matted hair and jam-smeared faces play unsupervised in the street. You see fifth graders with girls’ names tattooed on their arms. You talk to teenagers whose dad is locked up and whose mom is strung out on dope. The kid’s breakfast is a bag of chips and his lunch is a butter sandwich—which is exactly what it sounds like—and his friends are all just like him and some of them are carrying guns. Does it really come as a shock that these young people tend to fall out on the lawless end? They’re just little criminals waiting to become big criminals. The shock would be if they turned out halfway normal. You marvel at the few that make it. It’s the equivalent of muscling their way out of quicksand.

September 20, 2014

The decline of Stop, Question, and Frisk in pictures and numbers

The New York Times examines the decline of NYPD stops with pretty pictures:

On Fighting

The third in a series from Adam Plantinga's 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman:
People give off plenty of indicators that they’re looking to fight. Some precursors are obvious, like the clenched fists and the readjustment of the feet into an attack stance. Others are more subtle, like the lowering of the chin to instinctively protect their neck, or the rigid setting of the jaw or brow. Some people dry their hands on their pants to prep themselves for an assault. Many of these indicators are reflexive. People don’t even know they’re doing them. They’re tells, like poker players have. So it helps to pay attention to these signs and signals because if you see them coming from the guy you’re about to arrest, take your baton out and call for backup, because he’s not going quietly. He’s going to make you work for it.

"Will police have more free time once pot becomes legal?"

Good question! And it's answered by Ted Hesson in his good article in Fusion.net.

Spoiler alert: No.

Second spoiler: I'm quoted.

Third spoiler: I curse (yet again).

September 19, 2014

We Got Another Kingpin! (14)

It's been a few months, and actually "we" didn't get him. But he was gotten all the same.

From the BBC: "Mexican police have found the body of Aquiles Gomez, who was thought to be one of the main leaders of the Knights Templar drug cartel."

We win! (for the fourteenth time and counting...)

As I wrote back in 2011:
Ah, the illusive search for "Mr. Kingpin." If only we could nab him, the whole criminal enterprise would tumble. Witness how we're all safe from terrorism after the killing of Osama bin Laden. And notice how the drug war in Mexico has been won...


The real headline of course, the one you don't see very often, is that crime is down.

So says the BJS. Though I'm skeptical of the NCVS, since it reported a 40 percent increase in the previous two years, which, quite frankly, as I wrote, I do not believe. (The UCR showed an every-so-slight drop during the same time). So this "drop" in crime may be a bit of a statistical correction.

Still, "crime isn't up" is always nice news, since people always assume the world is always going to hell in a handcart (which seems like an awfully slow and old-fashioned way to get somewhere, these days).

Meanwhile, in New York City, despite the claims, or should I say desire, nay, let's go all out and say despite the knowledge, dreams, and aspirations of police unions and many police officers, crime in New York is basically steady.

Yes, shootings are up 6 to 7 percent. Homicides are down. Other crimes are basically steady. (Now PBA and SBA, please stop, as you've so often done in the past, trying to harm the city that most of you don't live in).

Oh, how it must pain conservative ideologues to see that even without strong conservative leadership, crime isn't going through the roof. Now let's not forget that in the 1990s liberals knew that crime couldn't go down. It did. Now conservatives have been certain for about two years now that crime would go up. But it hasn't. At least not dramatically and definitively. (And we're now through the second summer after the demise of stop and frisk, which was what I was waiting for.)

Imagine this: the city is still safe even with a commie mayor, Al Sharpton as police adviser, extra and probably unneeded police oversight, unfair accusations of murder when criminals die resisting arrest, and unnecessary stop and frisks all-but stopped.

See it's not about ideology. It's about hard work. It's about an intelligent police department and intelligent police officers using discretion and doing their job. I know haters (on both sides) are gonna hate, but instead of seeing impending doom, why not take credit for a job well done?

September 18, 2014

On Gunshot Wounds

The second in a series from Adam Plantinga's 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman:
The seriousness of a gunshot wound depends on a host of factors, including the type and caliber of round, the distance the bullet travels, and if anything is present to slow the bullet down (a wall, a door, another person) before the moment of impact. But it’s a given that anything into the spine is a disaster and close contact handgun rounds to the face can leave the victim’s molars spilled out on the ground, or can blast off half of their skull, leaving a conical section of bone and skin that resembles the head of a unicorn. Other than that, anything goes.

