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Posted by on Aug 21, 2012 in Critical Thinking, skepticism, social justice | 10 comments

Ending Police Harassment Mode: A Modest Proposal

This is not a common topic in the skeptical discourse, but it is something I have been thinking about for a long time. I have had these sorts of experiences that are no doubt commonplace to Americans:

• I notice a police cruiser with lights flashing somewhere in the distance down the highway behind me. I know that I’ve committed no crime, my insurance and registration are current. I nonetheless immediately feel anxious and afraid.

• A cop pulls me over for a legitimate infraction, speeding, then asks to search my vehicle. I know there is nothing for him to find, but I politely refuse anyway. He then fabricates a silly excuse for “probable cause” and searches it anyway, proving his disrespect for both me and the constitution. (In one case, “probable cause” was that I had discarded an empty Pepsi can in the trash at a tollbooth which may have been me “ditching contraband”.)

• Late at night while driving in the Chicago suburbs I was once followed and then pulled over for absolutely no reason but that I was the only car on the road. The officer stated I had made a “wild” left turn, even though he had been following me for 5 blocks before that and I, having noticed, made a perfect and measured turn. The officer questioned me for a few minutes, found absolutely nothing wrong, and let me go.

• On another occasion my car went off the road during a very nasty thunderstorm, after losing traction and hydroplanning. I was given two tickets: one for inadequate tread/unsafe tires (which I fully stipulate to). The second? “improper lane usage”. I kid you not. I had apparently used the lanes improperly during the time in which I had no control of my vehicle. In court, I immediately questioned this absurd charge. It was dropped, if I pleaded no contest to the first. That was the purpose of the trumped-up charge- as leverage to pressure me into acquiescing to the first.

It is worth noting that I am a white male. I am confident that everyone else, who is not, gets it much worse than I do. It’s also proof that these events are not merely racism or sexism- they affect everyone.

My observation is that police in the United States generally operate in harassment mode. This is the mental disposition that their job, not merely their option, but their duty, is to harass citizens. I define “harass” here as the detaining, questioning, searching, interrogating, and interruption of peoples’ lives with no reasonable justification based in either safety or criminal prosecution. Further, I assert that it is not entirely the fault of the men and women in law enforcement themselves because their jobs have been tailored to harassment mode. Several components of police culture foster harassment mode.

The first, is that there is such a thing as a “routine traffic stop”. It is culturally and professionally acceptable and expected for a police officer to momentarily detain and question citizens for the most mundane and harmless of offenses, such as not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, turning right on red even after making sure the way is clear, or breaking the speed limit by 4 MPH. None of these are safety-related. They are minuscule, harmless transgressions. What could a brand new police officer conclude about their job, when such events are common excuses to for street-side interrogations? Only that their duty is to stop and harass people at nigh-random (because all people break small traffic rules at times) in the hopes of either babysitting them into safe driving or uncovering more serious crimes.

My proposal: ending harassment mode
I don’t claim that what I suggest is a silver bullet. Harassment mode is deeply entrenched in police culture, but I think the following represents a step in the right direction toward changing that culture.

Part one: First, we should have no more traffic cops, period.  I don’t mean officers on patrol, but officers paying undue attention to minor offenses which entail zero threat to public safety. Yes, a car zigzagging erratically down the highway should be pulled over. A car that rolls slowly through a stop sign? No. How do we accomplish this? First, by questioning police departments, including Sheriffs running for re-election, about why tax dollars need to be spent on cops trying to babysit citizens into driving safely, instead of focusing on criminals that pose serious threats to persons and property. Having traffic cops in harasser mode is not just unjust, it is hugely expensive. What about traffic violations that do pose a public safety threat? In the case of obvious reckless driving, such people should be stopped. The most common safety-related violation of traffic rules is speeding and the running of lights- both of which can be cheaply remedied by traffic cameras which have the side benefits of fairness (they don’t see race or sex) and being preventative not reactive. Isn’t it better to have fewer accidents than to fine and arrest more people who cause them?

Minor traffic offenses do not cease to exist- when motorists cause an accident or are otherwise stopped for any reason, they are still liable for all violations. In Germany, even when driving on the autobahn with no speed limit, a person can get a ticket for driving excessively fast if they cause an accident of any sort.

Further, drivers education needs to be longer and more intensive. In the United States, driving is a bit of a joke. In some parts of Europe, young would-be drivers train for many months. They get more intensive classroom instruction and subsequently must be observed driving in different conditions for a total of 6 or more hours. All drivers must be expert at driving a manual transmission, parallel parking, and so on.

