Sun columnist Dan Rodricks is unfairly dismissive of the ignorance defense when he writes:
Not knowing the law -- not noticing the speed limit on a street or stretch of highway, as a simple example -- is usually not an acceptable excuse. A police officer not knowing a policy (or missing the memo about one) isn't much of one, either.In terms of breaking the law, it's important to point out that General Orders are not laws. Also, speed limits are posted.
And yet it seems reasonable to expect cops to know the rules of their organization. But it's not. It's impossible. If you want to point fingers, blame the organization. But the issue remains: what is well meaning cop supposed to do?
This is going to be boring, OK? But if you want to understand police, I'm going to take you into the weeds. Because the devil is down there in those weeds.
[Actually if you can figure out why cops are always bitching, let me know. Because I've never figured that one out.]
I wanted to look up the Baltimore City Police Department's General Order on seat belt regulations for prisoner transport. Why, because it seem like Officer Porter might go to jail for ignorance of this one.
First I had to go to my school office because that's where I keep my old binder of G.O.s. The binder is too big to carry with you. So as a cop you don't have it on you for reference. Mine was last updated in June of 2001. Fourteen years later it would be even thicker. Things go into the G.O.s; they never come out.
I easily found the binder and discovered with it a folder of loose things that I was given during my brief career that I couldn't or didn't file in the binder.
Now keep in mind, it's been awhile since I've done this. So I might be a bit slow. But hell, I do have a PhD from Harvard and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Princeton. What I'm saying is that even though I'm not a rocket scientist, I'm not the dullest tool in the shed. And I'm a good researcher! Nevertheless, it took more than half an hour from the start of my quest to the start of writing this. And I got lucky. Almost unbelievably so.
So where does one start? [A professor just came to my office and told me students today don't even know what a table of contents is. Or an index. Whoa. That's mind blowing, but off subject...] Except the book of General Orders has no index. Hell, it doesn't even have page numbers! But there is a Table of Contents:
I'm going with Section K: Adult Arrests. Flipping forward a few pages my bet is on K14, persons in police custody. G.O. Number 06-92. So I flip open to K. My binder actually has tabs with writing on them. Because I'm nerdy and organized like that. Or maybe they made us do that in the police academy. I don't remember.
So I open to K and K-1 is something about Career Criminals Program of 1982. I couldn't care less. I assume it's long irrelevant even in 2000. But how would one know? It modifies the Career Criminals Program of 1976. Signed by Commissioner Battaglia? He doesn't even ring a bell. He must have not been in for long.
And then you just start flipping. After K-1 comes Annex A, Annex B, then K-2. The top of the page doesn't say which K you're on. And there are lots of "Annex." It's easy to get lost. Eventually I find K-14. Signed by Commissioner Edward Woods. He signed a lot of these.
Note the "Rescission" section to remove from the manual. How would you even find Memorandum 2-82? I have no idea.
Is this it? Annex A on Custodial Safety and Welfare of Persons in Custody.
It doesn't say anything about seat belts. Does that mean there is no G.O. on seat belts? In this case I know there is. But what if I didn't? How would you know? There is no index. But I think I need to find a section on prisoner transport.
Oh, here's a doosy from 1985, amending an order from 1977.
"Make the following pen changes to Annex D, Section I, page D-3: Paragraph 1, lines 3&4 -- Delete: [blah blah blah]." You know it's old because it's signed by Commissioner Bishop Robinson. First black commissioner. I always liked his name. Pomerleau is the oldest one finds in the G.O.s. But he was commissioner from the Mayflower till 1981.
There are 18 pages of K-14. I go through them. Nothing seems to concern seat belts.
I don't know what to do. So I go through my G.O. Supplement folder. Slim chance. But you never know.
I see the pages on ethical conduct.
These were my favorite. I used to check them off one-by-one when I violated them. I'm hilarious that way. But this matter because if they can't pin anything else on you, they can always get you for "conduct unbecoming."
I may have missed a few, but of the first 31 rules of conduct, I checked off all but 12 as violated. And I was a good cop, an honest cop. And yet in less than two years on the job I managed to violate the majority of good conduct rules. My favorite was "Section 7: Members of the department, while riding gratis on any type of public conveyance, are not permitted to be seated while other passengers are standing." This is off duty, mind you. And it doesn't say "give up your seat if the bus is full." Nope. If anybody is standing, you must stand.
Some of the rules, of course, you need to violate in order to do your job. (Section 2, for instance, prohibits use of slang while talking to the public. I never did violate Section 28 by playing cards, which I could have done.)
Now at this point I, like you, am distracted and have kind of given up. And right then... I'll be damned at what literally flutter from the folder. This very sheet: "The Police Commissioner's Memorandum 19-99, Subject: Seat Belts."
Like Mana from fucking heaven!
This came out before I was hired. So there's no reason it's not in the binder. But it's not and I have no idea where it should be filed. It's not like it says K-14 part 3 or anything. Is there a special section for "Memorandum"? I don't know. One can't know. And that's my point.
But there it is, halfway down (while on the back of the sheet is something unrelated about dog bites):
• Use a seat belt when operating or riding as a passenger in any departmental vehicle.This one is signed by much-hated Commissioner Thomas Frazier. He was just before my time but was the guy who initially approved my research! (The best thing that ever happened to Frazier's reputation was Commissioner Batts.)
• Ensure that all other occupants of a departmental vehicle that you are operating use a seat belt or a federally approved child safety seat when applicable.
• [Don't use child safety seats in the rear of cage cars.]
• Ensure that prisoners transported in prisoner transportation vehicles are secured with a seat belt. [emphasis added]
• Use extreme caution when transporting anyone in departmental vehicles. [Thanks for nothing.]
So that is it, right? Buckle up prisoners. No exceptions. That's certainly what I thought the rule was. But maybe I was wrong. Supposedly there was a rule saying you didn't have for officer safety. But maybe that happened after 2001. And the new 2014 G.O. was going back to the old May 1999 G.O.
I don't know, and there's no way to find out!
And I still haven't found the section on prisoner transport, assuming there is one. But there must be. Unless there isn't. And then what if I did find it and there are two General Orders that conflict with each other? Then what?
When I quit the police department, one of the things I told myself was that if I could change the system of General Orders, I would be the unsung hero of police officers who had never heard my name. With this little change, I could make the world a better place and die a happier man. But how does one change the system? Better people than I have run police departments and yet General Orders and Patrol Guides get worse and worse. Can we blame it all on lawyers?