How Police Spend Their Time

There’s an article at the failing <i>New York Times</i> that breaks down how police report their time spent. The whole thing is worth a read so I’m going to comment obliquely on it, rather than quoting extensively from it. [nytimes]

As always, it’s hard to get statistics about what police spend their time doing, because, well, they have nothing to hide.

The “violent crime” and “medical or other” may blur – we don’t really know if “violent crime” means dealing with the aftermath of a bar fight, or breaking up a bar fight. Undoubtedly there are many memorable moments in every police officer’s career, when they have to charge in to a situation where fists are windmilling, but it doesn’t seem like it’s very often, and it’s also one of those things where we can reasonably ask whether the police had to deploy violence or whether they were simply dealing with it by their presence.

I have not witnessed many violent encounters in which the police became involved – maybe 3 or 4 – but they mostly were resolved before the police arrived, or the situation calmed down extremely quickly as soon as the parties involved saw a cop car. Admittedly, I’ve missed some of the local violent encounters with police, because I tend to avoid situations where that sort of thing happens. In my part of Pennsylvania, that mostly means: football games. When Joe Paterno was justifiably fired for protecting a pedophile assistant coach, there was a white privilege football fan riot in downtown state college, in which car windows were smashed, signs torn down, rocks thrown through windows – and the police did not respond with force. Probably because their precious privilege wasn’t threatened. I’ve witnessed a few street fights, one of which was broken by a bunch of bystanders yelling “hey, stop it!” and not cheering the combatants on. It would be interesting to know how the police would have scored that when they eventually showed up.

The key point, though, is that they need to be armed less than – let’s say – 5% of the time. That, to me, does not justify the police driving around with shotguns in ready-clips in their cars, like they do in Clearfield County.

A rather obvious thing to consider would be having more police that were less expensive than the ones that cruise around in armored cars with computers and data links, shotguns and military-style rifles, wearing body armor. Perhaps the police should be foot/basic car patrols that are not ready for war, and a few rapid response units that are.

The broader point that gets ignored in this discussion it this: why are the police prepared all the time for a lethal response to things that are not violent crimes? I recounted an incident last year [stderr] in which Pennsylvania state police pulled me over, and were ready to shoot me because their license-plate scanner flagged my truck as a stolen vehicle because the scanner was not smart enough to tell a Pennsylvania (mine) plate on a great big black Chevy Tahoe from a Virginia plate (stolen) on a WV Jetta. Or, maybe the cops in the cruiser only saw “stolen” on the computer and couldn’t be arsed to read the vehicle description. Instead of responding in a non-threatening manner, the police were prepared to kill me if I didn’t immediately and fake-eagerly comply with their orders.

Resisting arrest is the issue. I was never in danger of being placed under arrest, because I hadn’t done a damn thing and was probably driving too slowly, if anything. But, had I mouthed back to the officers, or not ponied up my license and registration quickly, without looking like I was reaching for a gun, I would have been “resisting” even though, at no time, did the officers indicate that I was under arrest or might be. The way the laws are enforced are absurd on the face of it, especially if you buy the NYT‘s metric that less than 5% of police responses involve a violent crime: cops show up prepared to kill someone if the person “resists” getting a speeding ticket, or a citation for a cracked windshield, or even politely warning an officer that they have a licensed handgun in the car and a permit to carry. Other than basic racism and thuggishness, the problem is that cops are ready to kill you for not obeying them immediately – they have derived an absurd interpretation of the law in which non-compliance is resistance and resistance must be crushed with overwhelming force. The cops who pulled me over would have been guilty of “assault with a deadly weapon” for threatening me with guns, for no good reason, had they been civilians. Cops are not empowered (though they think they are) to be judge, jury, and executioner in the event that someone does not comply with their orders.

It’s the ideology of absolute compliance that makes cops feel empowered to deploy deadly force for absolutely absurd situations. Add to that “no knock” warrants and other policing practices that assume that a citizen, before being found guilty of anything, can be treated like a criminal. And cops have way too much leeway (in their minds) to interpret these things – for example, they have mostly been informed over and over again that citizens have the right to photograph or videotape police activity in public, yet there are endless incidents in which cops (who have nothing to hide, remember?) take people’s cameras or the memory card from the camera. Usually, these days, they take the camera or phone if they can get away with it, because there have been too many cases where a photographer gives a cop a different memory card than the one that was in the camera at the time. Most street photographers that I know keep a tosser camera and a memory card in their pocket while they’re working if they think someone is likely to come demand the device. The issue, again, is the jump from non-compliance to “resistance” which cops persist in ignoring. “I am not resisting” will still earn you a face-full of pepper spray when cops are rioting and you happen to be in the vicinity. That this is not interpreted as aggravated assault and felony battery on the part of the cop is the problem. We have allowed the interpretation of law to slide down a slippery slope to the point where police can commit felony assault on citizens if the citizens do not reply fast enough to even ridiculous, incoherent, or inappropriate orders. Then, there’s the other issue to consider, which is that people who have hearing problems, or mental problems, or who are drunk may have trouble understanding police officers’ orders. That is not “resisting arrest” that’s “too fucked up to understand what the police are telling you.”

