Let’s stop “cop” bashing
By Ken K. Gourdin
Author’s Note: This op-ed appeared in Dixie College’s (now Dixie State’s) award-winning student newspaper, The Dixie Sun, on December 6, 1991, under the headline “Student says stop cop bashing.” Although my father retired from the profession after 43 years, the more things change, the more they stay the same: law enforcement officers certainly don’t receive any more respect now than they did then. If anything, the problem of public disrespect for law enforcement has only gotten worse.
I recently noticed a two-word editorial written in chalk on a campus sidewalk. It said, “Cops suck.” I take things like that personally because my father has been taking abuse from people with that attitude for over 30 years. He is a sergeant with the police force in my hometown.
The author of that editorial has no doubt seen more than enough from one side of this issue. Because I’ve grown up around law enforcement, I’ve seen it from the other side, an opportunity which the author of that editorial probably hasn’t had.
When we think of police officers, we probably think of people who are “never” there when we need them (when we or our property are threatened) and who are “always” there when we don’t need them (in our rear-view mirrors, lights flashing).
However, one thing the author of that editorial needs to realize is that we in this country take our rights for granted. If you don’t believe this, ask anyone who has lived in another country for any length of time. In other parts of the world, these rights are regularly violated, not only by the criminal, but by the police as well! What’s more, these violations aren’t even considered unusual! They’re just a part of everyday life.
Most of the time when it comes to law enforcement, out of sight means out of mind. Only when we see the occasional police cruiser are we reminded that we are being protected. We have no idea how many crimes are deterred by the mere presence of law enforcement officers, how many crimes are prevented by their intervention, and how many crimes are actually solved by them after they do occur. Ignorance of all of these things breeds lack of appreciation in turn.
“Yes, it’s true I was doing 70 in a 55,” we say. “But what about the guy who just passed me doing 80? It’s unfair for you to get me and not him!” We don’t mind if the laws are enforced—as long as they’re enforced against someone else.
We forget that cops don’t write the laws, they just enforce them. If we don’t like a certain law, we have the power to change it. Have we forgotten that, or do we just take that power for granted? Did we vote in the last election? Have we written our national and state representatives lately, or would we prefer to complain while we wait for someone else to do something about a law we think is unfair? We also don’t realize that the closest we could come to enforcing the law fairly would be to have one cop for every citizen. Many cities don’t even have one cop for every thousand citizens, so what are we supposed to do? The surest way to see that we aren’t subject to “unfair” treatment by the police is this: don’t violate the law. It’s ironic how much less we care about that guy doing 80 when we’re doing 55.
“But don’t cops have anything better to do that give us speeding tickets?” we ask. “Why don’t they worry about real crime?” In large cities, major crimes happen every day. On television shows, they happen every week. But not in places like St. George. I’m not saying that major crime doesn’t happen here. I’m just saying that major crime doesn’t happen here every day.
But crime is crime, and we run the risk of being subject to a penalty whether we kill someone or whether we’re heavy-footed on the accelerator. The surest way not to be subject to the penalty for murder is to not kill anyone. The surest way not to be subject to the penalty for speeding is to not speed.
“What if we’re pulled over and we aren’t doing anything?” we say. The law says that an officer has to have a reason to pull someone over, and “doing nothing” doesn’t qualify. The reason might be a broken tail light, or it may be that somebody resembles someone an officer has seen in a police bulletin.
Maybe we don’t think some reasons for being “harassed by the police” are very good, but it might be surprising to learn how many crimes are discovered because an officer stops someone for a minor traffic violation. For example, an officer might run a check on the vehicle to find that it’s been stolen. Or, an officer might run a check on the driver to find that he or she is wanted for another crime. In either case, there is a victim (of vehicle theft or perhaps an assault) who is grateful the officer was alert enough to be suspicious.
Since most of us are law abiding, it’s uncomfortable for us to think that we might be suspected by the police of anything. But isn’t it worth it to endure a little suspicion since that same suspicion often leads to the apprehension of criminals also?
And finally, we don’t give cops enough credit for being human. On television, crimes and solutions come in nice, neat little hour packages. Theres’ never been a victim of crime that hasn’t wished this was so in the real world, and who hasn’t gotten frustrated because it isn’t.
Upholding the law not only means enforcing it when it’s violated, but also operating within the limits it has set. “Why call the cops,” we say. “They’ll never do anything anyway.” Part of the frustration in statements like this stems from the fact that we don’t realize what the law says cops can and cannot do.
Take “harassment,” for example. I can’t count the number of times as a ride-along I’ve heard someone say, “He’s harassing me, and I want something done about it! …” Harassment is a word we throw around so much it has almost become meaningless. Legally, for someone to be guilty of harassment, the threats we normally associate with this act have to be in writing.*
The law is also very specific when defining other crimes and stating what law enforcement officers can and cannot do about them. Often, the reason why “the cops don’t do anything” is because, by law, they can’t. The law puts numerous restraints on that power, most of which the private citizen is unaware.
There are things we can do if we feel we’ve been treated unfairly, like getting the officer’s name and badge number, calling his or her agency during business hours and telling them we’d like to register a complaint about officer conduct. They can connect us with the appropriate person to talk to.
Numbers for local agencies are: Dixie College Security, 673-4811, ext. 325; St. George Police, 634-5000; Washington County Sheriff’s Office, 634-5730; and Utah Highway Patrol (Cedar City Office) 1-586-9445.
Let’s stop “cop bashing.” Law without law enforcement would be anarchy, and nobody wants that!
* The definition of this crime since has expanded to include recorded threats. See Utah Code Annotated, Title 76, Chapter 5, Section 106, available at http://www.le.utah.gov/~code/TITLE76/htm/76_05_010600.htm, last accessed August 6, 2012.