Police Fearsome or Friendly as Enforcement Tactic Toward Most People


I’m lost. I’m on the right avenue and walking in the right direction, the building numbers getting smaller as I approach the address I want. But the avenue ends one block before the address I want. I walk back and forth and through a building but the address is not around. Maybe someone knows. A hotel is nearby, a side wall a bit run down but not surprising here and maybe someone inside will know. As I walk to the entrance, I see a concierge facing the front door and what looks like a metal detector staffed by a police officer, whose shoulder patch I see. No one is going through the detector or waiting to go. I don’t need to go through it, which would be inconvenient and annoying since I wear a backpack and a belt, but I can just ask the police officer if he knows where the address is. He doesn’t know and turns to someone at the far left of the lobby, a woman in a blue uniform similar to his but I can’t read the patch.

She sends me to Manhattan Avenue. I want St. Nicholas Avenue, which I know is north of where I’m standing now, and I know it because I was just walking down it five minutes ago. Manhattan Avenue is west of where I am standing and I already went there and, thinking they might be the same street with two names, checked the signs and the building numbers, but they’re not the same. I took a bus part way up and walked the rest of the way up to St. Nicholas and turned and walked down to follow the building numbers till I saw the hotel. I also had already checked the subway system’s electronic Trip Planner and a paper bus map, but no one at the hotel knew that because I didn’t say it, and didn’t need to. I focused on what I needed: directions to an address.

When she sends me to Manhattan Avenue, I ask if St. Nicholas is before or after.

She gets mad. I tell her I’ve been to Manhattan Avenue. She keeps talking like she’s trying to prevent hearing me. She’s not on a phone or talking with someone else. I tell her I’m trying to tell her something. She says she’s not going to talk with me anymore.

A civilian near me in the lobby gives me directions, I don’t catch all of it but I try and it’s something about somewhere near a chicken place.

The uniformed woman now comes out to near us in the lobby and repeats that I should go to Manhattan Avenue, sounding a bit friendlier, and starts reciting various streets on the way, like Lenox and something after that, and I acknowledge those, since I’ve already seen them. I explain at some point that St. Nicholas is north of here, not west, and she gets mad again.

It’s time to defuse this. I’m thinking I have to defuse this officer. I turn away and say I’ll try it again. She praises me for this.

Something’s wrong that I have to defuse an officer for an effort at neighborhood directions.

I walk west to Manhattan Avenue, like she said to do. I sort of suspend my doubt. I check the street signs at every intersection. I see an expensive residential tower and go inside to ask in the lobby. The concierge thinks it’s west. Someone who seems to be trying to distribute sales literature and is asking the concierge for the building manager thinks St. Nicholas is west and pretty far. Neither one is sure. I thank them and walk west, checking signs.

I go past Manhattan Avenue by a couple more blocks and still don’t see St. Nicholas. Maybe a street shares names or maybe a street changes direction but it’s not likely to be this far from where I last saw it. I don’t believe her directions. This is as far as I’m going. I stop and call the person I’m supposed to deliver to. Turns out the address is right but it’s in Brooklyn. I call my boss and go to Brooklyn and deliver it, taking ultimately too long in my view but it seems there’s no complaint.

Leaning Over Backwards to Try to Understand But Likely Still Wrong

Later, at home, I Google the hotel. It used to be for tourists, but business sank and the whole place has been rented to the City to shelter homeless couples. The year before, someone had stabbed someone to death with a knife. Domestic violence. The couple had issues.

That could explain the metal detector and the police officer staffing it.

According to a newspaper article, a neighbor sensed a problem. The same article told about the couple; he had been making her sneak alcohol in. I guess he was getting searched more than she was.

That could explain the officer who got mad at me for questioning her directions. Maybe she was asserting control, showing anyone who comes who’s the boss. She told me what to do and I was not to have any question and no civilian was to tell me anything. She doesn’t know who I am, I look a little scraggly, and maybe I’m a potential threat like almost everyone she doesn’t know at that building. Maybe. That’s one possibility. Maybe being mad was just an act, as part of asserting who’s in charge. I’ve tried telling someone in a comparable position not to panic and that just made it worse, because the panic is part of their act, in trying to get the first answer that comes to mind, on the hypothesis that that’s the most accurate answer, and that’s often true for liars, and criminals are often liars. Maybe she suspects almost every stranger who shows up at the shelter.

