Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department
The power of arrest conveyed by law to police officers is expansive, and some people will hate you simply for that power you possess. There are even more people who believe police officers have too much power, and you’ll meet many of them. The hardcore haters will display their irrational hatred of your power by verbally spewing loud and insulting speech your way.
You need to understand that speech alone will never be the sole factor for you to exercise your power of arrest. Probable cause must always exist for a police officer to make an arrest. Probable cause exists when evidence suggests that a person has “probably” committed a crime. It need not meet the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, it’s always better when your probable cause does meet the latter standard.
Let’s look at a scenario where you encounter a person who uses speech to the extreme. You stop a vehicle for speeding on a rural stretch of highway. There are no structures or pedestrian traffic within view. In other words, there are no people to witness or be affected in any way from your interaction with the vehicle’s driver.
As soon as you reach the driver’s door of the vehicle, the driver’s verbal tirade begins. There really are people who can deliver a non-stop stream of insulting and abusive speech without taking a break. Think of speech that you would find to be extremely insulting to you, and apply that speech to this scenario.
As you go about writing the speeding citation, you’re hoping that the suspect will refuse to sign for receipt of the citation. His refusal to sign would show his intent to ignore the citation. You could then use your power of arrest to ensure the suspect’s compliance with the terms of the citation. No such luck. Without missing a profane utterance, the suspect signs the citation.
He Makes a Mistake
The suspect has signed the citation, but he makes a mistake. Remember, this guy never stops talking. You hand him his copy of the citation, and he crumples it into a ball. He then throws the citation through the driver’s window, and it strikes you in the chest. You might say, “He’s just committed an assault on me.” Well, in the most extreme technical sense he has assaulted you, but what happens afterward is the real crime.
When that balled up piece of paper bounced off your chest, it fell to the ground. Your suspect just littered the roadway, and that’s a real crime. You could now lawfully exercise your power of arrest for a misdemeanor committed in your presence. But, you’re a fair minded person. You inform the suspect of his crime, and you order him to pick up the litter. Your order really pushes his buttons, and his speech goes up another octave. But, he complies. As he climbs back inside his vehicle, you tell him he’s free to go. His stream of profanity fades as the vehicle moves away from you.
Peace and Tranquility and Power of Arrest
You must never forget that your peace and tranquility cannot be disturbed. As long as Mr. Loudmouth doesn’t put his hands on you, or attempt to physically assault you, he can call you any vile name you can imagine — it’s called freedom of speech.
Anywhere you work as a police officer there will be a law against disorderly and disruptive public behavior. When a person disturbs the peace and tranquilly of others, excluding you, that person is exposing him or herself to your power of arrest. You’ll meet quite a few of these types, and you’ll arrest many of them. While this is a very simple application of your power of arrest, it can be one of the most problematic.
When a person is disturbing the peace of others, the only requirement for you is to order the person to cease his or her disorderly behavior. If the person does not obey that lawful order, that person is subject to your power of arrest. Nine out of ten times when you’re subjected to verbal abuse, there’s going to be an audience. The presence of spectators is usually the main reason for a person to act out on you. There wouldn’t be any point in it otherwise.
Don’t be tricked into an Argument
You should always remember two things: First — If the person is not an obvious physical threat, don’t act too hastily. Secondly — never let anyone trick you into a verbal argument. There is nothing more demeaning to you, and the power you represent, than for you to argue with a loudmouth.
You must remember that such behavior is a minor crime. Too often, minor things can escalate into something more serious. You need to realize that people are watching and evaluating your response. More importantly, the people watching could be potentially hostile toward you either as a physical danger, or they could voice criticism of your actions in the form of complaints to your department.
Remember, any person who is intent on performing will rarely follow your first command to cease the disruptive behavior. You carry plenty of rope with you, so use it. Here’s the irony. Your politely repeated orders to the suspect, without emotion, may well embolden the suspect to increase his or her verbal abuse. What the spectators will realize, well before the suspect, is the increasing certainty of the suspect’s arrest. The only uncertainty among those watching will be on the number of chances you will give the suspect to comply.
It all comes down to exercising your power of arrest reasonably and with emotional detachment. People of all types and views are potential critics of how you use your power of arrest. People like to see police officers dispense fair treatment even when the police officer is enduring insulting language.
My First Arrest
I had been out of the police academy for only two short weeks, and I was assigned to a foot post on the midnight shift. The post was five blocks long, and it had three bars, a bank and assorted store fronts. After the bars closed at 2am, the only business open was a small 24 hour hamburger franchise at one end of the post. It was December, and the weather was cold. The sole employee of the burger shop was glad to have some company, so I used the shop as my warm-up stop throughout the shift.
The shop’s indoor dining was closed during the early morning hours, and customers were served through a take-out window. I was sitting at the counter when a man and woman approached the window. The man was rude toward the employee. After insulting the employee at every stage of the transaction, he started in on me. His verbal insults went on for several minutes, before he escalated to making physical threats. I think the statement that sealed his fate was when he promised to break my back should I physically confront him.
The Confrontation and Aftermath
I did exit the shop and confront the suspect, and I ordered him to stop shouting and leave. While in field training, I had assisted in making arrests, but this arrest would be my first. I knew I could lawfully arrest the suspect, because the presence of the store employee made the suspect a candidate for disorderly conduct.
Over the next twenty years with hundreds of arrests as a patrol officer, I would never be accused of discourtesy or excessive force – except for this one. As it turned out, this guy’s hobby was insulting and assaulting police officers. I was lucky, because his subsequent assault on me was minor. He had bitten the last officer to arrest him.
The suspect knew the criminal justice system well. He appealed his conviction for disorderly conduct and assault on me, and he was given a new trial. The second trial also ended with a conviction. He used the police department’s complaint process to accuse me of discourtesy and excessive force. For the next year, I would be responding to periodic questionnaires from the Internal Affairs Division.
Lesson Learned about Power of Arrest
You must understand that as a brand new police officer you’ll be lacking in experience. That lack of experience will be the most negative factor affecting the beginning of your career. In this example, I exercised my power of arrest lawfully. However, with the benefit of hindsight and accrued experience, I would have probably passed on that nut case.
It was a good lesson learned. The suspect’s goal was to push my buttons, and in that purpose, he succeeded. The end result was positive in that he gained a criminal conviction, and I gained a valuable learning experience.
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