Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”     John Adams

July 20, 2011

Policing the Right Way: A Positive Personal Encounter with a Highway Patrolman

by Stephen Littau

Many of my detractors may assume that I am someone who encounters the police on a regular basis since I am very critical of bad cops. The truth is personal encounters with the police are very rare for me; it’s very rare that I get pulled over and I haven’t had the cops called on me since I was in my early 20’s.

Well, my streak of not getting pulled over came to an end last Thursday. I was driving to my mother-in-law’s house when I saw the dreaded flashing lights in my rearview mirror. As I pulled over having no idea why I was being stopped, I started thinking about the “10 Rules for Dealing with Police.”
With my window rolled down and my hands on the steering wheel (always a good idea to keep your hands where the police can see them) the highway patrolman asked why I thought he pulled me over. I shrugged and patiently waited to hear his response.

So why did I get pulled over? I didn’t have a license plate on my front bumper. The bracket for my front plate had broken off some months ago. When he told me his reason for pulling me over, I pointed to the plate that I had put just inside the front windshield. From there the patrolman explained that by Colorado law, the plate has to be attached to the front of the vehicle because sometimes the plate falls off in hit-and-run collisions (a plate left at the scene makes it very easy to identify the vehicle’s owner).

I have lived in three states, one of which does not even require a front plate at all (at least when I lived there). I wasn’t sure exactly what the Colorado law was so I took the gamble that placing the plate on the dash would be good enough. It wasn’t.

Of course there’s the old expression: “ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law.” The patrolman was well within his rights to write a citation but he chose to give me a verbal warning instead. A verbal warning and something else: a business card with his name and badge number.

The patrolman handed me the business card and said that I could call the number on the card to make a comment about the stop whether good or bad.

“When did they start doing this?” I wondered. I was taken aback. What kind of comments would I leave if I actually called the number?

As I reflected on this, on balance I thought the patrolman did his job well. Though he could have written the citation, he decided to inform me instead of punish me. For my part, I followed rule #1 (Always be calm and cool) and was very respectful (again, this may surprise my detractors that I wasn’t being snarky toward the patrolman. It probably helped that my wife answered the one question that annoyed me: “Where you folks headed?”). In following this first rule, I didn’t need to worry about the other nine.

But the thing that impressed me the most about this encounter with an officer of the law was the business card. Apparently the Colorado DPS actually cares about how well their patrolmen do their jobs! How refreshing! This in a time of police scandals, use of unnecessary force, and “professional courtesy” that has plagued the Denver Police Department and departments across the country.

What the business card policy (?) says to me is that yes, the police work for me. It’s a statement that recognizes that the job of the police it to serve and protect me: their customer, their boss, the person who pays his salary.

This is how the police should do their jobs and I hope this is something we will see more of more generally.

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5 Comments

  1. Mr, Littau;

    First, thank you for publishing a good article on your encounter with the Law Enforcement Professional. There are far too few positive comments about them.

    Second, this is far more the rule than the exception. The problem is, this is not newsworthy. The exceptions are.

    I am a retired law enforcement officer.

    I can tell you that in my career, I gave more warnings, advice and “stern glances” than I did summonses or made arrests. Even when fully justified to do so, and even in some cases, compelled by the law to do so.

    I can not speak for all LEOs. I can only speak for myself. But regarding “professional courtesy”. My rules were simple. If the law allowed me the use of discretion (which applies to the law not the offender); and it was an infraction that I would consider exercising that discretion with a citizen, then I generally exercised that same discretion with a fellow law enforcement officer. If the law did NOT allow for discretionary enforcement, then no discretion was offered for the LEO if encountered in that situation. In other words, if I could not let a citizen go with a warning, then I would NOT let a LEO go with a warning. I have arrested law enforcement officers. Again, this is far more the rule than the exception for the same reason as above.

    If a LEO allows a fellow LEO to get away with a crime that would require an arrest if committed by a citizen then he is complicit and an accessory to that crime (after the fact); and can and should be charged accordingly.

    I didn’t read the 10 Rules you cited above. But I can tell you what my rules were for dealing with citizens.

    Treat me like a human being. Treat me like you want to be treated. The obvious rules of “don’t surprise me with movements” go without saying. Sit in the car, chill, talk to me. If I ask “Where are ya headed?” its generally a conversation starter not a formal query. Chatter. Its a free country “head where ya wanna”.

