Police by nature are one of several groups of people who are usually running to a bad situation as opposed to running from it. Most of the time people would rather not see them if they are not needed. However when things have really gone south, where the hell are the cops when you need them? Have they made mistakes, you bet they have. Do they do it often, not as often as some would think.
I speak with some authority as a retired officer with nearly thirty years in the business. The title suggests a far too general subject for me to be fair here. So before we dig deeper, here are a few things that civilians need to understand.
1) When officers arrive at the scene, they have just a few seconds in many cases to get the situation under control. This has to be done in order to begin to gather the facts. Secure a crime scene so that evidence is preserved, gather statements on what happened, who did it, and where are they? With people yelling, screaming, bleeding in need of medical attention it can be, let’s just say overwhelming. When people don’t listen, or follow your directions sometimes you have to get their attention. Sometimes that requires placing someone in temporary custody, or charging them to let the rest of the crowd know you mean business and need their cooperation. That does not mean trumping up charges, but for example “disorderly conduct”.
2) This must be done taking into account for “Officer Safety”, which means that sometimes the good guy and the bad guy are going to be placed on the ground, in the cuffs, or in the back seat of the patrol car until things can get sorted out. Many times these things are not at the discretion of the officer, but mandated by the policy of the agency he or she is working for. My motto was that you can always apologize for inconvenience, but if you make a mistake somebody else will be apologizing to your family members when you don’t come home. This brings up every officers “Prime Directive” go home in one piece after your watch.
3) When the police are called, the complainant does not expect the officers to be defeated. They were called after all to handle the situation, not to leave the scene worst off than before they arrived. They have been determined by law/history to be managers of violence. Unfortunately, that means that sometimes they have to be violent in order to make an arrest, and secure the peace.
Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let’s get down to business. Police are charged with investigation. It is fairly rare in most instances that we are there when the crime is being committed. So foreknowledge of the offense is limited to what the dispatcher provided the officer while en route to the scene. Exceptions would be “on-viewed” incidents, stings, narcotics investigations, and a few others. That might mean that an innocent person may be taken downtown, or even placed in jail for twenty-four to seventy-two hours while the investigation continues. It is called an investigative hold, and is standard fare in police work. It is not an admission of guilt, nor does it mean that the person who spent the night in jail had been charged with the crime.
Being questioned, while not exactly a pleasant thing, should be understood by the citizen as the process of police investigations accepted by our society, not a violation of any persons civil rights. Cooperation, within reason is a good thing, and can move the investigation along at a much more rapid pace. The more quickly information is obtained, the sooner a possible innocent person can go on with their business. Most of us are aware that in certain types of crimes, such as Homicide, based on the statistics a person of a particular relationship to the victim. Such as a spouse, is often the person who committed the crime. This is not always the case, but when evidence is limited, when it is in the beginning phases of an investigation, it will be the first place we will look. As Mr. Spock would say, “it is the logical assumption Captain”. However, it is not an excuse for a sloppy investigation.
Many times the investigation will require that evidence be taken from people, not to convict them, but to eliminate them as possible suspects. The most important thing to remember is this, Police are one part of the criminal justice system that conducts the investigation. They are not charged with any other responsibility. The District Attorney, through Grand Jury, and Court are the others. Police, though they may inconvenience an innocent person, they are not judge, jury, or executioner. We in fact only pass on the facts as obtained, and the other entities do their part as prescribed by law.
I would be lying, or delusional if I told you that I never arrested the wrong person. I have, I didn’t like the fact, but the system worked. They were exonerated. I have gone to the District Attorneys Office and had charges dropped when my investigations revealed that the complainant in the case had lied, or was mistaken. Contrary to popular belief, good investigators are not interested in putting people in jail just for the joy of doing it. A good investigator will not let gut feelings on guilt or innocence get in the way when not backed up by facts. They will follow the clues even if they lead to a dead-end. Nobody likes unsolved cases, but they are far more common than people might think.
While our system is not perfect, it is better than the Russian system where you are arrested and thrown into jail. You may stay there five years, found to be innocent and released. No apology there! We have checks and balances to catch many of the mistakes we make.
Police are people and with that comes all the human failings that are man. Police are trained to follow investigative model. Just like Jack Webb’s character in “Dragnet”, we are interested in “just the facts”. The facts are the truth, and the truth will either keep you from being arrested if innocent, or set you free later.