Military and Police

Police Objectivity Must Allow for Subjectivity

There are community activists and groups who feel police officers should be strictly objective when doing their jobs. Cops should not consider certain aspects of an individual’s appearance and manner when deciding to stop and investigate an individual behaving suspiciously. These aspects include clothing type, area of town, furtive behavior, and known criminal history as subjective signs that add to objectively suspicious behavior.

This stark objectivity is what leftist groups such as the ACLU expect of police officers. They seem to believe cops are stopping “innocent” victims (minorities) and “harassing” them. Through political and social pressure, these community organizations are convincing local governments (not that some city leaders need much convincing) into circumventing the U.S. Constitution by implementing policies that prevent cops from using legal tools, such as stop-and-frisk, to curb violent crime.

Think about cops watching a guy walking down the street, in a high-crime area, in 90-degree weather, wearing a zipped up and heavy winter coat. And he’s been contacting people in cars that stop briefly before driving on. It could be just a strange, sociable person, right? Sure.

But it could also be a person who is wearing the coat to conceal the dope he’s probably selling or even a weapon (I’ve seen it many times). Would it be good police work for a cop to ignore his subjective observations that inform what started as an objective investigation and not contact this suspicious person? After all, it’s not against the law to wear a winter coat in summer, stand on a street corner, or talk to people in their cars.

Well, according to leftist groups, such as the ACLU, cops should ignore these subjective observations because, as the ACLU recently mentioned, people that cops stop during a Terry Stop or stop-and-frisk “may not even belong to a gang,” or be engaged in _____ (fill in the criminal behavior of your choice).

Doesn’t this mean the police will only investigate crimes or catch criminals after crimes have occurred? Where is the crime prevention in this equation? Or, does the ACLU believe people living in high-crime areas don’t deserve crime prevention?

Now, I understand the libertarian arguments, which sound good on paper, but real-life crime fighting is not done on paper. Cops conduct their investigations in the muck, mire, and fug and fog of the streets. But we’re not talking about Fourth Amendment violations, here; we’re talking about a tool that has been found constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Stop-and-frisk is based on the Terry Stop. Terry v. Ohio is the U.S. Supreme Court case that allows an officer who’s stopped a suspicious person to pat them down for weapons—even if no probable cause for arrest exists. I don’t see how anyone can argue against this being reasonable to protect the cop and the person detained. (Incidentally, in the Terry case, the suspects may not have even been robbers about to rob a store, but they were concealing weapons.)

There is a difference between probable cause and reasonable suspicion for a reason. As a part of the law enforcement equation, reasonable suspicion often leads to probable cause. Again, this used to be called good police work. Now, the left, including the ACLU, often call it a civil rights violation.

Once patted down for weapons, the officer can be more sure that the subject is not armed. At least, not obviously. Without a full search —invasive, into pockets and under clothes— an officer cannot know for sure. There is still a risk. This also helps keep the subjects who are stopped safe. After a pat down, if the subject puts his or her hand in a pocket, the officer won’t react as if it were a threat.

This seems so obvious…to cops. That’s the problem, here. The ACLU lawyers are not cops, Black Lives Matter members are not cops, the Democrats are not cops. Even well-meaning police supporters are not cops. You can only know what it’s like to assume the risks cops take every day if you are a cop.

That’s why law enforcement officers deserve the benefit of the doubt society used to give them (until a cop proves he or she doesn’t deserve it). But not trusting the cops as a policy, intentionally reinforced by anti-cop mythology, is a rock-solid Neo-Democratic Party platform plank now.

Police work is not only about remaining objective and treating every individual identically regardless of the subjective signs of illegal behavior the officer observes. Objectivity has an important place in law enforcement, in a general, initial, and overarching sense. But being objective does not mean an officer should dismiss subjective information all police officers gather when interacting with suspicious people or investigating suspicious circumstances.

Should an officer ignore that telltale bulge at the known criminal’s waistband because he may not even have a gun?

Over the past several months, I’ve touched on the ACLU’s transformation from a broad-spectrum civil rights organization to one that has abandoned its mission to protect every American’s constitutional rights for one that promotes leftwing causes. One cause involves inhibiting police officers from doing their jobs.

Boston Police Commissioner William G. Gross recently spoke out in defense of the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) database of gang information. The ACLU feels Boston police are being “too secretive” and are biased against minorities.

In an article I wrote on the commissioner’s bold comments, I noted that the ACLU didn’t like that the BPD was investigating people who may not even be gang members. Again, how can cops know if a person belongs to a gang if they’re not allowed to investigate?

Objectivity is a great tool for cops. It helped me to stay impartial when beginning any investigation. However, I didn’t ignore the subjective information I subsequently received from people and situations while I was investigating an incident.

For example, officers observe two people behaving suspiciously, in an area of high criminal activity, and they know one of the people who has a long police record. They don’t recognize the other person. Should they ignore the other person who is hanging with a gang member, and also acting suspiciously, but may not even belong to a gang?

The ACLU and others on the left seem to think so. I’m not sure the left will ever accept as justified any police shooting but especially those involving white cops and black suspects. And when a bad guy kills a cop, I think many on the left chalk it up to the cost of doing police work.

I once had a district court (felony) prosecutor tell me a suspect armed with a knife who’d threatened to kill my partner and me was “a part of the job.” (He either reduced or threw out that charge.) Yes, disrespecting cops is not a new phenomenon. It’s the intensity and scope that have gotten worse.

