Monday, October 12, 2020

What's a Police Officer's Job?

 Annamaria on Monday

Fix an answer to that question in your mind.  You think you know what police officers get paid to do, right?  If you ask a police officer anywhere in the United States, the most likely response will be, "To Protect and Serve."  That's what they are there for, right?  We call them "law enforcement." So they are supposed to enforce the law, right?  Think again.

Here is a scene right out of a crime novel:

On his way to work one morning, a guy named Joe gets on to the New York City subway at Penn Station.  He is in the first car--right at the front, where there is a motorman's compartment.  He takes a seat.  Two police officers board the train after him and go into the compartment with the motorman and after a brief delay the train begins to move, but very slowly.

Joe is minding his own business.  Eventually, a kinda dirty, dishevelled guy comes and bangs on the compartment door.  Someone inside says. "Who's there?" 

"The police," he answers.  "No, you're not.  We're the police," comes the response.

The  dishevelled guy pulls a knife--a big one, turns on Joe and says, "You are going to die." And proceeds to start slashing Joe.  On his head, his neck, his face, his arms.  Joe struggles and somehow manages to topple his attacker and disarm him.  Another passenger comes to Joe's aide.  Joe is bleeding so profusely he can't see.

At that point, and not until then, the cops come out of the compartment and tell Joe he can stop struggling against his attacker.  They have him.

Typical of New York, right? A novel or TV show script that began like this would likely never sell.  Trite.  Right?

How about a thriller that begins like this? Scene: Picturesque Castle Rock, Colorado.  A woman named Jessica, mother of three little girls, has an estranged husband who stalks her.  He has been abusive in the past.  She gets a permanent restraining order against him that requires him never to come within a hundred yards of her or their children.  Then, one June evening, he disappears with the three girls.  The mother is frantic.  

This could be the beginning of a thriller, but unfortunately, it is a true story that took only hours to end.  The woman knows her ex has those girls. She calls the police, who tell her that she shouldn't worry.  This sort of thing happens.  She insists to no avail.  She calls them three more times.  At around one in the morning, she goes to police station to beg for help.  Nada.

Just after 3 AM, Simon--the father--shows up at the police station and starts shooting at the cops, presumably because he wants them to kill him.  They do.  They have  to defend themselves, right?

They then found the corpses of the three girls in their now-dead father's car.

Horrifying.  Absolutely horrifying.

What were the cops thinking?  Well, as it happens, what they were thinking has a bearing on the outcomes of what came next in both cases.  You see Joe Lozito and Jessica Lenahan-Gonzales both brought law suits  Against the police for not doing their duty.

Joe's case was thrown out of court despite the fact that the man who attacked him was known to be somewhere in the subway, had killed four people the day before, was the target of a city-wide manhunt, and another passenger had recognized the killer and had also knocked on the compartment door to report that fact.  The judge refused the case because "No direct promises for protection were made to Mr. Lozito...Therefore, a special duty did not exist."

Jessica Lenahan took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where no less than Antonin Scalia wrote the 7-2 majority decision, stating that enforcement of a restraining order was not mandatory under Colorado law. The two dissenters were Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The problem behind all this stems from the fact that, in the US, police officers do not have clear job descriptions.  They are never given a clear definition of what their job is. They get marching orders that usually sound like this: Protect the peace.  Maintain order. Enforce the law. There are piecemeal laws in some states and a string of court decision that can be used as precedents.  But as we all know, a great number of precedents wind up perpetuating bad jugements.

What would Joe and Jessica have to have done to make the police responsible?  First, the person wanting protection must ask the police officer directly for that protection. Then, the police officer must agree to provide it.  Third, the police officer must acknowledge the fact that if he or she does not protect you, you will come to harm.  Then, the person needing the protection must show, in their behavior, that they are relying on police protection.

So, if you are planning on getting mugged or you think your kids might be kidnapped--or whatever trouble you think you might have in which you might need to call on the police to help you, be sure to get all these ducks in a row BEFORE you get into danger.  Then if the police are derelict in their duty, you can take them to court.

Even if they had won their cases, Joe would still have scars on his body and on his psyche.  And Jessica...  I cannot bear to think about her.

Credit: Radio Lab inspired this post.  You can find this episode here:

If you want to sound really smart and have lots to contribute to conversations, listen to Radio Lab.  I regularly offer information I learn by listening and therefore am able to come across as pretty convincing.  Thank you RL!


