Good cops—and good writers—realize the importance of holding a line, whether it’s the thin blue line or a plot line. And holding the line requires training, temperament and tenacity. Combined, they become your voice, your . . . attitude, or in street slang, your ‘tude. Let’s explore some desirable attitudes, starting with cops.
Men and women choose to pin on the badge for a variety of reasons. For most, it’s a calling. For others, police work translates into a career that offers excitement or, in some cases, a vocation that provides a steady pay check, bennies and a retirement income. Regardless of the motivation, those who apply are vetted to identify candidates who might want to look elsewhere. For those who graduate the rigorous academy training, the door is opened to permit them to face challenges . . . and to bring those challenges to successful conclusions.
A writer creating that “ideal” police character might consider that in a perfect world, law enforcement officers take the job seriously but they don’t take themselves too seriously. Translated, it means badge-heavy cops will have a tough time of it—and possibly place themselves in a position that they don’t want to see appearing on CNN. But if there’s a single attitude that a cop should embrace, it’s the concept that he or she holds the line against those who want to push and plunder their way through life.
Here’s an example. The police officer or trooper that you’ve developed for your novel stops a car on a lonely road late at night. It’s a routine stop. Broken tail light. The cop intends to issue a written warning and let the driver go on his way. She makes her approach. The twentysomething driver and his three friends are rowdy. Your officer has checked the trunk to make sure it’s secure, because there are instances of cops being drawn into an ambush situation by a driver who purposely commits a violation in order to be stopped, but has an accomplice hiding inside the trunk with the lid partly open, waiting to pounce from behind. Satisfied that it’s secure, she makes contact with the occupants. After systematically moving her flashlight’s beam throughout the interior to see if anyone’s holding a weapon—or is being held against their will—she begins her practiced lines. “Good evening. I’m Officer Smith of the Center City Police Department and I’ve stopped you for a broken tail light. I’m going to issue you a written warning and I need to see your license and registration card.” She hasn’t lectured them, hasn’t spoken down to anyone, and hasn’t been badge-heavy.
But the guys in the car don’t like cops. They don’t particularly like women, either. And they especially don’t care for “lady cops.” The driver smirks and tells her, “I don’t gotta show you nothin’.” It’s a wrong move and he and his giggling buddies take it downhill from there, calling her names, inviting her to take off her gun belt and get in the back seat for some fun, and otherwise cajoling one another to break bad.
The officer’s options are open. She can get angry and start yelling and hurling threats at them, but this only escalates an already deteriorating situation and besides, she’s far too professional for that. In her mind, these jerks don’t know her, so their taunts lack any foundation for a verbal attack that could be taken personally. In other words, they can call her “bitch” as often as they want—she knows she’s not one. But she also knows she has a job to do, and the job is to shield society from those who would impose upon it.
So she locks eyes with the driver and explains in a cool, calm and collected manner that the driver has no choice, that he must show his license and vehicle registration. After some grumbling he gives them up. Your police officer character is unfazed by this minor confrontation—been there, done that, and anyway it comes with the job. She is writing the warning and is about to send them on their way when the driver utters a veiled threat. He says, “I’ll get you for this.”
She doesn’t say this aloud. But . . . the driver has crossed a line. It’s a semi-permeable line that allows them to be obnoxious, but when he threatens her he threatens society in general. And she can’t allow this. At this point, for her to do nothing would suggest to them that they can push further—that maybe later, when they see some poor schmuck leaving a convenience store, they’ll stomp his butt for fun, since the cops seem afraid to defend even themselves.
But she’s a damned good cop and not frightened. Experience has shown her they’re just mouthy kids, but mouthy or not they crossed that line. So what does she do? Your police officer character “suddenly” notices a small crack in the driver’s outside mirror. And there’s a bit too much tread wear on that front left tire. And by the way, the beam from the right headlight is slightly askew and needs to be adjusted.
So she flips over to her Safety Equipment Repair Order forms—otherwise known as a “fixit ticket” and begins writing. “Sir,” she begins once she’s signed her name to it, “I noticed some problems with your vehicle and I’ve issued you a repair order.”
Great move. There’s no fine attached to this, however the jerk will have to spend a lot of money to have the items repaired and inspected. And he can’t contest it in court because it’s not a criminal but an administrative issue. Now, instead of taking the written warning and being on their way, he’s talked his way into paying at least two hundred bucks in mandatory repairs. If only he hadn’t made that veiled threat.
