19 May 2015

Attitude and Cops

by Jim Winter

A lot of attention lately has been focused on police lately. And why not? Unarmed people die in confrontations, it brings up a lot of uncomfortable questions about training and race and whether police departments are getting too militaristic. But this past week, I got an up-close-and-personal look at what police officers face on a daily basis.

About ten days ago, my wife and I went out of town for the night. It was the first time we'd left our boy home by himself. He's gone off on his own overnight, even flying back from Germany on his own at the age of 16, but for some reason, in 20 years, he'd never had the house to himself for more than an evening. On our way to our destination, my wife says, "What if he throws a party, gets the police called, and mouths off?" AJ is at that age where he knows the law better than his parents or even the cops. And you can't argue with him because, unlike me or his mother at 20-21, he has the Internet on his side.

So last week, I get a knock at the door. Sure enough, Friday night while we were gone, AJ's friends made a lot of noise - though only enough, apparently, to rile up that one nosy neighbor on everyone's street. The couple across the street and the elderly couple next door had no clue there was even a party - and the deputies arrived to quiet things down. And AJ showed off his legal knowledge.

And the deputy came by to let us know. The deputy is about my age with a kid about AJ's age, so he knew all about attitude. We got a good laugh out of it, and AJ's attitude toward the police has softened somewhat in the past week or so.

But it makes me think of my own interactions with police over the years. The closest I've ever come to being arrested was when I went on a job interview only to find out I was doing drive-by sales. You barge into a business and sell junk to whoever will buy just to get you out. Only Middletown, Ohio, is not the friendliest city to solicitors, and we had the cops called on us. So when they asked if I was interested in this job, I said no. If I wanted to deal with the cops, I'd just keep the driving habits I had since I was 16.

And because I was young and stupid behind the wheel, I dealt with a lot of cops. Very quickly, I learned that, if you handed a cop your license and registration (or now insurance papers), things go a lot more smoothly. Why mouth off? You know you were doing 80 in school zone. Suck it up, buttercup, and pay the fine. You also find that, if you're not an ass when you're pulled over, the offense on the ticket somehow goes down.


I have mouthed off to a couple of cops. Once, when I was really young, I made it a point to taunt one who worked for an obvious speed trap. My view? He ticketed a friend of mine for doing 60 when he only did 42. I know. I was in the van when he got the ticket. So I would drive 5 miles under the speed limit all the way through that township with this cop on my bumper, then jack it up to 70 after I crossed the township line and he'd turned around. Stupid? Absolutely. It got to the point where I took the long way home to avoid an almost certain trip to the county jail. That was all me. Right or wrong, the last thing anyone needs to do is taunt a cop. Even if their employer exists primarily to collect speeding tickets, their primary job is to deal with bad people. And while I thought I was being funny, I was probably being a bad person.

Another time, shortly after I moved to Cincinnati, I had to explain to an officer from a nearby suburb that, just because he was sitting inside the 35 mph zone when he clocked me doing, did not change the fact that the speed limit where I accelerated was 50. We went round and round for about five minutes before he realized that, yes, I was under the speed where I was when he clocked me.

That was an honest disagreement. I did not raise my voice or give him a hard time. I handed him my license and my insurance.

Since then, I've had unusual interactions with cops. Once, while listening to a Final Four game during my pizza delivery days, I got pulled over for driving 45 through a park. Kentucky was playing, this being the Tubby Smith era. The Cincinnati cop who pulled me over came up to me, knowing me when as one of the pizza dudes, strolled up filling out the ticket with a look of disappointment on his face. I rolled down the window with my license and insurance card out. He heard the game on my radio.

"Who's winning?" he said.

"UK," I said, meaning Kentucky.

He disappeared back into his cruiser. Two minutes later, he shoved a warning through my window. "Here's a warning. Slow down. Go 'Cats."

Sure, things are bad out there. Just look at Ferguson. (And somebody explain to me why a speed trap like that has heavy artillery with a force that makes Barney Fife look like the cops on Law & Order?) But it helps when at least one side doesn't lose their cool. My conflict with the small town cop when I lived in Cleveland? I'm damned lucky I didn't end up in jail. With the suburban cop? Well, I'm sure he wasn't happy with that traffic stop, but it wasn't a big deal. I got off because I wasn't an ass.

Like a wise man once told me, it costs you nothing to be gracious.


  1. I appreciate you writing this, Jim. It was my experience as a police officer that things seldom went awry until the suspect decided to resist arrest, fight the officer, or flee. As for attitude, officers receive a ton of it nearly every day and from every kind of citizen. I've had old ladies curse me out and college students throw bottles at me. Being threatened with lawsuits (and being the target of them) is par for the course. I've been called racist, sexist, a Nazi, and a bully. I've also been called a coward and a disgrace. I've been forced to pepper gas suspects, wrestle them to the ground, and subdue them while trying not to do any serious damage as they fought and resisted all the while. I once had a guy a foot taller than me, forty pounds heavier, and about twenty years younger accuse me of excessive force during his arrest. I'm 5'8" and weigh 160. The only abuse that had occurred was to his ego. What people have a hard time getting their minds around is that if the officer decides to make an arrest, or just issue a summons, they do not have the right to resist or refuse. Disagreement is for the courtroom. It's galling to some, but that's the simple truth of it.

  2. Very interesting. I think it was in James McClure's book about the San Diego police department COP WORLD that an officer talked about attitude tickets. If a guy he stopped was polite, no ticket. Attitude, then ticket. His point was this wasn't being mean, it was good police work. The polite person knew not to do the wrong thing again. The rude person needed the lesson reinforced.

  3. Thoughtful article, Jim.

    My idiot brother would taunt cops by speeding and other nonsense and then complain when he got a ticket. Somehow he never got the message you can do one or the other, but not both and neither is better yet.

    That said, I read an article about white guy who was ticketed for running a stop sign. He knew and the cop knew the ticket was bogus– he actually sat at the stop sign trying to figure out which way to turn– but he figured the cop was meeting his quota. He was speculating how much worse it might have been if he'd protested or if he'd been black, so those things happen too.

    Ideally, it takes people of good will on both sides.

  4. Well put. And it's a nice cop who comes to the parent to explain the problem.

    Another aspect of attitude, of course, concerns our expectations when we call upon the police. Case in point: Several years back, my wife and her brother left a movie theater to discover two men stealing the radio out of my brother-in-law's truck. They climbed out, with the radio, hopped in a car and took off. (My wife, smacked one guy with her purse as he went by, and then smacked the car with it as it left.) After calling the police, my wife called me.

    I arrived to find her fuming because no one had come (it had been about 30 minutes since she called it in.) A few minutes later, a squad car pulled up. The officer inside verified that my wife had called, then asked, "Do you mind waiting a little while? We think we've got them, and we'd like you to identify them if you would." Sometime later another squad car pulled up, with the crooks in the back. My wife ID'd the two, and the police said they'd found a stash of car radios and other items in the trunk. When my wife tried to apologize for her earlier feelings, though no cops had heard her complaints, the officer laughed and said, "Yeah. Sometimes we don't come right away, because we're out trying to catch the bad guys. Thanks for your great description over the phone; that's how we spotted them."


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