Friday 5: Myths About Police Officers that Attorneys Should Know
Attorneys work with police officers through depositions, prosecutions, defense cases, and through many other interactions — maybe even getting stopped for a traffic ticket. We all know “it’s not like on TV,” but it might be worth exploring some of the most common myths about police officers as they pertain to the work of an attorney.
Myth #1: Cops don’t like attorneys.
In the old Hollywood cliché, the hard-bitten officer resents the defense attorney and the persnickety prosecutor, who always wants more evidence. In the real world, every officer I know appreciates the distinct role of attorneys on both sides of our adversarial system. We also know that some of the most aggressive judges are former defense attorneys, because they have heard it all.
Myth #2: We focus only on getting the bad guy.
One of my favorite recent conversations was with one of our detectives a few weeks ago who had spent most of his day gathering and confirming evidence that excluded a suspect from a criminal case. As he said to me, “It’s our job to make sure guilty people get charged, but it’s just as important for us to make sure innocent people do not.” The comment was even more powerful when you realize that the person on whom he had been working to get exculpatory evidence was not a very good person — but he was not involved in this particular case.
Myth #3: Officers mostly have military backgrounds.
This myth used to be mostly true, but in recent years the demographic of officers has changed considerably. While many officers do have some military background, many more went straight to college and then to law enforcement, like myself. Our department has several officers with four-year degrees and one officer with a JD.
Myth #4: We spend all of our time fighting crime.
The amount of time officers spend investigating and forwarding charges on crimes is diminishing as a percentage of our total time. An increasing amount of time, particularly for patrol officers, is now spent on service calls and dealing with persons with mental illness. The calls where individuals with untreated mental illness use violence get a lot of media attention, but there are also everyday calls that require diplomacy, training, and a great deal of time. As more agencies and social services are defunded or choose not to provide services to the mentally ill, it has been falling to the criminal justice system to become a de facto front-line social service agency. This is a profound and unintended consequence of many years of policy decisions.
Myth #5: Cops are all cynical.
There is some truth to this myth, but the fact is, despite all of the reasons for officers to become very cynical, most are not. Officers are some of the most optimistic and idealistic people I have known. Every so often, YouTube will catch an officer buying food for a homeless person, or stopping traffic to allow a line of ducklings to cross the road, and it gets a lot of attention. However, officers do things like that all the time without anyone noticing — and the officers don’t want anyone to notice.
It really is our honor to do this job, and we appreciate the important part attorneys play in our system.