But he’s still not getting it. He mumbles another promise to pay her back. What’s she do? This professional officer, whose healthy attitude is to perform her task in a fair and objective manner, will now “adjust his attitude” with a bit of her own. She says, “Gosh, I just realized something. I’ve issued a repair order with three safety violations,” and letting out a stage sigh she adds, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to declare this vehicle unsafe to drive.” Then she looks him in the eye and asks, “Do you wish to call your tow truck, or shall I call mine? Because you’re not driving this car now that I’ve declared it unsafe.”
The guy finally shuts up—to a point. He snarls a bit, then tells her, “I don’t have no tow truck.” To which she replies, “That’s okay, sir. I’ll just call one of our own.” Thirty minutes later the car’s being towed away with the guys inside the truck’s cab—after they begged the driver to give them a ride. And what about that cop you created for you story? She’s already shrugged off the incident and goes about her way—but she knows she did her duty.
This is a healthy attitude at work—an objective response to a threat of violence. She held the line—both her own, and society’s—and she did it without tying up the courts or untying her own values. It’s the sort of thing that we as writers can adhere to—not only in a heroic character whom we might wish to create, but in our dedication to bringing that character alive to readers around the world. So when that agent declines your query letter or the publisher you approached isn’t interested in a well-written, fast-moving thriller, we fall back on our healthy attitudes and keep in mind that mantra, “writing is an art, but publishing is a business,” and we let it go. We don’t take it personally because there’s nothing personal behind the agents’ or publishers’ decisions. It’s likely a market-oriented decision and there’s no sense wasting energy. Instead, we hold ourselves to a self-imposed line; we turn to another agent, we begin writing a new character, and we keep our options open. We return to the computer. It’s all about attitude – or ‘tude, when you’re really feelin’ cocky . . . as good writes should.
United States Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced a federal probe into reports of poor relations between the black community of Ferguson, MO and their police department. I don’t know who Holder’s listening to, but this investigation is doomed.
Here’s why: as a Maryland State Trooper I patrolled a semi-rural county where decaying slave cabins still dot the landscape. There are also clusters of black communities in the region. Some fall within the jurisdictions of local police but the majority of these areas fell within our turf. For the sake of clarity, let’s refer to them as Communities A, B and C.
Community “A” bordered a town with a ten-man police department, but was a part of our patrol area. Residents ranged from senior citizens to spanking-new babies, and they shared the common denominator of strong family and societal ties. One example of those ties is that when I to one of the “A” homes to investigate a burglary or other major crime, I could count on finding photos of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy on the living room walls. At the same time, the residents that I would conduct a thorough, dedicated probe of the crimes committed against them—and in less time than it takes to say Ferguson, they regarded me as a member of their community. Maybe not a card-carrying member, but a part of their lives nonetheless.
So when the barrack dispatcher sent me to look into a disturbance of the peace one cold, drizzly Saturday afternoon, I proceeded to the scene and on arrival found a slender young man with skin the color of ebony and dreadlocks the color of danger prancing around in what passed for the community square. He wasn’t a local (turned out he was from Baltimore), and a crowd of one hundred silent residents had gathered around while he screamed obscenities and dared anyone to do something about it. As I approached he ripped off his shirt—apparently to impress me with his emaciated physique. Or perhaps he was practicing for an audition with the Chippendales.
At any rate I told him he was under arrest for disturbing the peace. He threw back his head and laughed hysterically, then grinned and said, “Hey, dig it. There’s a hundred of us an’ only one a you! So how’re you gonna arrest me now, huh?” I didn’t reply. Didn’t have to. That’s because one of the elders stepped forward from the crowd, a bear of a man who preached Sunday sermons, and he said, “Hey, you. Trooper Anderson is our trooper, and if he says you’re under arrest then you are under arrest . . . dig it?”
That deflated the suspect’s gas bag and naturally I felt ten feet tall. Community “A” had sanctified its attitude toward me—and to other troopers, since my peers were also welcome in “A” for the simple reason that we all treated everyone equally, fairly and respectfully. But as Paul Harvey would say, there’s another side to this story: the thing is, I wasn’t native to the region. However, the local cops were. And yet they felt, well . . . uneasy whenever they were required to enter “A.”. This fear was all the more mysterious since most of the cops had gone to school with most of these residents, and knew many by name. And yet they were afraid of “crossing the line.”