One of my neighbors who lives near my studio got 30 days and had to wear a tracker anklet, because he was driving drunk, and mouthed off to the officer who arrested him. “Mouthed off” means “give me a fucking break” and apparently officers in Clearfield County are such sensitive little hothouse flowers that the word “fuck” gives them heart palpitations and they may shoot you rather than head for their fainting-couch. Need I mention that my neighbor is white? Yes, I think that given current affairs, I do need to mention that. He said he was blearily scared shitless because the cops looked like they were ready to shoot him if he didn’t get out of the car and lie facedown by the road in a hurry. I know it’s my white privilege speaking, but I do not consider that a measured use of the threat of force: drunk drivers are a problem and a danger to themselves and others, but they need to be dropped at home to sleep it off, and sent a summons to meet with the magistrate in the mail. Yes, I understand that a grumpy drunk who says “fuck” to a cop may flip out and pull a gun and shoot said cop, but that’s less likely to happen if the cop doesn’t make them lie facedown in the road and handcuff them. Perhaps, “look you’re drunk, get in the back of the car and I’ll take you home and my partner will follow behind in your car, and you’ve just spent a bunch of money in fines and court fees and you really need to learn not to do this,” not the threat of violence.

That’s what I want to say: how did we get to a place where non-compliance is such a threat to police authority that they are willing to kill you if you don’t immediately do what they say? Over and over, we hear about people dying for what are non-crimes that have been promoted to “did not comply” and then to “resisted arrest” and if it’s a “big scary black guy” doing it, then officer hothouse flower shoots someone? How did we get to a place where non-compliance regarding police directives in a non-crime is a justification for murdering someone.

Whenever someone says “innocent before proven guilty” my mouth fills with the flavor of vomit, and I have to spit carefully lest some cop thinks I’m spitting at them.

This is another point aimed squarely at those “not all cops are bad cops” clowns, who want to come in here and tone-troll people for saying cops are bastards. Yes, they are: they are part of a system that has interpreted fairly sensible civil law into an utterly nonsensical regime of compulsive obedience under threat of violence. In principle, the idea is that you don’t get punished for a crime that you haven’t committed, and the 1st amendment ought to protect every citizen’s right to say “fuck you” to a cop. Not just say “fuck” in the presence of a cop: cops ought to be tough enough to be able to handle a little bit of verbal abuse. I’ve noticed that the Transportation Security Administration (i.e.: airport cops) were promoting the idea that saying “fuck you” to a TSA agent was “threatening” and you had to speak carefully to them or you were a fucking domestic terrorist. If they can’t handle the word ‘fuck’ they need to turn their badge and gun in and get a job in daycare.


  1. John Morales says

    The broader point that gets ignored in this discussion it this: why are the police prepared all the time for a lethal response to things that are not violent crimes?

    I reckon the current SCOTUS interpretation of the Second and its consequences.

    [Interesting. You used entities instead of characters for your angle brackets for the intended italics in the first line of the OP and they didn’t get marked up]

  2. says

    In principle, the idea is that you don’t get punished for a crime that you haven’t committed, and the 1st amendment ought to protect every citizen’s right to say “fuck you” to a cop. Not just say “fuck” in the presence of a cop: cops ought to be tough enough to be able to handle a little bit of verbal abuse.

    Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971).

    Paul Robert Cohen was convicted in the Los Angeles Municipal Court of violating that part of California Penal Code § 415 which prohibits “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person . . . by . . . offensive conduct. . . .” [Footnote 1] He was given 30 days’ imprisonment. The facts upon which his conviction rests are detailed in the opinion of the Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, as follows:

    “On April 26, 1968, the defendant was observed in the Los Angeles County Courthouse in the corridor outside of division 20 of the municipal court wearing a jacket bearing the words ‘Fuck the Draft’ which were plainly visible. There were women and children present in the corridor. The defendant was arrested. The defendant testified that he wore the jacket knowing that the words were on the jacket as a means of informing the public of the depth of his feelings against the Vietnam War and the draft.”

    “The defendant did not engage in, nor threaten to engage in, nor did anyone as the result of his conduct in fact commit or threaten to commit any act of violence. The defendant did not make any loud or unusual noise ….