Part two: Police officers should be required to have a 4-year degree. Think about it: the people we give guns and a literal licence to kill in our society. Should this group include GED-holders who couldn’t quite hack it in high school? Should they have so little exposure to history and the liberal arts? These are other benefits, too. It would raise the bar on what it means to be a cop. It would send the message that being a police officer is a privileged position that requires a basic, but complete, education. It would make new police feel like pulling people over for exceeding the speed limit slightly is beneath them, an insult to the dignity of their job, which it is.

It would cost more per officer, naturally. Bear in mind, though, that without the need for harasser traffic police and with the use of traffic cameras, we don’t need nearly so many officers to do the same job. In all, I expect the cost will be greater, but not massively so.

Can this work?
It already works. I’ve been heavily influence by the three years I spent living in Germany. I was never once harassed by a German cop, and I often drove like a crazy person out there. I was in a car that was pulled over just once, immediately after leaving a city Fasching celebration. They were screening for drunk drivers, and quite sensibly so. The officer was polite and quickly determined my friend who was driving (I was ripped) was not intoxicated and sent us on our way. The stop was perhaps 2 minutes in total.

Like all professions, some German cops are jerks and will abuse their position. But I can nonetheless report that, generally, the Polezei are better educated and do not concern themselves with the petty infractions of motorists.

Why do we put up with this?
This post is not about being inconvenienced or even harassed sometimes. It’s about the design of an effective, efficient police force. It’s about bringing out the best and not the worst in the decent men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe. It’s about racism and sexism, because harassment mode unduly effects women and minorities. Lastly, it’s about law-abiding citizens not living in fear because police have a self-entitled duty to insert themselves into your life and hurt you merely because they can.

  • Copyleft

    The ability to wield control over your fellow citizens, taking them to task for trivial or even imaginary offenses, is a taste of power. As the Stanford Prison Experiment showed, most if not all humans are easily corrupted by such small tastes of illegitimate or imagined authority and jump at the chance to abuse it. The whole reason we have checks and balances in government is due to recognition of this inherent human trait: he who has power will abuse it if given the chance. (Check any local condo association for numerous examples.)

    Your proposal is valid. The problem cannot be solved by appealing to police officers’ “better nature” or giving them mandatory training on respectful behavior and courtesy. A structural change in how the police operate is needed.

  • Jennifer Allen

    Although the article is trivially true, it’s also incredibly naive. It doesn’t even mention, much less deal with, the really serious forms of harassment. Moreover, the article restricts itself to police, leaving the rest of “the authorities” unscathed.

    It’s time you learned about the collusion of police, prosecutors, and (often) judges to get at people they don’t like, people who have broken no law whatever. I’ll outline a couple of well documented examples:

    1. Two guys are waiting at a bus stop. Both are brown. Cops roll up, demand permission to search them. One agrees, is searched, nothing is found, and he’s told to ‘get out of here.’ He does, and merely misses his bus. The other, who is carrying and has read the applicable ACLU’s rights statement, follows the ACLU advice. He says no, pointing out that the police have no semblance of probable cause. He’s roughed up, handcuffed, taken to jail, searched there (nothing is found), charged with the local equivalent of loitering, and told that he should plead guilty if he wants to make it to work the next day. He refuses, misses work while arranging for bail, hires an attorney, and demands a trial. The case drags on for something like a year. A trial date is set, the guy takes time off work, the prosecution makes some excuse as the trial begins, and the judge grants a delay. That process repeats several times. The guy has lost a lot of income, his employer is pissed, his legal expenses are mounting, and he can’t get his case before a judge. Finally, on the fourth or fifth trial date, as the trial begins, the prosecution drops charges. No apology, no remuneration, and the arrest record stands. The bottom line: the brown citizen has been severely punished for standing up for his rights. Neither the arresting officers nor the various prosecutors are reprimanded or in any way deterred from doing it again, and again, and again.

    2. Female chest exposure has been legal in NY State, anywhere male chest exposure is legal, since the mid-90s. Three shirtless women walk down the street of an upstate NY town, and enter an ice cream store. The proprietor demands that they leave, which they immediately do. They’re standing on the street talking, the police roll up, they get manhandled, and are taken to jail. The city attorney is quoted as saying to the press, “I don’t care what the law says. No bare breasts in my town.” They then get the same run around as in my previous example. The city attorney is re-elected. After about 18 months, the case finally comes to trial. The charges are dismissed. The city attorney says nasty things about the judge, and vows to do the same thing again if any woman is so bold as to act legally in his town. The arresting officers pay no penalty whatever. Neither does the city attorney or any member of his staff. The women have spent a fortune and received national adverse publicity.

    Cops, prosecutors, and (often*) judges frequently collude to punish anyone they don’t like, people who have broken no law, and the American system does nothing to stop it.

    And I haven’t even mentioned the shit the Feds do. My friend, you have a whole to learn!