Crossing the line—making that transition from one culture to another and seeing things from different perspectives. How uptight were the local officers? Here’s an example. I went to “A” one afternoon to investigate an armed robbery. After taking an initial report from the victim I drove to a nearby phone booth (this was decades before cell phones) to call the barrack, because I needed to dictate a lengthy broadcast and didn’t want to tie-up the radio. While I was talking to the dispatcher a small crowd of curious residents gathered around the phone booth. Some waved to me. Others were simply watching when two of the local officers came to a screeching halt next to the booth, pointedly looked at the crowd and asked, “Do you need back-up?” Before I could answer another of the elders spoke up. “Why would he need back-up? He’s our trooper.”
In another instance, the community was holding a block party one late Friday night. But when the party inadvertently spilled over onto a town street, the local officers tried to break it up. Feeling frustrated when residents ignored their demands to disperse, the local cops called for help. The barracks sent me. I arrived expecting to find a serious disturbance but only saw people quietly milling about while chatting amiably with one another. Even so, they were blocking a major roadway. So I got on my P.A. system and said something to the effect of, “Hey guys an’ gals, how’re you doing tonight? Listen . . . it’s time to move over a bit to the other side of the street. Okay?”
That’s all it took. The partiers moved along. Except for one person, a young man who approached me and held up a hand from which a line of blood dripped onto the pavement. He’d cut himself on a broken bottle and asked if I could help him. “Sure,” I said, and after getting out of my car I led him to the trunk where I kept a small trauma kit. As we stood there in the open, I cleaned, dressed and bandaged his laceration while we talked sports and held a debate about who cooked the best BBQ in town. All this while other residents walked past, looked at what we were doing, nodded and walked on. This was a black community but I was a white dude and a cop on top of that—and that was fine with them.
But then there’s Community “B.” It had a mixed population of whites and blacks and the reception toward cops was also mixed—could be open and friendly or could conclude in conflict and hand-to-hand combat. Ya just never knew. However, there was a common thread—all of the local cops knew almost everyone in the community, and as in “A” they had gone through school together.
Which leads us to Community “C.” Same demographic as A and B, except that venturing into “C” usually resulted in fists being shaken in my face and those of any other law enforcement officer, white or black—and the fist-shaking was accompanied with veiled threats to kick my ass if I didn’t leave. Neither I nor any other LEO ever backed down of course, but we were baffled by the polarized differences between “A” and “C.”
But there is a link that connects the anomalies between these three communities, and it’s this: during social functions I’d hear local cops express their fears of a variety of cultures. For example, nobody wanted a “homo” to touch them, at risk of being transformed into one; they didn’t like people who ate a lot of rice, because they were too difficult to talk to. Hispanics were held at arm’s length because . . . well, just because. And their fears came across as strange to me. Maybe it’s because I’d traveled around the world and lived within various cultures—as had most of my colleagues in the state police. Likewise, a few of my fellow troopers and I had friends and family members who were openly gay at the time—not an easy thing to be back then—and we had no problem accompanying them to gay bars, just as they went to straight bars with us. It was all about being social and seeing things from other points of view.
So what am I driving at? Two things. The first it that intense training and exposure to other cultures trumps a phobic, mistrustful interaction with other cultures anytime, anywhere. The second is this: Holder will never get a handle on why there’s a problem in Ferguson unless he and a few other officials come to understand these simple facts of life:
- There are Community “A” people who embrace life and practice a live-and-let-live attitude.
- Then there are the Community “B’” environments in which it’s anyone’s call as to what might and might not work when police interact with the public.
- Finally, there are the Community “C” citizens who only understand and respect one thing—strength—and at times strength means that someone has to step forward and call an emperor-with-no-clothes situation for what it is . . . and these people don’t need nonsense studies to know that, “Yes, Virginia. There really are nasty sons of bitches in this world, and no amount of being nice will stop ‘em. So if you have to knock ‘em upside the head, then do it.”
Stated another way: 1) studies, probes and investigations won’t change this one fundamental factor: there will always be groups regardless of race, skin color or nationality whose members act like punks. It’s not a P.C. term but that’s too bad. Punks are a reality in every society and even the Vatican City has a police force to deal with ‘em. And finally, 2), until politicians and the public decide to invest the time, energy and money required to have police officers with the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities that are needed to perform their duties in a firm but fair manner, then there will always be more issues, finger pointing and name-calling than there has to be.
