cop musings


I remember…years ago, days after I returned home from Basic Training  at Ft. McClellan Al, I went out to my car to discover a window broken and my radio stolen. I called the police and an officer showed up to take a report. He was a decent enough guy but I recall distinctly thinking “well he’s not going to figure out who did this”. I sort of interpreted his attitude as simply “delivering the mail”.

Now, many years later, I find myself on the other side of the equation and know full well the differences in expectations that exist between the police and the people we serve.

As in my example, theft from automobiles is an extremely common occurence. Valuables left visible in vehicles, even a significant amount of loose change, can attract a thief’s attention. What attracts them even more are unlocked doors. By and large most of the “carpoppings” (as we call them here) are thefts from vehicles left unlocked overnight. Now…forgetting to lock your car door on occasion is excusable, what is less excusable is leaving your purse, wallet (with all of your credit cards/ID, etc.), laptop, powered up GPS, I-Pod, cell phone etc. in plain view…in your UNLOCKED car…on the street…overnight. How people get in the habit of leaving $100’s of dollars and all their personal ID and credit cards in an unlocked car is beyond me…but anyway…

Sometimes, when we get there we are greeted with an attitude of “how could you let this happen??”. Look. There are a LOT of streets in Town and not a LOT of officers. It’s simple math. If there is a known problem in your area we will do our best to try to catch these people “in the act”; but when all some kid walking down the street has to do is pull on door handles till he finds an open one, odds are that we are not going to be sitting right there when it happens. Not that “it’s your fault”, nobody has a right to take your stuff, but lets say you try locking your doors and not leaving all that crap in your car and I will try my best to try to catch these guys in the act.

We are most likely NOT going to break out the CSI unit for your stolen I-Pod.  If there are obvious fingerprints I may tell you to garage the car till a detective can get to it later in the day or the next day, but a detective getting called in at 0300hrs on OT to dust your car for prints just isn’t going to happen and the mess that print powder makes will probably bother you more than your stolen stuff did. No DNA swabs, no alternate light sources, no tracking dogs.

And, as cold as it sounds, unless I immediately catch someone who is carrying your stolen property, your stuff is most likely GONE. If I catch someone the following week with a ton of stolen property in his car (some of it yours), and I can’t determine who it all belongs to it does you no good. To do that we need the SN# to put in the computer system and hardly anybody knows their serial numbers. If you don’t know the serial numbers of your property (or have it marked with something like a personal code) odds are you wont be seeing it again. I admit that I myself don’t keep track of them. It’s somethhing I plan on doing something about ….someday. I have had some luck with GPS systems and cell phones as long as they haven’t been “wiped”, but that’s rare.

Now you may ask, “why should I call the police if they are not going to get my stuff back”. Well, for starters you may need a report to give to your credit card company or  for your insurance. But more importantly because it helps us to know where the problems are, what time and days the crimes are happening, the method of theft and what sort of stuff is being stolen. This helps us to zero in on who is doing this and when. Believe it or not, we ARE interested in stopping these people from doing this to other residents even if odds of charging anybody in YOUR particular incident are slim. People would be shocked to discover how often that report the cop did, even though they never heard anything more about it, helped catch someone down the road.

So I guess that in conclusion I am trying to say, don’t think that I am uninterested in solving YOUR particular crime. I would love to lock someone up and get your stuff back. But unless there is some decent information to follow up on there is not much that I can do, other than file a report and hope that the data may eventually lead to an arrest in another case.

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8 thoughts on “cop musings”

  1. Dear tgace,
    I sort of learned this on the public end by living in an overwhelmed neighborhood. It was clear that there had to be (and I hoped there were) priorities beyond “me first”.

    Mostly, I think there’s no small piece of vanity in this, but also “transference”.

    The vanity is extensive: that your things are special so no one will take them, your life protected from disaster by a benevolent Force. That anyone who comes by will be personally interested in your outrage and inconvenience, pain and suffering. I put these four together–because–pain and suffering should excite interest. But outrage and inconvenience maybe not as much. The last two, however, get much more verbal play. They hurt agency reputation I think, especially if one is dealing w/ a self-centered citizen.