Or maybe she thought that if someone’s asking then she's the only person who can solve their problem and we are forbidden to disagree with their answer. People who do that are likely to think that they did solve the problem. We walk away and they never are willing to realize that what they did had no effect or made things worse. Then they repeat with other people. Sometimes they’re right, but it wouldn’t take much to learn from their mistakes and become more helpful without wasting our time or actively causing problems for us. What to do when encountering one of these people is not to tell them about a problem. Try not to mention anything that they might interpret as your problem. Then you can solve it yourself, better.

Or maybe she didn’t know the answer to my second question and didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she didn’t know anything about St. Nicholas and just made up the bit about Manhattan Avenue just so she could say something. Lots of people do that, too. That can explain someone asking one question and someone else answering as if the question was different and repeated efforts to clarify for the second person fail because the same irrelevant answer is repeated. I’ve had that experience with professionals, with supervisors, and with customer service representatives. It’s annoying. If you don’t know, just say so. High-level scholars do that. I tell people to do that but, in that situation, many people refuse. Schoolteachers often forbid it. Now someone has a job and their job is to know, even if they have to make it up. They make it up confidently. That’s more or less what they’re paid for. That works really well when their boss is not around, or their boss can only hear their side of a phone conversation, not the caller’s side. I just want useful information. I give up trying there. I wind up going somewhere else to get the answer I need or make my best guess.

Or maybe she thought what we need is a good sergeant. People who act as if they’re the drill instructor or who admired one may not realize that military methods for winning wars don’t all transfer well to peacetime civilian society. A big reason civilian society tends to work as well as it does is that people who receive orders are often allowed to question them. Apple, the company, used to give an award to the most annoying employee, and one of the early ones got promoted. Civilian airlines have been struggling with helping junior crew members speak up and getting senior pilots to pay attention to challenges, and maybe abort a takeoff because making passengers late and angry is better than having them die in a crash. Copilots are well-trained, so if a copilot asks something at a critical do-not-disturb moment maybe the pilot should accept the interruption and hit the brakes. But military flights can’t work that way. Wars are won partly through speed. Recruits are taught that the commander gives the orders and recruits say yes. Maybe the pilot has to take off right now or get destroyed by enemy fire. The copilot may not be told the reason and is forbidden to disagree with the pilot’s decision to take off. If a crash follows, the speed that usually comes from efficient command with only a yes is worth the risk to preserve the preference for speed in other cases. That’s part of winning a war. The enemy has much the same problem. If both sides decide to grab the same hill, half a second can determine who gets on top and kills the enemy. Sergeants teach that kind of speed. But where I’m asking for neighborhood directions, there’s no war. It’s peaceful here. We don’t need flak jackets or drill instructors. An extra few seconds getting information clarified will be well invested. Maybe I know something, like what I’ve already tried, and we can communicate to get to the right answer.

Or maybe she was expecting trouble from some unknown quarter and maybe I’m a nice person who shouldn’t get mixed up in it or who might make the trouble worse and so she wants me to leave before whatever the trouble will be begins. The police officer at the metal detector didn’t seem to be acting that way, but maybe she was.

Or maybe she wants homeless people to hate staying in this shelter so they’ll work harder and faster at earning a living and leaving the shelter to get permanent housing. Maybe she wanted the civilian, who maybe was homeless and living in the shelter, to want to move out. I’m collateral damage.

She’s being the way she is for whatever reason.

I have to defuse her. The word “defuse” is in my head. I don’t want to have to defuse people who evidently lack good judgment and self-control, but sometimes some of us have to be the models of calm.

Does It Matter Who She Is?

Who was she? I don’t know. She could have been a police officer; the uniform was similar. She’s large, but I think police departments sometimes hire people who don’t fit standard expectations, so they can work undercover and have credibility. I met someone who likely signalled that he was under cover, possibly Federal, and he was too thin to be lifting big barbells. I met a somewhat large woman who said she had been invited to work drug cases and wanted no part of it.

Other possibilities are present. The City agency responsible for housing homeless people has its own security personnel; it recently advertised for some. And the hotel is renting space to the City, so the hotel has its own ownership, so it might have its own security force. I don’t think she had a hat. I never saw her shoulder patch.

This isn’t a random issue dropped from the blue sky. It’s part of how police work. Police learn many skills, including acting. General demeanor with the public is one.