Or as Forrest Gump would say, that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
Last week’s article dealt with a staple of objective policing, i.e. the working principle that there are always two sides to ever story. In response, Mr. Louis DeAnda has contributed this article:
On Ferguson, Missouri; Disparity, and Minority Community Relations:
The Problem in the Mirror
Louis J. DeAnda, M.S.
Poor relationships between the minority community and law enforcement in the U.S. are overwhelmingly a symptom of a larger preexisting problem; very seldom is it the original cause of social problems where none existed before. To be more accurate, the larger problem is generally a series of concurrent and persistent social problems that share the common factor of disparity. Disparity in demographic impact, scope, and degree. American police see this every day and for the most part understand the environmental dynamic in which they work.
In the minority communities of metropolitan areas in the U.S. this disparity is the in-your-face element that looms like a dark cloud over almost all aspects of daily life in the ‘hood. Most white people who don’t come from the urban barrios or black neighborhoods can see the physical characteristics of this disparity when they drive past them or around them (few will drive through them unless it’s absolutely necessary): the consistently dilapidated infrastructure, foreclosure signs, room-for-rent signs in the windows, the numerous, small, ethnic grocery markets that sell liquor and cigarettes, strip centers containing fast food vendors, adult book stores, more liquor stores, electronics shops, hairstyle studios, and more liquor stores. Even the used cars on the lots look sad and beat up, just like the neighborhoods.
In the neighborhoods there are lots of old homes with air conditioners in the windows, peeling paint and sagging chain link fences. Over and over. If you linger for any length of time and become aware of the environment, you’ll hear the ubiquitous sirens in the distance and at least one buzzing pass every 30 minutes or so of a police helicopter as it dashes past at 500 feet overhead from one crime scene to another.
That’s a snapshot of the environment in the barrio or the ‘hood. It ain’t pretty.
Today is the 15th day following the officer-involved shooting of 18-year old Michael Brown in the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. I watched this sad and unfortunately predictable story unfold from several perspectives and felt compelled to write about it. I happen to be of Latino ethnicity, a career law enforcement officer, and a doctoral student of public policy analysis; any of these perspectives by itself would provide substance for a dozen dissertations. Because I’m a bit adventurous, I decided to tackle all three in this brief article.
As a member of an ethnic minority group I understand the dismay by the black community in Ferguson following the police shooting death of Brown, but I’m nothing short of bewildered by the repetitive public demonstrations of hysterical outrage. This was the first officer-involved homicide ever reported in Ferguson, a small city of 21, 203 that, according to the 2010 census, is 67 percent African American and 29 percent non-Latino white. The Ferguson police department is 5 percent African American. Remember those numbers because they’re important to the central issue of this article.
Ferguson, Missouri is a minority-majority city, folks. That distinction is huge.
For Ferguson’s citizens and its police force, the demographic relationship is a bit more skewed and herein resides the conundrum in the outrage. As of the writing of this article, only 3 of the 53 police officers on the force are African American. The chief of police is white and the mayor is white, as are five of six city council members.
As a minority representative I must respectfully ask, “Whose fault is that?”
Since the minority-majority in Ferguson is focused upon statistical disparity as proof of their disadvantaged socioeconomic and sociopolitical status, let’s stick with statistics and rationally analyze them using some critical thinking.
In a city that in 2010 was 67% African American and 29% white, why haven’t more African Americans and Latinos joined the Ferguson Police Department that serves their city? Are they unqualified through an educational deficit or criminal records?
Why haven’t more African Americans and Latinos run for elected office in Ferguson? How many actually voted in the last public election?
Why haven’t Ferguson African Americans and Latinos as a demographic bloc implemented civilian oversight committees for their public safety personnel? They could vote a special election tomorrow.
Why haven’t Ferguson African Americans and Latinos as a demographic bloc demanded the inclusion of minority external candidates for positions of public safety leadership?
In a city that is 67% African American they could do, quite literally, whatever they wanted – they enjoy a 2/3 demographic majority! All by themselves, they could call special elections at any time of the year. Why don’t they?
Is it because they have absolutely terrible leadership in the minority communities? Whose fault is that? Is it because they simply don’t care enough to vote? Whose fault is that? Or is it because, as African Americans and Latinos they are helpless by nature; incapable of governing themselves simply because they are African American and Latinos? Say, doesn’t that fulfill the very racist stereotype we so often complain about?
We can’t have it both ways, folks! A city like Ferguson cannot have a majority minority of two-thirds and still complain about white racial disparity in issues of governance.
