A humorous answer to the frequent questions, ‘why do police harass people?’

There is a great deal of police humor available on the web. The following email has been circulating and gathering attention in part because it deals with the tension between citizens feeling like they have been singled out for enforcement actions or are being harassed. I believe that most citizens, most of the time understand that if they are breaking a law that there is a certain probability that they will be contacted for an  enforcement action. However, rational this background expectation maybe, I suspect that just like with health issues, when a citizen is contacted by the police they move from this probabilistic sentiment to one more of, “why me?” just as a patient diagnosed with a disease asks the metaphysical question to the doctor, “why me.” The police, on the other hand, instinctively answer, “I am just doing my job” and seem confused that this answer is rarely satisfactory to a citizen, however true it is that they are doing exactly what they are paid and mandated to do. The fine email bellow weaves deftly across these two frames of reference:

Recently, the Chula Vista, California Police Department ran an e-mail forum (a question and answer exchange) with the topic being, “Community Policing.”

One of the civilian email participants posed the following question, “I would like to know how it is possible for police officers to continually harass people and get away with it?”

From the “other side” (the law enforcement side) Sgt. Bennett, obviously a cop with a sense of humor replied:

“First of all, let me tell you this…it’s not easy. In Chula Vista, we average one cop for every 600 people. Only about 60% of those cops are on general duty (or what you might refer to as “patrol”) where we do most of our harassing.

The rest are in non-harassing departments that do not allow them contact with the day to day innocents. And at any given moment, only one-fifth of the 60% patrollers are on duty and available for harassing people while the rest are off duty. So roughly, one cop is responsible for harassing about 5,000 residents.

When you toss in the commercial business, and tourist locations that attract people from other areas, sometimes you have a situation where a single cop is responsible for harassing 10,000 or more people a day.

Now, your average ten-hour shift runs 36,000 seconds long. This gives a cop one second to harass a person, and then only three-fourths of a second to eat a donut AND then find a new person to harass. This is not an easy task. To be honest, most cops are not up to this challenge day in and day out. It is just too tiring. What we do is utilize some tools to help us narrow down those people which we can realistically harass.

The tools available to us are as follows:

PHONE: People will call us up and point out things that cause us to focus on a person for special harassment. “My neighbor is beating his wife” is a code phrase used often.

This means we’ll come out and give somebody some special harassment.

Another popular one: “There’s a guy breaking into a house.” The harassment team is then put into action.

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CARS: We have special cops assigned to harass people who drive. They like to harass the drivers of fast cars, cars with no insurance or no driver’s licenses and the like. Its lots of fun when you pick them out of traffic for nothing more obvious than running a red light. Sometimes you get to really heap the harassment on when you find they have drugs in the car, they are drunk, or have an outstanding warrant on file.

RUNNERS: Some people take off running just at the sight of a police officer. Nothing is quite as satisfying as running after them like a beagle on the scent of a bunny. When you catch them you can harass them for hours.

STATUTES: When we don’t have PHONES or CARS and have nothing better to do, there are actually books that give us ideas for reasons to harass folks. They are called “Statutes”; Criminal Codes, Motor Vehicle Codes, etc… They all spell out all sorts of things for which you can really mess with people.

After you read the statute, you can just drive around for awhile until you find someone violating one of these listed offenses and harass them. Just last week I saw a guy trying to steal a car. Well, there’s this book we have that says that’s not allowed. That meant I got permission to harass this guy.

It is a really cool system that we have set up, and it works pretty well.

We seem to have a never-ending supply of folks to harass. And we get away with it. Why? Because for the good citizens who pay the tab, we try to keep the streets safe for them, and they pay us to “harass” some people.

Next time you are in my town, give me the old “single finger wave.” That’s another one of those codes. It means, “You can’t harass me.” 

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2 Comments on “A humorous answer to the frequent questions, ‘why do police harass people?’

  1. Brian, I hope all went well at DARPA? It was a pleasure working with you. All the best.
    S/F
    Dave

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