Which Face to Wear Today?

Should police and security guards be friendly or fearsome? The answer seems easy: intimidate the bad guys and support the good people. And most people qualify as good enough. But who are the bad people? Someone did something wrong or is about to, but who? Maybe the law on citizen’s arrest is limited to arresting people who are unquestionably guilty, but police (and probably peace officers generally) are given wider authority by law: they can arrest on probable cause alone, essentially meaning they can arrest if they have a strong enough ground for suspecting that someone is committing a crime or did. Maybe a court warrant is needed, but not always. Communities give police they trust the authority to use their judgment about whom to arrest, subject to a court decision on guilt.

Even a single police department can have different policies. Maybe not as written policies; but the department likely chooses where to assign officers and commanders and likely identifies certain precincts as having different problems with crime, and the result is different police practices even under one police chief, and also different under different police chiefs.

The public everywhere largely accepts that the police have a difficult job, dangerous and intellectually hard, because someone has to sort out who did what, and usually sort it out in minutes, sometimes seconds. The public mostly accepts that mistakes will happen, and accepts that an arrest may be followed, sometimes, by a jury saying not guilty while still accepting the arrest. Even when a family supports the wrongly-arrested individual, and they often do, and other people stay friends with the family and the individual, and they often do, beyond the family and the closest friends most support will go to the police. Even in communities where many feel oppressed by the police, the police will still have some support. Not until expectations are repeatedly violated in one locality without a sense of relief do problems become community problems and does objection become loud.

Big newsmaker events can make relations bad, but so can a long string of little things when the little things that are remembered are mostly bad. Even big bad events can go by with no more than a few headlines unless there were many small hostilities just before one that sparks a highly-visible breakdown in community-police relations that can take a year to sort of repair.

Even without a blowup, when some groups of people experience more negatives from police contact than positives, contact of any kind looks dangerous. Maybe you could get arrested randomly. If it’s not random, arbitrary, or capricious, it can seem that way. Someone got out of bed on the wrong side and hasn’t met an unofficial quota and off you go. You get one free phone call and a record. Good luck on your job hunt.

Which Tactics Work or Fail and Public Support High or Destroyed

Police can be busy, so communications can be curt. One rude incident passes, with annoyance but not much more than that.

But persistence with bad communications is different. One instance can be explained in lots of ways, but not everyone thinks of lots of possibilities. Even if they do, persistence exposes the same behavior to multiple circumstances, and when some circumstances contradict certain explanations, some explanations are eliminated. If what’s left is only that you’re virtually a suspect just for being in public, that can cause trouble to simmer. Good communications can be a lost prospect, because people who are suspicious of each other’s intentions don’t want to talk with each other, because it’s too dangerous.

Even calling 911 can be dangerous. Because of caller ID or because the 911 rep asks your name, information the police may need and callers are likely to give, a suspect may take after the caller. A pizza shop owner said he wouldn’t call the police again.

Criminals, too, can cause bad communications, because they want to. It’s easier to be a criminal if your neighbors are also criminals. More can succeed if hardly anyone is willing to talk with the police and those who do don’t know much. If someone talks with the police when they don’t have to and can’t be overheard, a criminal observing this interaction might well suspect they’re being informed on and the criminal or someone the criminal depends on could be facing jail. So, the criminal would rather discourage anyone from even trivial contact with the police. Even if you’re innocent, talking about the weather becomes dangerous. Word gets around the neighborhood and someone punishes you. Maybe you’ll die at a gang’s hands, so it’s safer to shut up. The local police notice that they’re being frozen out. Cops become suspicious that nearly everyone is hiding from the police and that the public is likely hiding evidence, but they can’t arrest everyone in town. Crime grows, because it’s profitable and within criminals’ capabilities, and it grows both in spread and in intensity. Shootings may rise. Cops may get shot. The police become scared and critical of the crime rise and fight back. Suspicion grows in both directions. Arrests and other checks on suspicious behavior rise. Sentences of some have little deterrence effect for a while, because more fundamental conditions contribute to the persistence of crime, so the unarrested continue the crimes. It can take decades to regain control by the police and by the larger public who want the police to succeed.