  1. That's pretty scary. I'm not sure what one expects in South Africa...

    1. Michael, what we are talking about a lot here in the States, when it come to Police-Community relations is that we never have had a truth and reconciliation effort. Of course, South Africa is always cited when it comes to those discussions. I KNOW democracy is a messy process, but this year, at least has laid bare the stuff we’ve been sweeping under the rug. Clean up will take a while. I only hope it will come.

  2. I know that we removed the work force and inserted the work service which is interesting. There's an underlying legal issue about policing by consent or by force which is helped by the service not being armed.

    1. Yes, Caro. One thing I have learned of late is that in most other "developed" countries, police officers take two to three years of training. In the US Police Academy typically lasts three months. That in itself is VERY telling to me.

  3. Radiolab is terrific, although I must admit I've lost track of where it went on my local NPR station KPCC. They've rearranged the Saturday schedule.

    As a doctor, I once had to call the police for a 5150 hold because a schizophrenic had barred himself in a patient room. I kept thinking, "Why is this the duty of a cop?" It's an odd combination of medicine and the law, and it really doesn't fit. PETs (Psychological Evaluation Teams) can also apply a 5150 hold, but because they are grossly understaffed, the wait for them to arrive can be anything up to 8 hours or more. When you have an evolving crisis, 9-1-1 seems the only solution. In light of recent events involving the police, this situation is fraught.

    1. When I was working on this blog, Kwei, I chatted with another friend, a doctor who quoted me chapter and verse on the medical issues that the police should not be handling. I loathe the phrase "defund the police." Almost everyone who cares about this problem really just wants some of the gargantuan police budgets shifted to teams who are trained to deal with medical and social issues--psychological and interpersonal meltdowns for instance. If some of those funds in LA where shifted to the PETs, there would likely be enough of those folks to go around.

      You can easily sign up for the Radio Lab podcasts on their website. I get them delivered to the app on my phone!

  4. For decades, I've been aware of the fact that the value of things (such as collectibles, real estate, etc.) is no more than what someone is willing to pay you for it. VALUE is a VERY slippery eel. What the last 4 years, and 2020 in particular (with the racial protests and police responses) has brought painfully to my awareness is how MUCH of our U.S. political and social structure is built on the sand dunes of 'expectation.' Things have worked, as well as they've ever worked, simply because everyone agreed to follow the 'normal' guidelines and expectations. We now know how worthless those have turned out to be. Just trying to hold my breath for another 3 monts...

    1. So right, EvKa. I once experienced burnout on a great but ultra demanding job. This feels like that. Everytime we think things have gotten as bad as they can be, 2020 takes us down a peg from the bottom. I feel like a kid in the back of the car...for--so far--a seven-month ride. "Are we there yet?"

  5. Well, the police shouldn't be shooting and killing people of color, for a main tenet. The incidents continually happen. If any are finally charged, very few go to jail or even get fired.
    That is a must.
    There is a civilian complaint review board in New York But it's very powerless. Complaints are made, but never go anywhere.
    I saw coverage of police beating up peaceful protesters a few months ago and none were help responsible, or for driving their vans into a crowd.
    I wouldn't expect anything. 90% voted for the guy in the White House in 2016 and their fraternal association endorsed him months ago.
    It's not just training. Most of them are racist and many go for their guns first.
    African-American police chiefs had a conference a month or so ago and said there is systemic racism among police. So what is done about that? There should be community control of the police, much more money to communities to deal with social and economic problems, jobs, health, mental health care, social workers intervening, not police, in many instances. So many horrible stories I can't even think about. And it's not the "bad apple" theory. Not when it's systemic, which even Black cops are saying.

  6. You know, Kathy, how so many of our opinions are in synch. One of the things I most regret about all the efforts of this past year is the phrase "defund the police." It does not describe what the real effort must include, and it puts people like us at odds with people who might easily see the sense of what we know is really needed: the same budget but used to fund a much broader effort toward peaceful and secure communities--through all the modes of endeavor you suggest. But reducing the new approach to three simplistic words has done the solution a disservice and given those who have a vested interest in huge PD budgets a bludgeon to use against us.

  7. Maybe. Maybe not. Diverting millions of funds for the police to health care, community centers, jobs, mental health care, housing, education (schools here are falling apart), food programs, etc., would help.

  8. Just read a news story that the Chicago Police Department rejected 150 out of 155 proposed reforms. What does the community do with that?

    1. Kathy, I am sure you have heard of Governor Cuomo's requirement that every community in NYS with its own police Department have meeting with community members, local government officials, and the police to work out exactly how the community wants to the police to serve it. If they don't have a plan by April 1, their community funding from the state will be cancelled. I am so looking forward to see if this will work.