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by Peter Moskos

November 4, 2014

Strike against cop cameras

When I was cop, boy did I joke about things I wouldn't want seen on youtube.

It might be a tad overgenerous to say what I said were even jokes. But I laughed. I still do. When I get a message on my answering machine that says, "Pete, will you stop touching little boys and pick up the phone!" I know who it's from. And I'm pretty sure my wife knows I'm not a pedophile. But can references to raping innocent children ever be funny? Well, I think so. And you are free to think less of me, but what I and my friends say in private really is none of your business. Besides, does anybody not say things in private that would be inappropriate in the public sphere?

So two cops in Austin are recorded on a tape made public, while in their squad car, making tasteless comments about rape (and a few other things). Now that this video is public, you need to react accordingly. But you also need to keep things in perspective. Is what these officers said serious? No. Threatening? No. Did it affect their job performance. I doubt it. And truth be told, this is positively mild compared to things I have said. Let me confess that I too have made tasteless jokes, in private, about sex, race, crime victims, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation, and quite frankly every other possible taboo subject I could think of.

Now cops, more than most people, have a obligation to refrain from bad taste in public, and especially when dealing with the public. But that's not what happened here. When you're riding in a car with somebody for eight hours, you get bored. You talk about a lot of things. You joke. You make tasteless jokes. Of course it depends on whom you're riding with and the camaraderie and relationship you have with your fellow officers. Yes, I can be crude and insensitive in private and caring, compassionate, and professional in public.

Some of this is gallows humor. And police (and paramedics and firefighters) need it because they have to deal with a lot of unpleasant stuff. But you also need to joke to bring up subjects that would be otherwise be taboo. And police joke because a lot of people you deal with -- the vast majority -- lie to you. Some lie to you about robbery. Some lie to you about rape. Some lie because they think it will benefit them, they want revenge, or power. Some lie because they can't tell or don't know the truth. And cops have to listen to all of them. So back in the car you make jokes.

A lot of police humor is at the expense of "victims" because a lot (most?) victims aren't actually "innocent victim." Now in the current climate of political correctness (especially with regards to sexual assault and rape), it's not acceptable to even bring up the phrase "innocent victims" because the alternative places some blame on the victim. But police need to make such judgements because the freedom of other people, sometimes innocent victims themselves, is at stake.

Outside of crimes where the victim isn't doing anything illegal and doesn't know the person who committed the crime, there are a million shades of gray. And police need to talk about these shades. And one way to discuss nuances is by joking and making tasteless comments. In private, there's nothing wrong with that. It's how you learn. It's how you cope. On the street cops need professionalism and discretion. In private, police use humor, and sometimes it's not funny.

Take two different rape cases. One was a nurse walking to work at Hopkins Hospital who was grabbed and raped by a stranger at knife-point. The other was a prostitute who engages in consensual sex but wasn't paid the agreed amount. When the former happened, it was all hand on deck. A few days later the guy was caught. But for "failure to pay"? I once helped a supposed rape victim by doing little more than retriving her three jackets. It was cold outside.

Or take a guy robbed while buying drugs. There were "real" robbery victims. You would know that when you saw a guy running barefoot wearing nothing but his tighty-whities. Now that was a robbery. And we would treat it accordingly. (Mind you, it still wasn't "an innocent victim," because he was still there to buy drugs... but the robbery was real.)

But more than once I got a call for a robbery at the corner of Wolfe and Eager (then a 24/7 drug corner). On scene, the "victim," a poor addicted white guy, would say he was minding his own business, jumped, and robbed of $20. Well, officer, what do you do?

Generally people minding their own business don't like being being taken for a drug dealer by some junkie too cheap to buy drugs in his own neighborhood. So this "victim" asks the first young black male he sees if he's selling. The pissed-off non-drug dealer says, "sure" and takes his order, his $20, and continues on his merry way. The "victim" calls the police.

I would try to keep a somewhat open mind on the off chance the "victim" was actually telling the truth. But do I start canvassing the neighborhood, stopping people who "meet the description." Of course not. So I would conduct a brief investigation, perhaps by asking an old timer if he saw anything unusual, like an armed robbery (something beyond the usual chaos of an open-air drug market). If he nodded "no" with a look of, "you know how that white boy had it coming," case closed. Call unfounded. Adam-No.

And then, back in a parking lot, I would meet with a squademate and crack jokes. The guy running in his tighty-whities? "He was fast." "Or slow." "He had it coming... did you see what he was wearing?" "Exercise is important." "I saw you looking at his package."

We would joke about anything. We needed to joke about everything. We didn't joke because we didn't care. We joked to stay sane. We joked to relieve the boredom. We joked to counter the cruelties of a very harsh and random world. We joked because the only real alternative would be despair. If you care too much -- if you breakdown in a situation where any normal person would be unable to do anything but curl up in a fetal position and cry -- you're not a real police officer. We joked because laughing is good for the soul.

So in this video one officer is telling another how to properly fill out a robbery report. And they they segue to insensitive comments about that robbery and then about about rape. They joke about fighting crime. They joke about ignoring crime. It was said in private, to each other. So I have no problem with it. Police should have a reasonable expectation to privacy when in private, even while on the job. And short of conspiring to commit a crime, there's very little that should be off limits.

Here are people who disagree with me. From Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and you can google a dozen others. And this news broadcast gives some good context.

The lesson I see: police need to be more careful about the record button. And I still believe that cameras will be a net plus for police.


Gotti Rules said...

Hey Pete,
I can't believe you are not offended by some guy calling your machine and leaving a message about you touching little boys! Don't you care what your wife thinks of you? What kind of loser would say such a thing? It is almost as bad as joking about a burning sensation when you urinate.
Completely agree with you and your blog. If cops can't joke around with each other when they are by themselves, then what is this world coming to?

BG said...

Let me start by saying that I completely agree with you. I think everything is funny and everything is fair game to joke about. That said I never tell off color jokes at work. At work, no jokes about violence, sex, race or ethnicity. I tide myself over with joking about personalities. I also strictly enforce my views in my office. You never know who might over hear it.

Secondly, I firmly endorse blaming the victim and that includes myself. Everyone bares some responsibility for the things that happen to them. I often joke about the stupid college girls that live around me jogging through bad neighborhoods after sunset. They don't deserve to get rapped, but they could have taken steps to prevent it...like not jogging through bad neighborhoods at night. If I go drink at the bar, walk home and get robbed, well I have some responsibility in that. We all make constant trade offs between safety and convenience. We could be safer but we don't want to.

Great post though.

PCM said...

I think there's a big difference between an office setting and a car, in which you are stuck for 8 hours.