Bullets rarely maintain a straight path. They loop and spin and sometimes follow the curve of the body. A shot into the arm can be “through and through” or it can ricochet off the elbow bone and explode the heart. A bullet entering the lower torso can rip through the intestines and cause lifelong complications or end up lodged in soft tissue without any lasting damage. Many gunshot victims in the latter category are released from the hospital the same day they entered, as it is often medically safer to leave the bullet right where it is. A shot in the buttocks can be a painful but ultimately colorful tale for the shooting victim to share with others, or it can result in an artery being pierced, causing the victim to bleed to death, something one of my sergeants witnessed years ago and to this day still cannot quite believe.

I spoke with a man once who had recently attempted suicide by shooting himself just behind the left ear. The bullet caromed off the front of his skull, and exited out the top of his head, leaving him dazed but very much alive. I could still see the corresponding C-shaped scar on his scalp. I once investigated a shooting where a round entered through a woman’s back, shattered the shoulder blade, and came to rest perched on top of her right clavicle, jutting out like a marble without breaking the surface of the skin. As a police officer, you look at bullet wounds with both respect and wonder because you know that for a gunshot victim, the difference between life and death can be the narrowest of margins.

September 16, 2014

"Write your own damn book!"

Occasionally, really surprisingly rarely, some crusty old cop takes an instant dislike to me because I write and teach about policing even though I wasn't a cop for long. I've never pretended to have as much experience as somebody with 20 years on the job, but I still find something pathetic when a police officer refuses to read what I have written -- which, more often than not, is on his side -- on some B.S. matter of principle. (Usually that principle being he's a dumbass).

The other week I got into a argument with a cop at a bar I like going to. The bartender asked him if he had read my op-ed in the paper. The cop said it didn't matter because I was never real police (of course didn't use those Baltimore words, but that was his gist). Generally I like talking to cops; usually we get along just fine. But after trying to hear him out and conceding much of his basic mistrust (there is a lot about policing I don't know), I mentioned that perhaps he should judge me on what I actually do, say, and write rather than call me a dick for what he thinks I might be writing.

But logic wasn't working. Oh well. I don't need him to like me or read my book. Now I know I can't win a whose-d*ck-is-bigger argument based on my time on the job (two years). But given where I policed, given a few too many damaged and dead friends, I don't take kindly to people asserting I was never there. So after telling him to go f*ck himself, I went on the offensive and questioned his policing credentials (and, while I was at it, his military credentials as well, since by his own ignorant logic, he had only served in Iraq for less than two years).

I also know he's never policed in a neighborhood as violent as where I policed, because such neighborhood don't exist in New York (perhaps the 75 in the late 1980s came close.) I know he's never patrolled alone. So I asked him how many drug corners he's single-handedly cleared? Perhaps I laughed when he doubted the number of arrests I had made. In the end, though my memory is a bit hazy, perhaps I alluded to him and his partner stroking each other off while other cops are out there doing real police work. See, I don't really care what you think about me, my writing, or what I know. But to say I never policed? Go f*ck yourself.

Anyway, it was all drunk stupid macho swinging-d*ck shit. Nobody got hurt. But here's what it all comes down to: if you think you know so much more about policing than I do, write your own goddman book!

Well, every now and then, somebody does.

A short while back I got sent a promo copy of 400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman. I put it on the back burner. There actually are a fair number of "I was a cop and this is what the job is really like" books. A few are good. Most aren't. Some cops write better than others. Some police act too macho while others are not macho enough. But I wish cops would write more. At least more than police reports and texts to their lovers.

When I finally got to reading 400 Things Cops Know, I couldn't believe how good it was. I teach a lot of students who want to become police officers, and I can't think of any other single book that would so well prepare them for what the job is actually like.

