Raise Your Hand If You’re Surprised

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Wait. You mean when we give cops more excuses to pull people over, we also give them more excuses to harass people, profile, and conduct illegal searches?

I mean, who could possibly have known?

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41 Responses to “Raise Your Hand If You’re Surprised”

  1. #1 |  John P. | 

    Has there ever been anything in the history of the law enforcement… any legal instrument, law, or piece of equipment that society has given to its cops, that the cops HAVEN’T abused, or misused?

    Yeah I didn’t think so…

    Its what happens when you take a bunch of uneducated, ill trained and mostly unsupervised people, who can’t hold gainful employment int he private sector.

    Then arm them and give them great power over others.

  2. #2 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    John P.

    “Its what happens when you take a bunch of uneducated, ill trained and mostly unsupervised people, who can’t hold gainful employment int he private sector.”

    I’m not saying that your characterization of cops is unfair, but let’s face it; all that cops have to be for such abuse to be inevitable is human.

    The older I get the less happy I am with the whole idea of preventive laws; laws against behaviors that are believed to lead to harm, rather than causing harm directly.

    I’m not sure that such laws could be eliminated entirely; but we have certainly gone off the deep end with them. It places LEOs in the position of putative adults overseeing far too many (assumed to be) fractious children.

    My personal interactions with cops have (with one exception that even his own department loathed) bee cordial. But I’m a middle class caucasian male, so it would be, wouldn’t it? Still, I suspect that a lot of the out-of-control bushwa we see is a result of perverse incentives built into the system. Hammering the cops without working on the incentives won’t solve a goddamned thing. And, no, I don’t have a blueprint for making utopia. For that matter, I am deeply suspicious of people who do.

    In this case I guess what I want to ask is; why do we (society at large, I mean) want cops to pester people about distracted driving unless they’ve actually caused an accident? What is it that we actually hope to accomplish?

  3. #3 |  John P. | 

    I long believed that we will never change the police, even thru force… it would only serve to make them more violent and more aggressive.

    The only way we can change the police culture today is to stop the flow of the money into their coffers.

    And to do that we must go after the ones who hold the purse strings.

    The elected officials.

    By voting them out and replacing them with people who are willing to simply say ENOUGH!, And cut the money off to an out of control police force. Then we will see a dramatic decline in this in your face style of policing.

    But until police misconduct and abuse becomes much, much more common, or the .gov begins targeting thinks the dumbed down public likes… such as WWF, Dancing with the idiots… and other reality TV fantasy escapes. It will not occur.

    Want to see a full-blown revolution in this country inside of 12 minute?

    Have the .gov pass a law banning NASCAR, then have the police try to enforce it.

    We’d have a new government inside of a week.

  4. #4 |  Pablo | 

    This has been going on since the creation of police departments. The nature of the job tends to attract control freaks who believe they are above the law. In the early and middle 20th century the abuses were just as egregious as they are today. We are just hearing more about them because we live in a 24 hour information age/digital society.

  5. #5 |  SJE | 

    “You mean when we give cops more excuses to pull people over, we also give them more excuses to harass people, profile, and conduct illegal searches?”

    Cops don’t harrass, profile or conduct illegal searches. All actions are within departmental guidelines, and completely justified. Any internal review board will tell you that.

    Move along, nothing to see.

  6. #6 |  freedomfan | 

    Law enforcement and regulators will eventually abuse overly broad and vague rules, and the police with distracted driving laws are no different. However, the problem is ultimately with politicians who hear about whatever hyped issue is driving the media cycle at the moment and can’t resist jumping in front of a camera to promote their new law to fix the problem, like an excited child screaming, “Mommy! Mommy! Look what I can do!”

    And I agree with many of the concerns highlighted in the article. Unfortunately, the article suggests a solution of forcing automobile and cell phone manufacturers to include improved speakerphones and hands-free texting with their products. That approach caters to the same wrong-headed approach of hoping that politicians will pass another law, only a better one this time. We need to move past this idea that the next law will finally be a good one. There is no need for either such law, as societal awareness of the problem and social pressure to end it will do more to curb the behavior with far fewer unintended consequences than cops pulling people over because it looked like they might have had a cell phone in their laps.