A building guard told me the neighborhood where she worked is safe. But she is on duty as a residential building concierge with the front door locked. It’s unusual to see both. And I knew someone living in the neighborhood who struggled to keep her early-teen daughter away from a gang. The neighborhood is traditionally known as unsafe. But this building is expensive housing and its residents will expect to receive very good police protection. If she believed what she was saying (I doubt it a bit), the building may be exceptionally safe in the neighborhood. So, I worry that the guard thinks that the neighborhood is safe. I wonder what price she might pay to get along and if that’s better than the above-ground world.

One police chief reportedly complained that people in gated communities want many police to be near their homes. He countered that you have to put the police where the crime is. He was right, because crime goes up even more where poverty is high and police are few and then the crime spreads, but this leads to people in low-income communities seeing more police and feeling targeted because of who they are. And they’re partly right, because the police have to figure out who’s doing the illegal stuff and that usually means asking questions of more people than are committing the crimes. It also means getting people who depend on their friends to turn over their friends’ names, which is conflicting and potentially dangerous, as is not turning them over. Where communities differ by income, they often differ by race, and there, even if officers practice without racism, it looks racist. And many officers in that context probably become racist, because whatever racism they harbor from life is reinforced.

Yet crime does have to be fought where it’s high, to prevent its spread. Where it correlates with poverty, more has to be done to relieve poverty, such as job development, but policing is also necessary. And usually many people even in targeted communities want the police to succeed.

I heard rumors about two van drivers years ago. One had a relative in a police department somewhere and carried in his van an insignia about the relative’s police service. He drove his van with commercial license plates on a highway that I gather didn’t allow that. He never got a ticket. The other got tickets from time to time but had a camera and never had to pay one. One judge told him he didn’t have to print his photos out, he could just bring his camera, but he lost time from work because he still had to go to court. I read a local newspaper story many years ago in Park Slope about someone who was getting ticketed for parking at a no-parking hour and demanded to see the ticket-writer’s watch, apparently a legal right, but the ticket-writer refused to show it until a police officer showed up and required showing the watch, which showed the vehicle was still legally parked. Yet, when I read about traffic enforcement, it’s usually a call for more of it, not for revenue but in order to improve drivers’ behavior, like on one Park Slope street where speeding is normal. People making that call and other people believe the police can have a positive impact on drivers’ behavior and should enforce the laws. People mostly like the police.

The KGB changed its name (after a split). Our police don’t have to. Our police still have mainstream public suppport. Our police work under mayors, legislatures, and other elected officials who win elections often partly because of their promises for more law enforcement (sometimes for less and they have the power to implement that goal, too). Popular election of leadership gives a public stamp of approval to the police, renewed every couple of years or so.

Yet the parent living in a high-crime area with a 3-year-old son may move his bed away from the window, in a case a random shot from the street sends glass flying. The parent almost certainly wants the police to save the kid from being shot at by a gang (a few want to make it an individual matter but most will be relieved if the police can bring shootings down). But if the son survives to become a 13-year-old, the parent may fear his getting in trouble with the police. The parent warns him against hanging around with bad influences and committing provocative acts and tells him how to respond to the police and keep everything calm. The kid is making it in school or trying to and swears up and down a stack of CDs that he’s clean and the parent wants to believe this. The kid has to fit in with neighborhood kids because standing out or being aloof can be dangerous. The police think he’s mixed up with the neighborhood kids and some of them are in trouble and all claim innocence. Trouble happens and the kid may have nothing to do with it but someone has to ask. Time is short and probable cause is enough for an arrest. Down south in Atlanta recently, a store doubted a postal money order, took the customer’s ID, and told the customer to call the police himself to get his ID back; the police arrested him for passing a bad money order before an official from his school showed up with a receipt to prove he bought the money order; most of us don’t have that kind of access to power and normally he’d have gone to jail for passing a perfectly good money order. Even in high-crime areas, mistakes happen but a pattern of mistakes calls for closer management. Even the least enfranchised among us can get fed up and disrupt a city, and have.

Strategies and tactics have to change per circumstance, over time and between places. A baseball team, I heard, used to swap managers between a harsh one and a soft one when either manager’s success among players waned. (Whichever one was last “fired” was kept on some kind of a payroll and kept a low profile.) But, unlike sport, where winning tends to be distributed among teams, crime can be pushed down and probably kept down, partly through economic, social, and political changes but partly through smarter policing. If economics and politics are also taken care of, the public can win its safety. Getting there may require switching tactics according to what’s no longer working very well.

The Personal

>I hope she’s changed or I don’t run into her.