While the internet can be a great resource of information, it’s also a great source of misinformation. We have a declining public education system that continually waters down curriculum and deems once-essential classes like civics and United States history nonessential. Or, it only skims the surface of these courses that provide a foundation of knowledge of why our country was formed, the source of some of our laws, and what became of our country through that process. When you combine that with unchecked and unverified sources, it provides for some very interesting, yet sadly entertaining, scenarios for the men and women of law enforcement.
I’m thankful that when I was in high school, political correctness did not exist. In History class, it was clearly laid out why the 13 colonies united in opposition to British rule, why the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, and how the Bill of Rights and subsequent Amendments to the Constitution paved the way to a modern-day Constitutional Republic. Aside from what we learned in class, there was a respect for authority and people would listen and respond when a person in an authority position would talk to them whether it was a teacher, or other staff member.
Fast forward to the present. We now have multiple generations of people who have a limited knowledge of our history, little or no understanding of their rights, or a skewed perception of their rights. I believe this is based on what they may have been told by family and friends, perpetuated by what they saw in a movie or television show, or found on the internet or social media. Police officers deal with this every day. Here are some of the common responses we’ve all had during a lawful contact,
- “You don’t have a right to stop me!”
- “Why are you harassing me?”
- “I don’t have to talk to you!”
- “I don’t have to listen to you!”
- “You can’t put your hands on me!”
- “You can’t arrest me! You didn’t even read me my rights!”
- “You got a search warrant? Where’s your search warrant?”
- “What’s your probable cause!”
- “You can’t talk to me without my parents’ permission!”
- “I want my mother here!” (from adults, no less)
- “I have my rights!”
Unfortunately, these people have no idea what they’re talking about. Yet every day, some of them manage to have their proverbial 15 minutes of fame by making it into the media telling one side of a story to the very people who are supposed to provide a balanced account of what occurred, but who are equally clueless and further perpetuate the issue. Granted, these people don’t have the in-depth and expansive training police officers do with regard to knowledge of Constitutional law and search and seizure, but it isn’t too difficult to figure out.
Some Basic Precepts
Outside of consent, police officers can initiate contact with people, whether on foot or in a vehicle, especially if they match the description of a subject of a call for service we are responding to or a witness has provided. Depending on the situation, we can even detain people pending further investigation, and detention can constitute a seizure based on the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
Case law regarding police contact and lawful detention lies in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court Case Terry v. Ohio. Key takeaways are that the detective had reasonable suspicion to contact, detain, and pat down the subject because he believed he and two others were casing a business to commit an armed robbery, based on the reasonable officer standard. This was a combination of his experience as an officer in the area where the contact was made and the manner in which the subject and two others were behaving.
Arrests specifically fall under guidelines of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. When police officers make arrests, the arrest must be based on probable cause, which is a greater standard than reasonable suspicion. Probable cause is knowledge of such facts as would lead a reasonable person to believe that a particular individual is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a criminal act. Police officers must be able to articulate the facts and circumstances forming the basis for probable cause.
With regard to search warrants, they also fall under the Fourth Amendment and are necessary to search for or seize evidence outside a search incident to arrest or when there is probable cause to believe evidence is contained within a residential or non-residential structure. They require a police officer to have sufficient facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that evidence or contraband relating to criminal activity will be found in the location to be searched. As an extra level of protection, search warrants must be signed by a judge and can be turned down for lack of probable cause.
The Fifth Amendment provides protection against self-incrimination. Miranda Warnings are derived from the landmark 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona, which came about after Ernesto Miranda was arrested and interviewed by retired Phoenix Police Detective Carroll Cooley in connection with a sexual assault and robbery case in 1963. While Hollywood has somewhat contributed to the myth that officers must immediately read a suspect their rights as they are being taken into custody, many officers and detectives don’t until suspect are in the back of a patrol vehicle or in a holding cell at a precinct, substation, or an interview room at bureau. If a suspect speaks to an officer voluntarily, the point at which the officer is obligated to read the suspect their Miranda Rights is not always clear.
Regardless of the suspect’s age, officers have a right to contact, detain, and arrest juveniles if necessary, and there is no legal right for their parent to be present. However, we allow parents to be present during interviews after reading them their Juvenile Miranda warnings, which explain each of their rights including the one about the Judge being like an umpire in a baseball game who decides whether what they’ve done is right or wrong. Sorry, but if it’s a violent crime or it involved a gun, anyone can see that what they have done is certainly not right! Strangely enough, we’ve had adult suspects ask for their mothers when taken into custody. Sorry, but mama can’t help you now!
With these examples behind us, let’s discuss the Internet Police Tactics Experts (IPTEs) who chime in on how they would have handled a particular situation. These are usually people who have ZERO experience in how police officers are trained and have relied on Hollywood and other sources of misinformation to draw their conclusions regarding tactics and use of force. Coupled with Terry v. Ohio is Tennessee v. Garner, the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case regarding police use of force. It too is based on the reasonable officer standard and what the officer knew at the time based on totality of circumstances—not with the hindsight of 20/20 vision.
Contrary to popular belief, use of force isn’t commensurate with the type of crime committed. Because, as we all know, even a simple contact for jaywalking or with a forgery suspect can result in an officer’s death.
We are, moreover, taught to shoot center mass to stop the threat. This is why we don’t shoot people in the leg, like many suggest. Even with stress inoculation training, under stress, fine motor skills necessary for such a shot diminish due to physiological reactions as the body prepares for fight or flight. Likewise, knives, hammers, pipes and other objects can be used to inflict serious injury and even death, so while less-lethal force may be an option, they are always backed up with lethal force.
Lastly, in most instances officers don’t have the time to determine whether a gun is unloaded or a BB/pellet gun replica, particularly when it has been pointed at them. Actions of a suspect factor in heavily when it comes to using force, particularly when we have information they may be armed. Sudden movements, which could be perceived as grabbing for or retrieving a weapon, must be considered as a potentially deadly threat.
As I stated previously, while police officers have in-depth and expansive training regarding Constitutional law, search and seizure, as well as arrest tactics and firearms, we should regularly review department legal updates, as well as operations orders to stay on our game. This is especially the case now that media seems to eager to craft a narrative for us. We, as police, must be able to articulate to the community why our officers acted the way they did in a particular incident.
Slow down, wear your vest, stop advising on calls, and stay safe!