    Government: Too big to do anything but fail.

  7. #7 |  Ariel | 

    1. Cops never pretext stops. They understand the civic religion our Founders hoped for, and rigorously apply it. It comes from their vast education in all things civic, which is why they are never wrong.

    2. Yeah, C.S.P.S, I’m getting older and all these preventative laws are tiresome. I hear Conservatives going on and on about the nanny state yet they think Welfare and Soc. Sec. are the nanny state, when the actually nanny state is for “our safety”, law by law.

  8. #8 |  Other Sean | 

    C.S.P is right (again). The whole “uneducated-power-hungry-racist-donut-eater” thing is such a tired line of bullshit. It explains nothing, and points the way toward no solutions. It really is a silly and counter-productive type of ad hominem emotional venting. Worst of all, it backhandedly implies that everything would be just fine if we simply got ourselves a better class of cop.

    It wouldn’t. If we suddenly fired all the police officers in America and replaced them with the tender-hearted alumni of Reed College, you know what would change? NOTHING.

    Within six months the Reedies would’ve formed a union to fight against in-car cameras, racial profiling laws, and use-of-force liability, all the while fighting for thickly insulated armored personnel carriers and even more thickly insulated pensions. And we’d be right back here cursing the same outrages, day after day.

    As Ben Stiller put it more memorably than I can: “There aren’t any good guys. You realize that, don’t you? I mean, there aren’t evil guys, and innocent guys. There is just a bunch of guys…”

    …who respond to incentives. And the incentives working around cops today tell them, more clearly all the time, that everyone is guilty of something because everything is against some law or another.

    The abuse doesn’t ruin some perfectly legitimate power. The power creates the abuse. The power IS the abuse.

  9. #9 |  awp | 

    Three felonies a day.

    The only things protecting most people today from being in jail

    1) their aren’t enough laws that allow cops to hold us for long enough to figure out what law we are actually breaking
    2) their aren’t enough officers to arrest us all

  10. #10 |  Ghost | 

    Any time I run into someone who says that we’re not living in a police state, I ask, “When was the last time you saw a cop in your rear view mirror and thought, ‘oh thank God, the police are here, now I know I’m safe’?”

    “don’t worry, I’ll wait…”

    Never anything but the same blank stare, or the “holy shit” revelation.

  11. #11 |  Ghost | 

    Oh, and thanks for all you do. I loved your work in Reason, and just found your blog. Le bookmarked.

  12. #12 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 


    Indeed. We do not, thank God, get all the government we pay for.

  13. #13 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    When driving, I’m increasingly distracted by the threat of cops pulling me over just for the hell of it…does that mean I’m going to get pulled over
    for it?

  14. #14 |  John | 

    @8 Other Sean:

    I’m not a psych person, but if I remember right, Zimbardo was the social psychologist who did almost exactly that, putting allegedly well-adjusted college students into prisoner/prison guard roles and people pretty quickly fell into their roles, with “guards” being assholes just like the pros.

  15. #15 |  Red | 

    Why not get rid of cops? Citizen policing worked very well for the first 150 years of this country.

  16. #16 |  StrangeOne | 


    It’s the Stanford Prison experiment.

    They took two dozen Stanford students and randomly assigned them to “prisoner” or “guard” roles. They had local police assist by arresting and processing the prisoners and placing them in a mock jail. The guards were allowed to make their own rules to manage their shifts and maintain order in the prison.

    Prisoners resisted guard orders and the guards retaliated. The guards escalated punishments to deter unwanted prisoner misbehavior. Violence and punishment became a kind of feedback loop until the guards were regularly engaging in physical and psychological torture of the prisoners.

    This took all of six days. The experiment was ended when Zimbardo’s girlfriend, a grad student not involved with the experiment, was asked to interview the participants. She immediately pointed out how terrible things had gotten and that it was dangerous and irresponsible to continue.

  17. #17 |  Christopher Swing | 

    SFGate is just running straight PRWeb content on the web now?

    The original PRWeb link is right there at the bottom of the release, why not link straight to the original? Because that’s not a news story, that’s the press release that the subject of the release paid PRWeb to post and circulate.

