It’s safe to say that few jobs in this country are as widely observed and discussed by the public than that of police officers.
There are no lists of the “Best Construction Worker Shows of All Time.” You won’t find an article detailing “Six Great Books About the Inner Lives of Accountants.” And there certainly aren’t any controversial debates about the role of, say, dentists in American society.
Add all that to the occasional know-it-all uncle or coworker who claims to have a “surefire” way to get out of a ticket, and you’re certain to have all kinds of myths and misconceptions about police officers and the work they do. How can anyone go about finding the thin blue line that separates fact from fiction?
Well, one of the best ways would be talking to active or retired police officers who know what it is like to wake up every morning and do one of the most highly visible jobs in America. To set the record straight on some classic cop myths, that’s exactly what we did.
It’s not quite “As seen on TV.”
From the early days of Dragnet and Hill Street Blues to present days hits like NCIS and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, cop shows have always been a large part of America’s TV diet. However, most cops believe that the vast majority of law enforcement entertainment tends to miss the mark when it comes to accurately depicting their job.
— Brooklyn Nine-Nine (@nbcbrooklyn99) May 21, 2018
Jeremy, an active detective sergeant for a Midwestern suburb, says the only shows he’s seen that gets close to being realistic are documentary shows like The First 48 or COPS. When it comes to most other cop shows, he says, “It’s not even entertaining to watch because it’s so fake. Every chick is hot. Every day they’re shooting at someone.”
The only part of a lot of these cop shows that close to accurate? The characters. Jeremy explains that most of the personalities you’ll see on cop shows aren’t too different from what you might see in a real police station. “They get the characters pretty good. The hyper guy, the ladies’ man, the gruff veteran, some of the day-to-day stuff.”
It’s the non-stop action of police dramas that differs from what being a police officer is really all about. Leonard Sipes, a former law enforcement officer, retired criminal justice spokesperson, and operator of the site www.crimeinamerica.net, recounts from his active duty days that it was a lot of responding to—and waiting for—mundane calls. “Sitting around and waiting is pretty much it,” he says.
“There is so much paperwork,” Rick, a retired police chief from New Mexico, says. “So many reports to write and rewrite.”
Of course, all those slow hours don’t take away from the very real dangers police face when they are called to protect and serve. “There’s a contradiction where I’ll say law enforcement is dull and mundane and can change in a heartbeat,” says Sipes. “There are mundane situations that could become tragic.”
Jeremy thinks he can break down his time as a cop to “89 percent boring, 10 percent exciting, and 1 percent scared out of your mind.”
Cooperation is key.
Traffic stops are one of the most common ways Americans interact with the police. According to a Department of Justice report, over 62 million U.S. residents had contact with the police in 2011—and roughly 42 percent of those interactions came from traffic stops. So it should come as no surprise that plenty of myths or “inside scoops” circulate about what to do when you see flashing red and blue lights in your rearview.
Urbo spoke with Paul, an active sergeant in a metropolitan police department on the east coast, about common misconceptions, and one he says arises frequently is motorists thinking they don’t have to exit their vehicle when asked.
“Officers frequently find resistance when they need to have someone stopped for a traffic infraction or suspected of a crime exit the car,” says Paul. He reveals drivers will question the right of the officer to ask that, and some will flat out refuse.
But the truth is that, at a traffic stop, the driver is under an obligation to follow the lawful requests of an officer. “Fact is the courts have supported this, even absent specific justification,” Paul says. And he’s right. The case of Pennsylvania v. Mimms reserves officers the right to order someone out of their vehicle during a traffic stop without violating the Fourth Amendment.
Jeremy says in that situation, individuals are advised to follow the orders they are given by the officer because refusal could arouse the officer’s suspicion.
Many have said you’re not legally obligated to roll your window down all the way, just enough to pass your license through and speak with the officer. This is true, though if the officer asks you to roll your window down more so he or she can get a better look inside the vehicle, refusing to do so won’t do you any favors.
“It’s sort of annoying,” says Jeremy of people who only roll their window down a little bit during a traffic stop. In his experience, individuals who do that tend to be under the influence or “just don’t like talking to police.”
Cops share a hope for any kind of traffic stop: that citizens cooperate with their requests. Paul sums it up: “Motorists may want to avoid unnecessarily escalating an encounter by complying.”
Hold off on the crocodile tears.
Traffic ticketing can incur officers the wrath of the populace. It also is the source of many insider “tricks” and “hacks” to avoid getting written up by John Q. Law. Cops, though, say that there’s no surefire way to get out of a ticket; the decision to ticket comes down to the best judgment of the officer.
“In most jurisdictions, officers are given a great deal of discretion in enforcement,” explains Paul. “Our communities are much better off with cops who are more committed to the spirit of the law than the letter of the law.” So ticketing usually comes down to an officer-by-officer basis.
