On Making Life Easier for Police Officers

by Jamison Koehler on February 22, 2011
U.S. Capitol building

Of all the tricks used by police officers, one of the most devious – yet harmless – tricks I have heard is the ploy they use to take a DWI suspect into custody after deciding to make the arrest. The purpose of this particular trick is not to improve detection techniques or to get a reluctant suspect to confess. It is intended instead to make life easier for the police officer.

A person suspected of driving while intoxicated is instructed to perform a long series of unfamiliar maneuvers:  following a pen with the person’s eyes, standing on one leg while counting to 30, walking heel-to-toe for seven steps and turning, and so on. According to this trick, a suspect who has failed the field sobriety tests or shown other signs of intoxication is then instructed to lean over the hood of the car with his arms out straight behind him — only to find a pair of handcuffs slapped onto his wrists.

Because, after all, a big part of police procedure taught at the Academy is to simplify things for the officer.

Recognizing that happy and secure suspects make cooperative suspects, another trick used by officers is to provide all sorts of reassurances to the suspect:  Don’t worry. We just need to clear up a few things down at the station. This is not a serious charge.  Just a few minutes and you’ll be on your way.

The person is then surprised, upon arriving at the station, to be put into a holding cell with the formerly friendly police officer nowhere to be found. What happened to these few matters we just need to settle?  A few minutes turns into many hours or a night in custody.  The promises that “this will all be thrown out” disappear.

This creates a number of misperceptions on the part of the person charged with the offense that criminal defense attorneys are left to deal with. For example, people who have been assured that the charges will be thrown out tend to cling onto this very hope, sometimes all the way to trial.  But the police officer said this was no big deal!  He said he was sure it was going to be thrown out!  It must be because he doesn’t believe in the strength of the evidence against me!  They also tend to think that the police officer who was so friendly to them during the arrest will be equally friendly to them once he takes his place on the witness stand.

Other people obsess over the sequence of events that resulted in such a friendly, reassuring arrest turning into the filing of formal charges. They worry that it was something they did that caused this unfortunate turn in events.  Or they pin the blame on a nasty officer at the station who refused to listen to the friendly officer.  But not to worry, they say:  it will be the friendly officer, not the nasty officer, who will be testifying against me at trial.

My investigator, a former police officer from Prince George’s County, tells me that police officers are trained at the Academy to simply make the arrest and then get back out on the street to make more arrests while other officers sort things out at the station.  It is this emphasis on simplicity and ease that shortcuts the investigation process.  It is what often results in the first person to get the officer’s attention ending up as the government’s witness (for example, as in an assault case) and the second person to come to the officer’s attention ending up as the defendant.  While this might make things simpler for the police officer, it greatly complicates matters for both the prosecutor and the defense attorney — to say nothing of the poor guy who is charged with an offense he didn’t commit.

4 Comments on “On Making Life Easier for Police Officers

  1. In my land it’s a little more serious. Detectives go looking for someone who is a suspect. The kid finds out the cops want to talk to him. Mom tells son to cooperate. Goes to station and never walks out. Kids don’t understand things like accomplice liability and they rarely ask for a lawyer. The cops dangle an imaginary carrot in front of them. “Tell us what happened, and we’ll let you go.” Kid talks. Ends up in bond court the following day with a felony charge.

  2. Marcus: Unfortunately, that happens all the time here as well.

  3. Hmmm, so your concerned that instead of beating up on and abusing suspects, cops are actually nice to them? Jamison, I share your concern. Much better on video for a cop to be yelling at suspects. Waaaay preferable that the detective kick down the door with a search warrant and drag said accomplice out by the scruff of the neck.
    Okay, sarcasm-faucets turned off. 🙂
    I really don’t get the complaint. Cops have a job to do and ending the post referencing “the poor guy who is charged with an offense he didn’t commit” is a little disingenuous. We both know that the vast majority of those charged are, in fact, guilty and you can’t seriously prefer the 1980s style of in-your-face policing.
    Now, I get that people don’t like cops saying, “Tell us what happened and we’ll let you go,” but in all the video-taped interviews I’ve watched (and that’s a lot because to be used in Texas, all confessions have to be recorded) I’ve never seen that. The nice-guy approach, absolutely, the “we just want to find out what happened” method, sure. That’s okay, though, right?
    I think your dissatisfaction comes from gullible defendants actually thinking they can talk their way out of trouble. Now THAT I’ve seen aplenty.

  4. DAC:

    At the risk of sounding defensive, let me be clear that I have nothing against police officers in general. I, for one, sleep well at night knowing that they are out there to protect my family and me. I also admire them for the personal risks they take very day: They are running toward the scene when I am running away.

    I agree that being civil to suspects is almost always preferable to the “in your face” style of policing from before. I also have no beef with the simple measures they take to maximize efficiency, economic, and personal safety. I wrote about the tactic used in DWI arrests – which I said was harmless – simply because I thought it was kind of interesting.

    What I do object to is any type of deception that leads to the waiver of some statutory or constitutional right. In that case, it doesn’t matter if the police was being civil or violent. The suspect has still lost that protection. And, as in the example I used at the end, I also object to the use of one objective (e.g., getting the police officer back out on the street quickly) as an excuse for shortchanging another objective (e.g., conducting a thorough investigation). It was in that context that I talked about the poor guy being charged with a crime that he didn’t commit.

    And come on. I am sure that you are familiar with the phenomenon as well: After a fight, for example, it is almost always the guy who gets the worst of the fight or who gets to the police first who ends up being the complaining witness, no matter what role he may have played in provoking the fight.

    Yes, people can be very gullible and, yes, one of the major challenges we defense attorneys face is cleaning up the mess after a client has made an ill-advised statement. But don’t forget that they were dealing with seasoned professionals who knew how to manipulate them.

    As for the requirement in Texas that all interviews be videotaped, I strongly suspect that things have gotten a whole better for suspects in Texas since this requirement. Human beings being human beings, people always act more responsibly when held accountable. That’s why every jurisdiction should have this same requirement. But even when they do, you still do not see what happened both before and after the videotaped portion of the statement.

    Finally, as for your assertion that the majority of people charged with a crime are in fact guilty, allow me to say this: I must not get a representative cross-sample of people coming to me, because all of my clients are in fact innocent. ? Seriously though, and this is not something that most people can understand, guilt or innocence really has nothing to do with it for me.

    While some clients seem to feel compelled to convince me of their innocence, perhaps on the mistaken assumption that I will try harder for them in that case, my only real reaction is to think I better make sure they fully understand the extent of the attorney-client privilege and my duty to them of confidentiality. Are they not telling me things that they should be telling me?

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