  18. #18 |  Burgers Allday | 

    My wife got pulled over last week for not wearing a seatbelt while she was wearing her seatbelt.*

    The policeman said that “He could decide to believe her or not believe her, but he was going to decide to believe her.”


    * The seatbelt comes out of the seat itself instead of the B-pillar. Whenever I drive her car I have always thought that I would be pulled over for no seatbelt, so it was predictable that it happened eventually. I would have preferred it if the policeman just said it was difficult to see if she was wearing her seatbelt, but further inspection had showed him that she was. That would have been the truth. It would not have made the stop unConstitutional either (the probability threshold for doing a traffic stop is real low). But, even in a matter as simple and mundane as that, he couldn’t bring himself to admit what was really happening. Instead he wanted to cross examine her and see if he got any lip or if she was ghetto or whatever.

  19. #19 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    #1 John P: “Its what happens when you take a bunch of uneducated, ill trained and mostly unsupervised people, who can’t hold gainful employment int he private sector.”

    John, I think that focusing on formal education or lack thereof is a distraction when it comes to problems in policing. Sure, most departments only require a diploma/GED, but is that really among the major issues? Or are you expressing a deep-seated class bias about civil service workers? Personally I think this tends to be a problem when libertarians critique public employees.

    I’m not trying to pick a fight, but I think this is a valid question. Would an officer with a B.A. or an Associate’s be a better officer? Even with the perverse incentives and horrible laws that exist at all levels of government? Don’t get me wrong, I think requiring more education would be a good idea, but try getting that past the police union. A small number of PD’s do require degrees. Most job descriptions for police recruits will state that the department “strongly prefers” candidates with a degree of some sort. I know this because I explored LEO jobs (local, state, federal, university) for the better part of a decade. I have a bachelor’s degree and I was encouraged by many LEO’s to complete this degree before even applying to departments. More and more candidates do in fact have degrees, John, so the “undereducated” remark is somewhat dated. Just recently I lost interest in working in the field. This may have actually been related to my education.

    Formal education may or may not be an asset to an officer. You can be educated and still be, more or less, an idiot that is oblivious to much of the world around you. This IS a problem in policing. I work in healthcare security and I also see “medical professionals” like this all the time. If a problem outside their clinical area occurs they stammer and stutter and they need their working class heroes from the security department to come save them. Common sense and problem-solving abilities are important in my job and they should be important to police as well. Probably more important that a degree.

    Your points on lack of supervision and poor training are probably stronger. As far as the training goes, I think the amount of training is less important that what the training covers. Current officer safety training, I believe, turns officers into paranoids. And current training on drug interdiction would be irrelevant in a freer society. Legal education is less than stellar and seems to be oriented towards “what can we make stick.” Enough for now, John. What do you think?

  20. #20 |  Bill | 

    Around a week ago there were motorcycle cops out on the main road in my area. Near a fire station one of them was using a radar gun. This has all been done before in the almost 23 years I have been living in South Florida.

    The curious thing was as I came over the top of I-95 I saw a motorcycle cop in pursuit of someone. I eventually made it to where the cop had the motorist pulled over because I had to make a turn there. The cop was having the female motorist open up her trunk. If she was speeding, why the need to open the trunk? BTW I had passed this speed enforcement trap twice in about a 15-minute time span because I was taking my wife to work that day. I saw motorcycle cops pursuing speeders both coming and going.

    I soured on law enforcement ever since a incident I had with Palm Beach County Sheriffs in 2004 after I tried waving one of them down because I needed assistance for my car but instead got harassed by the officer and three more of his colleagues for almost an hour.

  21. #21 |  Other Sean | 

    John #12 and Strange One #14,

    Exactly. It’s too bad psychology didn’t stay on the Milgram-Zimbardo path, focusing on situations, incentives, roles, etc.

    Instead it went the Winfrey-Springer route, with the notion that every undesirable behavior results from some condition acquired either in childhood or before birth.

    Now, whenever some cop acts like a dick, we’re all pretty much conditioned to say “Oh, well, his father must have been controlling (or whatever) and his mother was probably distant (or whatever) and I guess this job just attracts people of similar personality types.”