Plantinga, a sergeant in San Francisco, seems to have both a pretty level head (though who knows? I've never met the guy) and he can write. He was an actual real English major (and a currently employed one, it's worth point out). Evidently, he can write fiction and non fiction. This is non fiction. These are anecdotes. Good ones. It's not heavy on the theory (which some will see as good), but it's a nice combination of this happened and these are my thoughts on those matters. Plantinga is both perceptive and able to articulate the, er, totality of the circumstances. Now I don't agree with him 100 percent of the time. But I do most of the time. Besides, what the hell do I know?

Anyway, with permission from Plantinga, I'm going to publish a few excerpts from his book. They're well suited to blog form. In fact in 2008, when I started this blog, I myself published a little pithy series of "Officer Pete Says".

So here's what I'm thinking: I'll print one of these every few days. It gives me material to keep copinthehood.com active, and you'll tell your friends about this great new policing book. I want to help get the word out and help Plantinga sell a few copies.

So this is my first excerpt from Adam Plantina's 400 Things Cops Know (Quill Driver Book). Available for less than $12 from Amazon. This is my numbering order, not his, but let's call this #1:
The job will change you. It changes everyone, for better and worse. You will become far more alert to your surroundings. You will keep your gun hand free even when off-duty. You will become hyper-aware when taking money out of ATMs, day or night. You’ll look inside convenience stores and banks before you enter to make sure you aren’t walking in on a hold-up in progress.

If you didn’t curse before you became a cop, you probably will once you have six months in on this campaign. You will curse like a dockworker. You will also become angrier. More disillusioned. Far more skeptical about the inherent goodness of humankind. The constant exposure to toxic social conditions and dealing with people at their hopeless worst solders an extra layer onto your skin. You see too much darkness and it becomes part of you in ways you may not fully understand. Some describe this condition as compassion fatigue, the main symptom being a vague sense of loathing for human frailty and for one’s self. Maybe this extra layer is good. It keeps you from being emotionally invested and affords you the detachment you need to be an objective investigator. It acts like a suit of armor against the elements. But part of you may want to be, well, illusioned again. Part of you wishes that guy you used to be, the one in the police academy with the fresh haircut and the extra-shiny shoes wasn’t such a stranger to you now. You know that for the most part, it’s good that guy is gone. He meant well, but he wasn’t an effective street cop. He was too hesitant, too trusting. He’s been replaced and you don’t expect him back.

But once in a while, you sort of miss him.

September 10, 2014

Good use of Taser

NYPD subdue armed mentally disturbed man. Nobody seriously hurt.

That's the headline you should read every now and then. But you rarely do.

I'm not a big fan of the Taser, but this seems to me exactly what it is designed for.

What's odd, at least to me, is that here is a perfect use of the Taser. A crazy gets zapped. Nobody gets seriously hurt. And yet at least one media source seems to imply something bad happened.

Also, does the NYPD really respond to 100,000 EDPs a year? Seems awfully high to me. And what the hell does, "routinely result in injuries or death" mean. I seriously doubt there the NYPD responds to 275 EPD calls per day. But if that is the case, and people are "routinely" injured, does "routinely" mean say, half the time? So there are 6 EDPs injured by the NYPD every hour? Now that would be a real story... except it's not true. I'm not quite certain what the story here is, except for a job well done by the NYPD.

Anyway, "cops do good job" indeed isn't much of a headline. Nor is "violent crazy man committed to hospital, everybody goes home" a great lede. Still, it seems appropriate to give the police credit when it is due. I mean this is what Tasers are for.

[hat tip to Sgt B]

September 5, 2014

The 21-Foot Myth

It's long been "known" among police that anybody with a knife or edged weapon within 21 feet is a lethal threat. This so-called "rule" has long been a big pet-peeve of mine.

This anybody-within-21-feet-is-a-threat mentality does result in a lot of crazy people getting shot. And don't get me wrong, I have no problem with police shooting and killing people coming at them with knives. But the idea that anybody within 21 feet could be carrying an edged-weapon and is thus potentially a lethal threat? Get real. Even if the "21-foot-rule" were true, what are you supposed to do with this knowledge? You're a cop. Of course you're going to be dealing with people at a normal talking distance of a few feet.