    You are not my “boss”. You are a member of the community I serve. I don’t work “for” you. I work for the jurisdiction. You have no direct influence over my job, my performance or my pay check. You are one voice in many who’s voices are taken into consideration when dealing with the agency at large, by its governing authority. You’re leaving that community will not affect my paycheck. Therefore you do not pay my paycheck. You may contribute a small amount to the overall operating budget of the agency but you do not pay my salary.

    The above paragraph is in no way meant to detract from the fact that I am employed by the jurisdiction to serve as a law enforcement officer on your behalf. However, the common misconception that I am required to “protect” you is rampant. I am not and there are court cases through the SCOTUS that say so. I am there enforce the laws of the jurisdiction, some of which have been codified on your behalf, but in the same breath may subject you to criminal prosecution.

    Thus my favorite saying… “When seconds count, police are only minutes away.” (I’m a BIG supporter of the idea that ALL law abiding citizens SHOULD be armed.)

    I would be more than happy to discuss your conception of law enforcement at length. I think you are somewhat jaded, maybe due to past experience, though I suspect only slightly; but more by news reports that of course we KNOW are completely unbiased (snarky).

    Thoughts?

    Comment by Scott — July 20, 2011 @ 2:52 am
  2. I thought I saw your face on the post office wall…lol You have the right approach to dealing with police officers; thanks for your article. Read the comment by the other retired officer and got a kick out of his giving a “stern” look at folks; I always gave a “Stern” look. pun intended.

    Comment by T.F. Stern — July 20, 2011 @ 3:46 am
  3. Scott:

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I recognized your name from a post I wrote awhile back and I’m glad you’re still reading.

    Let me respond to a few things you wrote:

    Second, this is far more the rule than the exception. The problem is, this is not newsworthy. The exceptions are.

    Agreed. Perhaps I should make more of an effort to tell these stories of the police doing the right thing.

    I can not speak for all LEOs. I can only speak for myself. But regarding “professional courtesy”. My rules were simple. If the law allowed me the use of discretion (which applies to the law not the offender); and it was an infraction that I would consider exercising that discretion with a citizen, then I generally exercised that same discretion with a fellow law enforcement officer.

    That’s really all I expect. My biggest beef with the police is when they are given preferential treatment or think themselves above the law. I can see that you are not one of these kind of cops; my hats off to you. Hopefully there are a lot more cops out there with that kind of attitude (and I’m sure there are).

    I didn’t read the 10 Rules you cited above.

    I hope you will. I would be very interested in your thoughts on the 10 rules.

    Treat me like a human being. Treat me like you want to be treated. The obvious rules of “don’t surprise me with movements” go without saying. Sit in the car, chill, talk to me. If I ask “Where are ya headed?” its generally a conversation starter not a formal query. Chatter. Its a free country “head where ya wanna”.

    You know what? I think you have a great point here. It has seemed to me that there is this “us vs. them” mentality on the part of some cops but it didn’t occur to me that maybe I’m guilty of the same thing sometimes. I really shouldn’t get so irritated with the “where are ya headed” question. More times than not the officer is probably just making conversation.

    You are not my “boss”. You are a member of the community I serve. I don’t work “for” you. I work for the jurisdiction. You have no direct influence over my job, my performance or my pay check. You are one voice in many who’s voices are taken into consideration when dealing with the agency at large, by its governing authority. You’re leaving that community will not affect my paycheck. Therefore you do not pay my paycheck. You may contribute a small amount to the overall operating budget of the agency but you do not pay my salary.

    True, I am one of many individuals who make up the community you are serving. I probably should have stuck to more of a “customer” analogy as opposed to an employer analogy (neither is perfect). If I buy a product or service and am dissatisfied, all I can do is complain and/or stop buying the product or service from that company. My lone voice of discontent wouldn’t likely lead to any big change but if a sizable number of people are dissatisfied for the same reason, it could affect paychecks or jobs. I don’t “pay the salary” of the cashier at Wal-Mart either but I certainly contribute and hopefully the manager cares about my experience shopping there.

    [T]he common misconception that I am required to “protect” you is rampant. I am not and there are court cases through the SCOTUS that say so. I am there enforce the laws of the jurisdiction, some of which have been codified on your behalf, but in the same breath may subject you to criminal prosecution.

    Maybe this “misconception” wouldn’t be so “rampant” if these very words weren’t so commonly displayed on squad cars. Obviously the police can’t be everywhere that someone needs protection (and most freedom loving people wouldn’t want them to be everywhere anyway). But, if a police officer sees a crime in progress (a theft, a beat down, etc.) I think it would be very reasonable to expect that that police officer makes a reasonable attempt at protecting.