    What we should be saying is: “Whoa…how can we take away some of that power so this guy has some incentives to act like a decent human being, whether he is one or not?”

  22. #22 |  Cynical in New York | 

    The only thing that we lowly citizens can do is continue to expose government thug brutality. Blogs, YouTube, etc. Politicians won’t do it to avoid being “soft on crime” as many badge lickers openly admit that civil liberties is “liberal” code word for “coddling criminals”. Police Chiefs are the political minions of the mayor/supervisor/executive/council, etc and the few actual good cops such as Regina Tasca of the Bogota, NJ PD and Roman Perez of the Austin PD are disciplined for not being a power hungry thug.

  23. #23 |  Sean | 

    Off-topic, kind of , but, predictably, in a federal case involving a puppycide a jury ruled in favor of the Hartford police. So don’t count on that (or any of this) to ever end, unless the citizens start to return the violence.


    “A federal jury that heard evidence last week about the fatal shooting of a dog by city police has returned a verdict in favor of the officers who were accused of violating the family’s constitutional rights, their lawyer said Tuesday.”

  24. #24 |  Marcus | 

    I love the conversation here about why the police act the way they do. Along those lines, I would like to add, that this happens in many, if not all professions that have some sort of power over others. For many years I was a system administrator, so I can speak specifically about that field. Users (are losers) were treated with derision, and assumed to be wrong about whatever they were complaining about/requesting. They were treated as adversaries. I think the basis of the problem is that the assumption made by sysadmins were correct frequently enough to sustain the assumptions.

    Obviously sysadmins are not equivalent to police, and I am not trying to absolve the police of anything, I am just trying to say it is not an issue unique to being a cop, they just have more deadly tools. We need to look deeper than just “Cops suck” as others have said.

  25. #25 |  marco73 | 

    Distracted driving laws have been on the books for decades. The cops are just following up on the latest political panic. Right after the seatbelt laws were placed on the books, there was a spike in seatbelt violations, because, dammit, that is what the politicians wanted.
    That the political panic over texting/cell phones allows cops to conduct more roadside searches is just gravy. Wait for the next panic: it will be something seemingly harmless, but will require more laws and more traffic stops, and more searches.

  26. #26 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Marcus is right. Except when I saw that behavior on my teams, I’d fire those mutherfuckers. I wouldn’t protect their behavior.

  27. #27 |  Pi Guy | 

    In MD, driving while texting is a 5-point violation. 6 points requires an administrative hearing so, if you’ve already got a speeding ticket or other violation on your record, you’re in serious risk of having your license suspended.

    Again, noting the irony from last week’s piece on roadside signs urging drivers to use their phones to track travel info, there are electronic signs all up and down I-95 with “Dial 511 for Traffic Info.”

    Entrapment, anyone?

  28. #28 |  Other Sean | 

    Boyd #24,

    Yes…job security is the true enemy of mankind, whether your talking about cops, teachers, sixteen-term congressman, etc.

    In a civil service context, it’s usually impossible to contrive any incentive powerful enough to counter the fact that people know they can’t be fired. That’s why all this re-inventing government, third way, psuedo-market stuff never works.

    Once upon a time, I would’ve said “let’s have elected sheriffs”, but even that hope has been shattered by the likes of Joe Arpaio.

  29. #29 |  Dante | 

    The major problem (imho) with the police is accountability. They can commit horrible crimes and get away with it because of the badge, and because their fellow officers won’t stop them from committing crimes or assist in the investigation/prosecution of said crimes.

    This actually is the major problem with our entire criminal justice system. Cops, prosecutors, prison guards, judges, etc. – all are involved in misconduct and most never feel the sting of the brutal, racist, one-sided criminal justice machine. A machine that seems devoted more to filling prisons (and the coffers of its’ participants) than the safety of citizens.

    Protect & Serve (Themselves!)

  30. #30 |  Cynical in New York | 

    #26 Other Sean

    Sheriff’s are elected it depends on the state. Here in NY they’re elected but they only have authority in certain areas, unlike Badge Licking America’s favorite thug Arpaio.

  31. #31 |  perlhaqr | 

    Marcus: Yes, but that’s because users really are losers. Damnit, I have the system tuned and running smoothly, and all these goddamned users want to run programs and drive up my processor loads! What do they think computers are for, anyway?


