Perp Walks are Stupid – Why Are We Still Doing Them?

February 14, 2020

Shouldn’t we have knocked this off after Ruby shot Oswald?

There’s a framed poster outside my office. It’s an action photo of the running of the bulls and it contains a quote from some unknown genius:

“TRADITION: Just because you’ve always done it that way, doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.”

That poster has been around in the two police agencies I’ve led in the last 15 years. It reminds me and my command staff not to hang on to some way of doing things that is just, well, stupid.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about tradition. For instance, I like traditional police uniforms. Polo shirts and 511s are fine in a classroom training environment but not as a replacement for a traditional police “look.”

I recently passed the 40 years in full-time law enforcement mark. Two on the radio and thirty-eight sworn. And most of the things in that time, I learned by screwing something up…by doing it wrong, realizing I was doing it wrong, and then trying not to repeat the same mistake.

Perp walks are no different. They are included with my long list of mistakes. I even included a picture with this article of me and my partner (now a high-ranking FBI agent) doing a perp walk with a famous local hooker.  To be clear my partner in the picture is now the high-ranking FBI agent, not the hooker.

Anyway, I still see, on a regular basis, perp walks taking place. In the area I now work in, one large department does a perp walk at least once a week that appears on the nightly news.

Not too long ago I watched a video of the Charleston Church Shooter being perp-walked. Apparently, it was so dangerous that the shooter had to be provided with a ballistic vest. The two plainclothes detectives conducting the operation had no such protection.

These things are a show. For law enforcement, it’s akin to spiking the football. It gives the media the chance to ask breathless questions. “Did you do it?”  “Why did you do it?” “Do you have anything to say to the victims?”  It’s entertainment.

And here’s the thing. Doing a perp walk is dangerous. It’s unnecessary. Mind you it’s not just dangerous to the suspect, it’s also extremely dangerous to the officers being forced to put on the show. If the reporters can get close enough to ask all those goofy questions, then someone wanting to do harm can, too.

Among the least of my concerns here is the argument by the defense bar that conducting these things is unfair to an accused perp, but I have to admit they have a point. If you are paraded in front of the media in handcuffs and a jumpsuit by a bunch of frowning cops or the local sheriff, most people are going to think you’re guilty. Even if you’re not.

At Calibre Press we think a lot about tactics. We live and breathe it. We study. We experiment. We try to learn from successes and also from mistakes. We try to learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes of our colleagues in law enforcement. And we do our very best to pass on what we learn.

And among the many things we’ve learned – at least this Jurassic Cop has – is that perp walks are stupid.

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