    The other part is transference. Cops see people who are annoyed. That annoyance can be with themselves (caught w/o seat belt, forgot to lock the car) or with the B.G. (who dares to do this to me), but it transfers immediately to the first person paid to listen.

    The customer service gig, for cops, IMO, extends about this far, no farther: realizing that people do transfer annoyance, one can use salesman-type techniques to divert it occasionally. In beleaguered neighborhoods/cities, I don’t think the cops always have the time or the emotions left to add that drill. After all, the priorities count the most.

    Therefore, the more crime there is, then the more annoyance transfer, and less good public relations an agency is probably going to get. It is at once ironic and directly-related.

    Please do not think I mean you guys should give up a dispassionate approach and try to fake a sale. You see a cycle of no one practicing practical self-help. I see it too.

    Ann T.

    1. Nice analysis Ann.

      I find it difficult to find a balance at times. I don’t want to come off as uncaring, but I don’t want to sell a bill of goods to someone that we are going to “pull out all the stops” to find their stolen radio and that the bad guy will be arrested and their property returned. That would just be untrue, or at least unlikely in the majority of instances.

      In some respects, this particular example demonstrates how Law Enforcement, at times, is more about “the general welfare” than it is about any individual case. I may eventually catch a burglar and save THAT persons property, but there will probably be a string of other people this turd victimized who will probably not get their property returned, but the investigation from their burglary may have produced evidence that assisted in the burglars apprehension and conviction.

  2. Having dealt with law enforcement on numerous levels and occasions I think you hit the nail on the head…and you did it with out the “F You” bitter attitude that often law enforcement officers are often accused of.

    I had a Jeep that was once stolen twice when I lived in the city. In the thieves defense it was a really slick ride. However, I shared the occurrence with some friends and one remarked how the police do a lousy job. I pointed out that no one forced me to live in the “City” and that my anger was more towards the thieves…and having to pay my $500 deductible twice because of two separate “fiscal” years.

    The end game is this, as you say, personal responsibility towards ourselves and our property goes a long way in prevention and hard targeting.

  3. Exactly Matt. I chose the vehicle larceny example because, as dramatic as robberies, murder and rape are, property crime is probably the MOST likely thing the average person is going to experience in the USA.

    As an aside..I find it a tad ironic when people say things like “the police will be there in minutes when seconds count” (which is true) when arguing about personal responsibility for self-defense yet will cry “where are the cops when you need them??” when their stuff gets stolen.

    We can’t be everywhere at once. And you wouldn’t like it if we were. I HAVE caught people in the act of stealing, but there were probably 3 other larcenies that happened somewhere in town while I was arresting them. To work, law enforcement needs to operate hand in hand with the populace.

  4. Not too many years ago, when I was working in Bogota, I came across an idiom that the Colombians use:
    Nunca dar papaya.
    “Never give papaya” sounded goofy, until a local explained it to me.
    When you leave your valuables in your car, and your car unlocked, you’re giving papaya.
    When you get shitface drunk in a bar on the bad side of town, and then decide you’re going to walk/stumble home in the wee hours of the morning, you’re giving papaya.
    If you put your backpack down in a coffee shop, then turn your back when you go to the counter to order, you’re giving papaya.
    Nice bit of mindset-idiom that your post prompted.
    Also, in an interesting aside based on Ms. Hathaway’s comments: when you get mugged down south, it happens fast and is often brutal. However, it is more likely than not that the assailant will run away, strip the cash out of your wallet, and then turn it in at a local church (or maybe a police drop box, or maybe a mailbox in a diplomatic area, in which case the mailman knows to drop it at an embassy) so as not to inconvenience you too much. Anyway, that’s how I got my wallet back:
    http://bossmongo.blogspot.com/2009/04/bringing-knife-to-knife-fight.html

    And yeah, I was giving papaya.

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