Crying or overly emotional pleas are unlikely to get the officer to let you go. “The crying thing never got me at all,” Jeremy shares. He goes on to say that he’s had all kinds of shenanigans attempted back when he was doing traffic patrols, including section. “None of that really works.”
So what does work? Sometimes just being nice. “I’ve known situations where they’ll let you go just for being pleasant,” Jeremy reveals. Sipes says he was stopped by a young cop for not coming to a complete stop and, though he’s certain he did, he knew better than to attack the officer’s judgment: “Neither one of us needs an argument over what constitutes a complete stop. He has the power. I complied. He let me go.”
All the officers mentioned that they’re usually rubbed the wrong way when a pulled-over motorist treats the incident as a nuisance. “Most cops don’t like ruining your day, but we get paid to try to make the roadways a bit safer for our families and everyone else’s,” Jim, another activy duty officer, explains. “Don’t minimize that.”
Jim does admit that he tends to be partial to working folk when considering writing tickets, especially those working in the public service sector.
“Personally, I find it impossible to give a ticket to a nurse—and forget about it if they work in the ER.”
You can quota me.
What about traffic ticket quotas? There’s the perception among the public that cops are out there trying to hit a number like Sonic the Hedgehog collecting rings. Even while ticket quotas are illegal in many states and frowned upon in others, many people—including police officers—insist they exist.
Sipes says that there are no quotas, but if you’re doing your job as an officer, there are a certain amount of tickets you can reasonably be expected to bring in.
“As my sergeant once said to me, ‘It is impossible for you to be out there for ten hours and not write good tickets.’”
Paul echoes this, saying he stays away from the idea of quotas. But he doesn’t completely dispel the notion either.
“I’ll say this: Cops have their performance measured like any other employee,” Paul says. “Our job is to enforce the law, and taxpayers deserve cops who do their jobs.”
Still, Sipes emphasizes that the idea that police will write up individuals for the most minor infractions to hit a certain number is incorrect. That can actually reflect poorly on an officer. “You want to make good traffic stops, make good arrests, and get a reputation that you don’t bring chickens*** tickets to court,” he explains.
Rick wants to dispel the public perception that the traffic ticket’s sole purpose is to generate municipal revenue. “Enforcing traffic laws can have an effect on driving behaviors and reduce crashes,” he says. That is our desired effect.”
When you consider that there were over 40,000 traffic deaths in America just last year, it certainly helps contextualize officers’ desires to keep motorists thinking twice about speeding to make that yellow light.
“Are you a cop?”
One of the most widely known, and possibly silliest, myths is that an officer always has to tell you if they are a cop, even when undercover.
Jeremy shares his experience supervising a team that, among other things, chats on the internet with people planning to commit crimes. In each of those chats, the person actively planning to break the law would ask if the officer was a cop, to which they would always respond no, they weren’t. “After you arrest them,” Jeremy recounts, “they always say when you interview them later, ‘You were supposed to tell me the truth!’”
The myth stems from the idea that such action by police is entrapment. But entrapment only occurs when an officer tries to coerce someone into committing a crime. For example, Jeremy’s team only engages with individuals who were already planning to commit a crime, so there’s no need for them to reveal themselves as police.
Beyond the cop shows on TV and the highly publicized incidents of officers when they fail to keep the public safe, the vast majority of officers want to have an incident-free shift and call it a day.
Are there differences between police perception and reality? Sipes brings up Bureau of Justice Statistic report saying that of forty million U.S. residents who interacted with police in 2011, roughly nine out of ten said that the police had acted properly during the interaction.
“We are just like everybody else,” explains Jeremy. “I don’t want to go out there and shoot anybody, I don’t want to beat anybody up. That’s not what any cop wants to do.”
“You never know when things can change,” shares Sipes, who speaks of responding to a domestic disturbance at a family barbecue that quickly became dangerous and almost left him with a serious injury. Such hazards are part of the job, so in any interaction with police, Sipes advises citizens to do everything they can “to let the officer know the situation will not quickly go south.”
Jeremy recounts the many roles and responsibilities of the average officer: “You have to not only be up on the laws, but you have to be a social worker, you have to handle mentally ill people, you have to counsel people—adults and kids—when things don’t go right. You have to wear a lot of hats.”
Officers are well aware of the rigors of their profession, but that’s not to say they don’t welcome expressions of gratitude when they’re effectively policing a community. “They don’t expect praise or recognition,” says Rick, speaking generally about other officers, “but they appreciate when people take the time to show it.”
Ultimately, for those who work in one of America’s most highly visible professions, all that most cops seek from the public is a realistic view of who they are and what they do each day—and the reminder that they’re still people like everybody else.
“I got a wife and kids and a house,” says Jeremy. “I cut my grass, I clean my toilets, I’m a just a regular person. We just want to get through it, make sure everybody’s safe, and we want to go home and do our thing when we’re done.”