    I’ve thought about becoming a cop myself, working on the principle “if you want something done right, do it yourself”. I don’t know if “have a bunch of libertarian police” would be a solution, or if as Other Sean says, the incentives would corrupt us too.

    The other thing stopping me, besides the sense that it would probably drive me crazy, is another little voice in the back of my subconscious saying “It’s not that you want the job done right, it’s that you don’t want the job done at all.”

    tl;dr: I don’t have any solutions either.

  32. #32 |  CTD | 


    The “Stanford Prison Experiment” was complete BS. Zambardo is an activist was clearly attempting to “prove” a preconceived notion that he already had, not start with a null hypothesis and gather evidence. The most notorious of the “guards” said that he was just attempting to imitate Strother Martin’s character from Cool Hand Luke. And Zambardo committed the ginormous scientific no-no of inserting himself into the experiment he was running.


  33. #33 |  ClubMedSux | 

    I had a twitter exchange about this (one which Radley unfortunately got dragged into after I retweeted him) and I’m still shaking my head over some people’s ignorance. After this individual responded to the story with the usual “if you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t care” nonsense, I suggested he might feel differently if he didn’t grow up the white son of a professor in rural Indiana. At the same time, Radley responded similarly, suggesting that he may feel differently if he grew up black in New York City. His response? “And if I grew up in World of Warcraft, I’d be afraid of the cops because they wear Blue. Immaterial.” I’m not sure if he realizes that he both compared the experience of a black person to fantasy AND concluded that the experience of anybody but himself is immaterial. I AM, however, pretty sure he wouldn’t care had I bothered to point that out.

  34. #34 |  Z | 

    Just sit back and wait for Scalia to get pulled over. Change is gonna come.

  35. #35 |  Cynical in New York | 


    Using the “put yourself in (insert group of people here) argument tends to be futile when dealing with badge lickers. Their standard counter is to accuse you of being politically correct.

  36. #36 |  StrangeOne | 


    I understand the systematic flaws of the experiment, but it still speaks volumes about human nature.

    It took six days for a bunch of college students to be coached into torturing each other. For what? A handful of dollars for participating in an experiment and strong encouragement from some professor posing as a prison warden? That’s the take away from the SPE; if this is all it took for these men to do these things what can we expect from cops and soldiers when salaries, benefits, and pensions are on the line?

    The truth is if you told someone what would have happened during the experiment, most wouldn’t believe you. It serves to demonstrate that these events actually happened. The experiment itself refutes a lot of basic premises about how and why people do the things they do.

  37. #37 |  jnc | 

    You do realize that you are citing to a press release by someone who is looking to get clients, right?

  38. #38 |  Other Sean | 

    CTD #32,

    News flash, dude: no one really starts with a null hypothesis. If they didn’t have some conjecture to begin with, they would have no reason to begin.

    And as for Zimbardo “inserting himself into the experiment”, who cares? Nothing in the social sciences is controlled, so it’s not like he was breaking through some previously sanctified barrier to pollute an otherwise pure specimen of laboratory science.

    Behavioral studies like the projects of Zimbardo and Milgram are really just gedankenspiel carried out with the help of role players. Take them as such.

  39. #39 |  supercat | 

    #33 | ClubMedSux | “After this individual responded to the story with the usual “if you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t care” nonsense…”

    A sound rebuttal for such a claim would be that many people have things to hide which could have a high emotional or financial cost if revealed, but which are not in any way, shape, or form, “wrong” or illegal.

  40. #40 |  Christopher Swing | 

    jnc #37

    I mentioned it way back at #17, but I guess that’s too much critical analysis in the face of sweet, sweet confirmation bias.

  41. #41 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    @28 – No, the elected system worked perfectly when it delivered Joe. It delivers people who focus on what’s popular rather than the law.

    @32 – Indeed, later studies like the BBC Prison Study underline the fact that the leadership’s line is important. To be elected, you need have a certain degree of amorality in this day and age, and it WILL be transmitted to your officers.

    Response to authority is however very real, the milgram experiment… (even the modified version which is ethical today, for that matter)