    I could get into a long philosophical conversation with you about what I believe to be the true role of the police but maybe I can do that some other time. The individual is foremost responsible for protecting his own life, liberty, and property but the police along with the courts both serving the rule of law are important in assisting individuals in protecting these rights. I’m not an anarchist and IMO a free society would be impossible without these.

    Thus my favorite saying… “When seconds count, police are only minutes away.” (I’m a BIG supporter of the idea that ALL law abiding citizens SHOULD be armed.)

    That’s one of my favorite sayings as well. Some take this as a criticism of the police but I don’t think so. I also agree that law abiding citizens should be armed but due to the many gun control laws in this country, being armed isn’t always practical. It’s my understanding that what you are advocating is controversial among cops (am I right?).

    “I would be more than happy to discuss your conception of law enforcement at length. I think you are somewhat jaded, maybe due to past experience, though I suspect only slightly; but more by news reports that of course we KNOW are completely unbiased (snarky).

    I hope we can keep this conversation going as well. Truthfully, my experiences with the police are very mixed (its seems that small town cops are more harsh than big city cops) but for the most part, I guess, most of the police I have dealt with were quite reasonable (even when I was clearly in the wrong). I do read quite a bit about cops behaving badly and police union leaders trying to make excuses for cops who clearly violated the law. I guess I am a little jaded.

    It so happens that I’m reading a book by former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, “Breaking Rank: A top cop’s expose of the dark side of policing.” It’s a real eye opener; not a book that inspires a lot of confidence in the police.

    I also read another one awhile back called “Burglars in Blue” by Art Winstanley (a Denver police officer who was busted for burglary along with many others in the early 1960’s).

    Have you read either of these by any chance? I would be very interested in your take on these.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — July 20, 2011 @ 9:24 pm
  4. Stephen,

    No I haven’t read them and I should just based on the title.

    I appreciate your insight and your opinion. I suspect both are probably more common than I would prefer.

    Yes, I prided myself on policing with integrity and honesty. Not all do so.

    I actually have a post up on my blog, asking for input on this subject. http://scottsmb.com/2011/06/21/new-article-in-the-works/ I think I can use your post and comments for most of it. LOL If you don’t mind? Proper credit of course.

    Your counter points above are well taken. And accurate.

    Have you seen this: http://hotair.com/archives/2011/07/21/video-police-officer-threatens-concealed-carry-driver-with-execution-beating/

    I could get into a long philosophical conversation with you about what I believe to be the true role of the police but maybe I can do that some other time.

    LOL I am sure we could, and I bet you might be surprised at my position. But in a nutshell, cops have too much authority. Hows THAT coming from a cop?

    While I was a cop, I was shown preferential treatment as was my family. But it was within the guidelines I set out for myself. I of course never did anything that would warrant arrest, but I did commit the occasional traffic infraction and was caught. I was afforded “professional courtesy” in the form of a warning. When ever this happened, and not often mind you but it did happen, my first response was always “I am sorry to put you in this position.” I found this stumped most police officers. But in fact is a position that may or may not be comfortable depending on the situation.

    I am a slightly left leaning Libertarian. Extremely right leaning old school Republican. Many Libertarians find it hard to fathom that a person who is/was part of the system can be so inclined.

    I’ve spent 32 years of my life in various forms of government service and in ALL 32 years, I have disliked the involvement of that government in the day to day lives of the citizen to the extent it is.

    I suspect, in a broader sense, you and I are on the same page for what we believe our police should be doing. The only difference simply lies in the “insider” vs “outsider” point of view based on perceptions.

    Lastly, I hated the US vs THEM attitudes. Its stupid. I had a job to do. If your hobby or in some cases profession caused me to have to do my job it was just that. When its all done… lets go get a beer. It wasn’t ever personal. (My friends list on FB actually includes SEVERAL people I have either arrested or summonsed at one point or another. That’s just freakin’ weird but I hope a testament to how I did my job.)

    I enjoy what you write Stephen. And even if we disagree on something, I will always respect what you write for its value. Keep it up.

    Comment by Scott — July 21, 2011 @ 10:07 am
  5. Scott:

    You seem like a real stand up guy; use whatever you wish from my post for yours.

    As for the existence of libertarian leaning cops – yeah, I know there are some out there. I’m sure you are aware of groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and another group I wrote about recently called Oath Keepers. For the most part, I think Norm Stomper has libertarian leanings as well, except for his position on guns.

    As for the insider/outsider thing, this is why I am very interested in hearing from the insiders like yourself and T.F. Stern (his comment was right after yours) and reading books by cops.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — July 21, 2011 @ 10:42 am

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