    [W]hile the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric. …

    [M]uch linguistic expression serves a dual communicative function: it conveys not only ideas capable of relatively precise, detached explication, but otherwise inexpressible emotions as well. In fact, words are often chosen as much for their emotive as their cognitive force. We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which, practically speaking, may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated. Indeed, as Mr. Justice Frankfurter has said,

    “[o]ne of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures — and that means not only informed and responsible criticism, but the freedom to speak foolishly and without moderation.”

    Baumgartner v. United States, 322 U. S. 665, 322 U. S. 673-674 (1944).

    It is, in sum, our judgment that, absent a more particularized and compelling reason for its actions, the State may not, consistently with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, make the simple public display here involved of this single four-letter expletive a criminal offense. Because that is the only arguably sustainable rationale for the conviction here at issue, the judgment below must be


    Okay, got all that? “Fuck” cannot justify an arrest or conviction. However, in Cohen v. California the court took pains to note that “Fuck the Draft” is not an insult to any particular person, and that exceptions to First Amendment protections including “Fighting Words” were not addressed by Cohen.

    So what about a personal insult? Allow me to introduce you to City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987).

    From the syllabus:

    Upon shouting at police in an attempt to divert their attention from his friend during a confrontation, appellee was arrested for “willfully . . . interrupt[ing] a city policeman . . . by verbal challenge during an investigation” in violation of a municipal ordinance making it unlawful for any person “to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty.” After his acquittal in Municipal Court, appellee brought suit in Federal District Court challenging the ordinance’s constitutionality and seeking, inter alia, damages and attorney’s fees.

    …[A]lthough speech might be prohibited if it consists of “fighting words” that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, the ordinance in question is not limited to such expressions, but broadly applies to speech that “in any manner . . . interrupt[s] any policeman,” and thereby impermissibly infringes the constitutionally protected freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action.

    From the opinion:

    [T]he First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers. … Although we appreciate the difficulties of drafting precise laws, we have repeatedly invalidated laws that provide the police with unfettered discretion to arrest individuals for words or conduct that annoy or offend them.

    …Today’s decision reflects the constitutional requirement that, in the face of verbal challenges to police action, officers and municipalities must respond with restraint. We are mindful that the preservation of liberty depends in part upon the maintenance of social order. … But the First Amendment recognizes, wisely we think, that a certain amount of expressive disorder not only is inevitable in a society committed to individual freedom, but must itself be protected if that freedom would survive.

    Okay. Swearing on its own cannot justify arrest. Interrupting and questioning and challenging an officer in the performance of their duties cannot justify arrest. But what if they both exist at the same time, and with personal insult thrown in?

    Well, for that we have Lewis v. City of New Orleans, 415 U.S. 130 (1974):

    Upon the Louisiana Supreme Court’s reconsideration of this case in light of Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U. S. 518 (1972), … that court, three judges dissenting, again sustained appellant’s conviction upon a charge of addressing spoken words to a New Orleans police officer in violation of [a city ordinance]. We hold that § 49-7, as construed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, is overbroad in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and is therefore facially invalid.

    The decision is short, as SCOTUS decisions often are when they have already remanded a case once and they felt that their remand instructions were ignored or not followed. However, there is a concurrence by Justice Lewis Powell that adds to this that has become influential:

    I agree with the Court’s conclusion today that the Louisiana Supreme Court “did not refine or narrow these words [of the ordinance], but took them as they stood.” Ante at 415 U. S. 132. In conclusory language, that court construed the ordinance to create

    Page 415 U. S. 135

    a per se rule: whenever “obscene or opprobrious language” is used “toward or with reference to any member of the city police while in the actual performance of his duty,” such language constitutes “fighting words,” and hence a violation without regard to the facts and circumstances of a particular case. As so construed, the ordinance is facially overbroad.

    Quite apart from the ambiguity inherent in the term “opprobrious,” words may or may not be “fighting words,” depending upon the circumstances of their utterance. It is unlikely, for example, that the words said to have been used here would have precipitated a physical confrontation between the middle-aged woman who spoke them and the police officer in whose presence they were uttered. The words may well have conveyed anger and frustration without provoking a violent reaction from the officer. Moreover, as noted in my previous concurrence, a properly trained officer may reasonably be expected to “exercise a higher degree of restraint” than the average citizen, and thus be less likely to respond belligerently to “fighting words.”

    In short, the court expects that police officers receive training and cannot be expected to react violently merely because someone yelled (as was alleged in this case): “[Y]ou god damn m. f. police — I am going to [the Superintendent of Police] about this.”

    Since they cannot be expected to react violently for being called a “god damn mother fucker”, a personal insult of this type, even as part of a challenge to an officer acting in pursuit of her duties, cannot be considered fighting words.