    Jennifer Allen

    * In an Oregon case that’s too complex to easily summarize, a judge found the defendant guilty of a breaking a law that didn’t apply, and sent the poor soul to a mental institution. It took several years, and a very large amount of bucks, before the State Appeals Court overturned the conviction on the basis that the defendant had broken no law. As you might expect, neither the arresting officers, the prosecutors, nor the judge paid any penalty.

    • Edward Clint

      Jennifer I think you’ve mistaken the basic topic of my post. It is not meant to be a solution to the problem of law enforcement corruption and abuses of power. It is a proposal to improve one aspect of law enforcement that I think greatly contributes to the problem. Even in your examples, the officers have the mindset “my job is to stop and question people for no reason”. My humble solution is meant to change the acceptability of this basic mindset, to begin to de-legitimize it in the minds of people, cops, prosecutors, and so on. My notions will not on their own accomplish that, but I think they will help.

      I am very familiar with the sorts of examples you gave and I am not naive about them, thanks. There are many other reforms that are needed and would help, such as autonomous agencies to police the police and harsher penalties for police, judicial, and prosecutorial malfeasance. Those are just not the topic of this particular essay.

  • http://www.skepticblogs.com/azatheist Ken

    Ed,

    Excellent post. I too am very critical of the police and I have a monthly post dedicated to exposing the massive problem of police misconduct and outright brutality called The Lucifer Effect, named after the book by Philip Limbardo, the guy who did the Stanford Prison Experiment. He’s proposed a theory (called the Lucifer Effect) to explain why people turn rotten when placed in positions of authority. It’s a good read.

    Jennifer,

    The article didn’t deal with any other forms of government abuse because his post was only focusing on police misconduct. I’m sure he is aware of abuse at all levels of government, but again, that wasn’t the focus of his piece. I completely sympathize with the victims in your stories and thank you for highlighting them, but not to sound like a broken record, that wasn’t the subject of his piece. I’d hardly call focusing on your chosen subject matter a form of naivety.

    Since you seem very interested in government abuse I wonder if you might be interested in a few very good books I’ve read on the subject:

    Lost Rights, by James Bovard

    Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, by Medea Benjamin

    Western State Terrorism, by various authors, edited by Alexander George

  • Jennifer Allen

    Ken says, “Jennifer, The article didn’t deal with any other forms of government abuse because his post was only focusing on police misconduct.”

    My examples both focussed on police misconduct, specifically arrests that the arresting officers knew or should have known could not be justified. But, they weren’t traffic related, so I guess they don’t really count. :-)

    “Since you seem very interested in government abuse I wonder if you might be interested in a few very good books I’ve read on the subject:”

    I have plenty of personal experience, but thanks anyway.

    • Edward Clint

      >But, they weren’t traffic related, so I guess they don’t really count.

      Do you disagree that minor traffic offenses are used as an excuse to harass people? Do you think I am wrong to assert the situation would be improved if this was no longer an acceptable police practice?

      It is a counter-productive attitude that any suggestion that does not solve a problem once and for all must not be a good one. The solution to some large problems are multi-faceted and must come from different directions. My thesis is not that this will save the world, but that it could make it a little bit better than it is now. Do you disagree?

  • Jennifer Allen

    Edward Clint on Aug 22, 2012 responds to me by only partially quoting one snarky line:

    >>But, they weren’t traffic related, so I guess they don’t really count

    Ed, you left out the smiley that indicated my comment was not to be taken anywhere near as seriously as you insist on doing.

    >Do you disagree that minor traffic offenses are used as an excuse to harass people? Do you think I am wrong to assert the situation would be improved if this was no longer an acceptable police practice?

    I think you put yourself in an unnecessarily weak position by choosing examples that you admit _are_ violations of law. You’re implicitly encouraging police to decide for themselves what the law _ought to be_ and enforce that, instead of enforcing the law as it exists. How rolling must a rolling stop be to warrant a ticket? How far over the speed limit justifies a ticket? Does one inoperable tail light justify a citation? Does two? And of course, it’s relevant to ask: How far over the blood-alcohol limit must a tipsy driver be to warrant an arrest? Who decides? You appear to want each officer to be the on-the-spot decider, which inevitably leads to as many different interpretations as there are officers.

    Now, I won’t argue that it’s possible to eliminate officer discretion. I do argue that we do NOT want more of it, because that leads to situations like those I described. If officers can, in effect, change the law in the ways you want them to, they can also change the law in ways that lead to really serious forms of harassment like roughing up ‘the bad people’ and making false arrests. In practice, the big time forms of harassment, including false arrests, are 99% applied to people the officer doesn’t like — or his sergeant doesn’t like, or the mayor doesn’t like, or ‘the good people in town’ don’t like.