The first problem with the 21-foot "rule" is that it assumes the officer doesn't perceive a threat. The scenario starts with a holstered weapon. Well if you don't perceive a threat that exists, that's a separate problem. But it doesn't mean you're justified in keeping everybody at a 21-foot distance. The second obvious problem with the "rule" is that it assumes that the man with the blade is a trained skilled stealth ninja (or at least an academy instructor-san much better than you, young academy grasshopper trainee, at hand-to-hand combat).

The relevant question is how close should you let a man with a knife get to you when you are in the drawn and ready position. Based on nothing but my gut experience (I'm sure somebody has better-formed answer), I would probably start shooting at about 6 feet. Maybe 10 feet if they're advancing in more a threatening manner. But of course it all depends on the situation: what kind of person? What kind of knife? How is the person holding the blade? (Blade facing back, arm-down, fist clenched means the guy may know how to use it.)

For small knives that don't make particularly good weapons (like a dinner knife or something without a bolster/finger guard), I'd be more than willing to take my chances defending myself and whacking the guy with my trusty 29-inch wooden straight baton (a far better offensive and defensive weapon than the now much more common expandable metal asp). And I'd be more willing to try and disarm the guy if I could come up from behind while the person with the blade is distracted by the other six officers on scene who are drawn down on him).

[And of course a man with a knife is exactly what the Taser is designed for even if it emasculatingly and shamefully used far more often for routine non-threatening non-compliance situations. Also, you should not mace a guy holding a knife, because then you have an angry blind guy with a knife.]

Here's the thing: most people police face with knifes are not well trained in "edged-weapon combat." They are A) crazy or B) cutting up their loved one. Sometimes both. But police rarely if ever face a trained evil ninja out to assassinate a police officer caught unaware (honestly, there are far easier ways to assassinate a police officer, if you so choose). So basically you have this whole police paranoia based on a situation that never happens.

I checked Officer Down and, since 2000, could find just four officers on patrol killed by an assailant with a bladed weapon: one domestic, one EP (aka: EDP or mental case), and two fatal fights after a foot pursuit. As you might guess, not one of these assailants was an a trained stealth ninja.

Best I can ascertain, only one officer in the past 14 years (Sault Ste. Marie Detective John Weir) could have been saved, maybe, I don't know, by keeping greater distance and being quicker to shoot. The other officers, rest in piece, died doing the job they had to do.

So why has the 21-foot rule persisted for decades despite little basis in fact or police reality? I don't know. I'd love to hear what you think. Could it be just another example of the conservative warrior mentality so pervasive (and usually counterproductive) in policing? Think of this: the instructor teaching hand-to-hand combat in the academy is the most aggressive threat-perceiving police officer out there perhaps (just hypothetical, er, based on my experience) having been pulled off the street and into the academy where he can't shoot another sue-the-city person (all of them technically justified, but still...).

So you get a perpetuating cycle where the paranoid cop too-quick to elevate a threat-level ends up teaching and scaring the next generation of police officers to adopt his code-red us-versus-them ideological world-view in which one must assume the worst about even seemingly non-threatening citizens.

Here's a good recent piece by Ron Martinelli which more scientifically analyzes and partially debunks the 21-foot rule, and inspired this post. If you're still with me, it's also worth clicking-through to the first link on this page.

Update: Based on a useful comment to this post, I also should have included blunt weapons and not just knives. Doing so brings the total number of police officers killed in the past 15 years with any relevance to the 21-foot-rule up to three police officers. It's also worth mentioning that I'm not looking at officers just injured. But we don't have those figures. And one can assume some relationship between fatal and non-fatal injuries.

So let's put the 21-foot-rule in perspective. In this same time period since 2000, as many officers (3) have been killed by a moving trains.

Six officers have been killed by animals: one by cow, one by spider, and one by bee; the other three from horses (interestingly, none by dog, the only animal often at the receiving end of a 21-foot mindset).

If one were truly interested in saving police lives rather than simply building police paranoia and mistrust of the public, we should look at the 515 law enforcement officers killed traffic fatalities. How many of these would have been prevented by officers wearing seat belts? And yet the same officer who won't wear his seatbelt because he claims it gets caught on his equipment (which, speaking from experience, is bullshit) will be quick to spout the absurdity that his life is endangered by anybody within 21 feet, in optimal conditions.

Also, it's come to my attention that the 21-foot-rule has now been upped to 30 feet.