    If the words are not fighting words, they cannot be banned and no criminal penalty can attach for speaking them in an analogous context.

    To make this long story short, the courts have quite clearly held, after the fact, that verbally insulting cops as part of a challenging, confrontational tone, even when designed to interrupt the cop in the course of their duties, is protected speech.

    However, since the cops care far more about ensuring compliance than they do about the law, they’ll continue to arrest people in violation of these rulings – and ultimately in violation of the constitution – and you’ll never see justice for their actions.

  3. lochaber says

    pretty minor angle, but when I was following the local protest around here (SF Bay Area; Occupy, BLM, Anti-orange-asshole/Anti-nazi, more BLM…), a whole lot of protesters were getting arrested for “resisting arrest” which I would think would seem problematic to most reasonable people…

  4. Badland says

    @ Crip Dyke

    Thank you for that! Fascinating to see those rulings in context with the current police interpretations

  5. Ridana says

    police can commit felony assault on citizens if the citizens do not reply fast enough to even ridiculous, incoherent, or inappropriate orders.

    Let’s not forget contradictory orders. “Don’t move! Get down on the ground! I said, ‘DON’T MOVE!!!’ PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD! GET DOWN ON THE GROUND, NOW! DON’T MOVE!!!” *bang**bang**bang*
    This was basically what happened to that guy at a gas station, with the added, “Show me your license and registration!” who was shot the moment he turned back to his truck to get the demanded license and registration.

    I no longer believe this to be a result of twitchy, chickenshit cops who get carried away in the heat of the moment and just need more training and experience. This is clearly exactly what they are trained to do: confuse the target with as many rapid-fire commands as possible, barked as loudly as possible, so that the target will necessarily be unable to comply with some or all of them, thereby giving the officers authorization to do whatever they want, from arrest to murder.

  6. says

    I seem to be repeating myself more and more in recent days, but every time I have to wonder at what point defending yourself against lethal force by authority becomes the morally and logically defensible action.

    At what point, upon being pulled over by a cop, is it your right to shoot them before they shoot you? Especially in places where even civilians are allowed to kill black men based on their suspicions alone and walk away clean. At what point does ANY kind of obedience to law enforcement become unreasonably optimistic? Because it seems to me when that tipping point is inevitably reached, the authorities are in real trouble. Sooner or later, the police paranoia is going to make its own fears real, as everyone starts to realise that the only safe cop is a dead one.

    Nobody should want to end up in that world, and it’s definitely where all of this ends.

  7. komarov says

    “”A rather obvious thing to consider would be having more police that were less expensive than the ones that cruise around in armored cars with computers and data links, shotguns and military-style rifles, wearing body armor. “”

    Out of curiosity, do you take issue with the computers/data links in general or just with how its used? For instance, the scanner would be a bad use and not just becasue the cops apparently don’t know how or can’t be bothered to use it correctly or responsibly. But surely a “21st century” networked cop car could be used in a lot of good ways. E.g. all the video (front, back, sides, maybe?) going directly to the cloud, tracking the cop and what they do and, lastly, providing comms and access to useful information to the cop. I put that bit last because the cop-tracking&surveillance seems like it would be more valuable right now, especially to cops who might be trying to earn back a smidgeon of trust and integrity. “This is where I was and this is what happened as seen from my tamper-proof body and vehicle cams.*” All that’s missing is Judge-Dredd-type guns that track, in minute detail, their use as well.

    *And microphones, radar, lidar, personal surveillance drone, ankle-, heart- and thoughtmonitors. Buy the complete set and get a wearable lie detector for free!

    “”Perhaps, “look you’re drunk, get in the back of the car and I’ll take you home and my partner will follow behind in your car, and you’ve just spent a bunch of money in fines and court fees and you really need to learn not to do this,” not the threat of violence.””

    This implicitly raises another question: How do you get from current US policing and its abusive image back to the point where the above response – reasonable to boot – becomes normalcy? People have no reason at all to trust cops to be reasonable or helpful (privilege situations aside), which encourages hostility and makes every situations worse by default, including what should be harmless traffic stops. When drunk drivers try to outrun the cops, a small part of their admittedly hazy reasoning might stem from those very low expectations they have of their wonderful community police officers.

    If you’re a paranoid cop worried about getting shot you’re probably not keen on the idea of splitting from your partner and giving a drunk with a volatile state of mind a lift, even if they were in cuffs and safely stowed. Meanwhile, the passenger would probably harbour their own paranoia and resentment to their driver.
    I guess the only silver lining is that cops are *paid* to de-escalate and sort out difficult situations even if it means taking some risks. They’ve just been doing it wrong and have to catch up a bit. The cloud, however, is that this is a lot of baggage to carry. Even if you “disband the police” and set up something new they’d inherit said baggage.

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