Even more wicked, some radicals like BLM and Antifa seem to see criminals shot versus cops shot as a competition: if the cops shoot 10 criminals, it’s not fair unless the criminals get to shoot 10 cops. I’ve often read about leftist organizations comparing suspects killed versus cops killed, as if it were supposed to be a fair fight. Some actually encourage killing cops.

Public statements by the anti-cop far-left, including politicians, bear this out: There’s the city councilwoman who accuses police officers of murder for shooting an armed criminal. Other police critics believe an officer shouldn’t have shot an armed suspect because he hadn’t pointed his gun at the officer—yet.

The ACLU apparently believes cops should risk their lives by assuming bad guys might be good guys. After all, they “may not even be a gang member.” So, regardless of their suspicious behavior, why even check them out? Remember when investigating suspicious behavior used to be called good police work?

In addition to the above examples, the left’s penchant for ignoring laws and protecting criminals is well-documented and prolific. Here’s a short list:

  • The sanctuary city movement is infamous for protecting illegal immigrant criminals. Hell, some mayors even warn them about police raids.
  • Some jurisdictions have even changed their local statutes and filing guidelines specifically to protect criminal illegal aliens from law enforcement.
  • Black Lives Matter comes right out and chants they want “dead cops.”
  • Leftist Democrats have been blocking congressional legislation, Kate’s Law, that would protect Americans from criminal illegal aliens. (Sadly, some Republicans have also been complicit in impeding this legislation.)
  • And we can’t forget the plethora of bogus federal consent decrees inflicted on so many cities across America. Obama’s DOJ never found a department it didn’t believe was corrupt. Consent decrees help criminals and hurt cops.
  • Stop-and-frisk: While this law enforcement tool remains constitutional (Terry Stop), local jurisdictions are implementing policies that thwart the cops’ ability to use this effective, legal strategy. The ACLU is leading the charge.

In my book De-Policing America, I quote Heather Mac Donald from her insightful book, The War on Cops. Heather Mac Donald wrote, “A central claim in the anti-stop-and-frisk crusade is that NYPD officers regularly accost countless squeaky-clean New Yorkers without cause.”

Mac Donald further describes these upstanding plaintiffs suing the NYPD:

  • “W.B.”, 17, arrested ten times.
  • Letitia Ledan, 41, arrested 15 times for drugs, prostitution and false reporting.
  • Antoine Ledan, between 10 and 20 convictions in 15 years.

These are the best stop-and-frisk “victims” these leftist lawyers could find? They couldn’t locate even one complainant to add to their lawsuit with no criminal history? Surely, if they’d found someone, they would have used him or her instead, right?

Mac Donald agrees and “points out cop critics should be able to raise an army of ‘Eagle Scouts’ who’ve been ‘victimized’ by the police. But it seems so many of those complaining about ‘police abuse’ are themselves criminals. This frustrates cops.”

Yes, it does.

In 2010, New York’s branch of the ACLU, the NYCLU, took issue with Mac Donald with this dazzling deduction:

Yet Heather Mac Donald (“Fighting Crime Where the Criminals Are,” Op-Ed, [NY Times] June 26) wants the New York Police Department to continue a stop-and-frisk policy with a 90 percent failure rate. Nearly nine out of every 10 people stopped and interrogated on our streets are let go without a citation or summons — and certainly without an arrest.

This shows the flaw in their reasoning. This “failure rate” clearly demonstrates the success of the tactic. Doesn’t this show that criminals who might carry illegal weapons routinely don’t because they know an officer might conduct a Terry Stop (stop-and-frisk)?

By this “logic,” shouldn’t the TSA stop its airport searches immediately? After all, they almost never find terrorists. In fact, they have to have, like, a 99.9 percent “failure rate.”

Now, there must be observations that the person stopped is, indeed, behaving suspiciously. Here’s the problem: cops and non-cops look at the same people and circumstances in vastly different ways than…oh, let’s pull someone out of the air: an ACLU lawyer.

Cops see what non-cops don’t see. There is a reason law enforcement officers attend academies and receive on-going department training. First, to learn how to do police work and then to do it even better. Further, the longer officers are on the streets, the more experience they gather. That’s why you know your job better than someone who doesn’t do it, right?

That’s also why veteran officers see people and circumstances differently than rookies do. Could some officers abuse stop-and-frisk? Of course, but few will. Just because an ACLU lawyer believes the cops had no reason to stop and frisk a person, doesn’t mean that reason didn’t exist.

It just shows the leftist lawyer is not a cop. How about, rather than instituting city/department policies that restrict a constitutionally approved crime prevention method, they focus on disciplining the few cops who actually abuse this valid tool? Go after the abuse of the tactic, not the tactic itself.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? The ACLU and other leftist organizations are no longer capable of giving the cops any benefit of the doubt. The job-specific training and oath-swearing mean nothing to leftist groups. No, they’d rather give that benefit to criminals like “W.B.” and the Ledans (mentioned above) who have some 25 to 35 arrests between them. Or to the criminal that didn’t even point the gun at the officeryet.

So, the left insists cops use blanket objectivity influenced by little to no subjectivity when dealing with suspicious persons. As if cops work in a vacuum. I’ve heard it said: a community will get the law enforcement it deserves. I’d amend that. I’d say a community will get the law enforcement the ACLU allows them to have. In other words, a de-policing department.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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