In my social research I routinely use the National Institute of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) website. As soon as the Ferguson protests fired up I researched that city’s crime statistics and found it was smack in the middle of the national average (that’s slightly high and not a good thing), but not anywhere as bad as St. Louis itself and nothing like the horrible stats on the other side of the river in the 98% black majority city of East St. Louis. So Ferguson, Missouri is not a violent crime slaughterhouse for young black and Latino males on the order of Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C.
In 2012 (the last complete year of analysis by BJS) Ferguson recorded a total crime rate of 55 crimes per 1,000 people. It’s just below the national average and barely below the state average. That’s still sad, but it’s no tragedy.
Continuing with the topic of statistical measures and biased policing in Ferguson, here’s some food for deep thought: If the Ferguson police department stopped every citizen in Ferguson on a completely equal basis (e.g. a one-for-one demographic basis) it would stop two racial and ethnic minority citizens for every white citizen! That’s not racial profiling, folks – that’s being totally equal, albeit in a notional context.
This is the danger of conflating the concepts of equality and criminal justice using demographic metrics as a determining factor for fairness. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned you may be. If you conflate those concepts your analysis will be wrong. Crime in the United States is not and has never been equally distributed across racial, ethnic, and economic demographic measures.
Crime is not fair!
And before blacks and Latinos in Ferguson begin blaming white police for disparities in crime enforcement they might want to think on this staggering national statistical trend: In 2011 (the last complete year of analysis available) the BJS reported that 93% of all black victims nationally were killed by black offenders, a murder rate nine times higher than white offenders (Patterns & Trends, 2011). Our problem is staring back at us in the mirror.
Ferguson police are not responsible for issues of poverty, educational opportunity, economic incentive, or social ambition in their community. They are responsible for enforcing the criminal laws. The system of accountability under which they operate is not dictated by them, but by officials elected by the people of Ferguson. Which brings me back to the minority-majority and control – the people of Ferguson can change their system any time they want to. They need to stop the marching, shouting, burning and looting and become the change they want to see.
They can do it tomorrow but nobody will do it for them.
About the Author
Louis J. DeAnda of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a 28-year veteran of metropolitan and federal law enforcement, organized crime investigation, and counter-terrorism operations both within the domestic United States and internationally through the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). He holds a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice, a double-venue Master of Science degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Public Administration and Policy Analysis. In addition to his field investigation experience, he was a criminal investigations instructor at the United States Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and is a recognized expert on the Hybrid threat phenomenon. He has written and spoken extensively about the convergence of terrorism, insurgency, and transnational organized crime.
The thing about chicken is that it tastes like rattlesnake meat. Or frog legs. Some have even said that the taste of chicken reminds them of eating snails. The point is that food along with social issues can be regarded from different perspectives. Sometimes these perceptions become polarized, and that’s when trouble begins. This is the case of the police-related shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Although the articles in “Ready Room” address a variety of subjects, there is a common theme throughout: in police work as in life itself, when an event takes place it is imperative to keep in mind that there are always two sides to every story. Always. Even if further investigation reveals that one side of a given story is like a bucket of water that’s been peppered by birdshot, it is still essential to regard both points of view before reaching any conclusions.
Sadly, this is what’s lacking in the Ferguson case and Certainly Not News and other irresponsible media not only fail to view the story from alternate outlooks, they stoke the flames instead in their efforts to attract viewers. Worse still, they give air-time to a certain pompous commentator of questionable moral and ethical character, but fail to highlight the fact that the dead teen was a felony suspect who had been trying to get the cop’s handgun from him to do . . . something that teenagers should not be doing.
Some say the teen is a victim while others maintain that he willingly placed himself in a hazardous position that ended in tragedy. I’ll hold final judgment in abeyance until the cop in question has been given a fair shake by the media, and after he’s had his day in a court of law rather than in a court of public opinion. But I will say this: there’s a doctrine known as “probable cause.” It means that a set of facts and circumstance can lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime did occur, is occurring or is about to occur—and that a particular person is responsible for that crime. Probable cause is critical to police work. Without it, cops can’t make arrests for serious felonies that they didn’t witness.
And based upon probable cause, I’m betting the cop didn’t believe the kid was anywhere close to being chicken . . . but was more like a rattlesnake.
It’s vacation time! Please come back to “Ready Room – A Site for Cops and Writers” on August 24!