    >It is a counter-productive attitude that any suggestion that does not solve a problem once and for all must not be a good one. The solution to some large problems are multi-faceted and must come from different directions.

    We agree on that.

    >My thesis is not that this will save the world, but that it could make it a little bit better than it is now. Do you disagree?

    As above, I far prefer enforcement of the law as written to increasing the so-called ‘right’ of officers to decide for themselves what the law ought to be.

    If you can figure out how to give cops more discretion without them misusing it, I’d be interested. Of course, we’d then need to decide what constitutes misuse. Well, it wouldn’t be just you and me deciding; we’d have to involve ‘the good people in town.’

    I’ll take a risk here, and add another smiley:

    :-)

    Jennifer

  • Edward Clint

    I think you put yourself in an unnecessarily weak position by choosing examples that you admit _are_ violations of law. You’re implicitly encouraging police to decide for themselves what the law _ought to be_ and enforce that, instead of enforcing the law as it exists. How rolling must a rolling stop be to warrant a ticket? How far over the speed limit justifies a ticket? Does one inoperable tail light justify a citation? Does two? And of course, it’s relevant…

    Not at all, they should enforce the law as it is. However, the circumstances of that enforcement can change without the law changing. In some places, police set up check points to screen for drunk drivers. In others, they simply pull people over who are weaving erratically on the highway; or in the case of drunk people who’ve crashed into a tree. These are all enforcements of the same law, but with rather different methods. I’m suggesting a change in acceptable methods of enforcement of a few laws.

    Traffic tickets from police should be warranted only when there is a substantial safety hazard. Yes, this is reliant on discretion but no more than already exists and maybe less. The difference is that stops should be justified by safety instead of abusing a minor transgression to harass a random (or nonrandom disliked) person. The idea is to shift the focus. The concept of probable cause does not make it impossible for illegal searches. But does it make it harder? Sure. Does it help protect a persons rights a bit better? Yep.

    … If officers can, in effect, change the law in the ways you want them to, …

    Not sure what you mean by this. I’m not giving them any ability to change any laws effectively or otherwise. If I can get stopped for a “wild” left turn that was flawlessly executed, and illegally searched for making use of a tollbooth trashcan in view of cameras and witnesses.. I’m pretty sure cops can already do everything you fear my changes would allow. But you’re also just focusing on the laws themselves and what bigot cops will do; I’m talking about trying to impact the psychology of law enforcement, to change mindset of those who do it to nudge them away from the status quo “my duty is to insert myself into the privacy of random people”.

  • Jennifer Allen

    >Traffic tickets from police should be warranted only when there is a substantial safety hazard.

    That isn’t what the law says. If you really think that’s what the law should say, then mount a campaign to change the law.

    Or, at least, seek to have a definitive enforcement policy of the kind you want ennunciated at the highest applicable executive and legislative levels. Regarding traffic laws, that means the governor and the heads of each branch of the legislature.

    I wish you luck.

    We’re not making any progress at all, so I’ll just go away — at least as regards this topic.

  • Bob Bentley

    I should open this by that stating that I’m Australian, and currently posted to a ship home-ported in Sydney. When home, I live just outside the bounds of Kings Cross, and their justifiably large Police Station is less than 100m away. That has meant that I see NSW Coppers at work on a disturbingly regular basis.

    Working out the actual figures required a lot of cross-referencing, yet the ‘Success’ rate for 2010 (the last one we have a full report for) was – 7.4%! That’s the proportion of original, recorded complaints made to police, for all Jury and Summary offences, that eventually achieved a recorded conviction. Our Coppers have become, as I understand your own are going, Order Police rather than a constabulary. Riot-coppers, armed and body-armoured, and simply not interested in regular crime.

    Yes, traffic offences are in there – we deal with them as Summary offences, meaning you only face a Judge – but these are a historically minor component of regular police work. Parking offences are handled by the City Rangers, while the vast majority of moving offences have been the responsibility of Traffic Cameras for years. When the Police had their annual parade through Sydney a few months ago, local comedians did make a point of asking ‘with which division are all the cameras marching in’?

    I regularly drive to Canberra and Melbourne, and have been really hoping that the apparent collapse in driving skills, legal and courteous road-usage, and even staying on the right (left) side of the road has been due to our having far fewer Cops out patroling them; rather than me turning into a crotchety old man (shoot me now).

    WRT your suggestion to increase traffic camera usage. There are several countries out here in the wider world that have gone down this path, and whom you might consider asking for their experiences. I know a lot of Poms (the most incredibly courteous and forgiving road-users I have ever encountered) absolutely hate theirs. And we tend to treat them as ‘Revenue Super Collectors’, rather than the ‘Road Safety Cameras’ as the signs would have us believe.