Of Cops and Push-ups

Social media posts and news stories about police officers are a dime a dozen these days. They range from stories and comments about alleged police misconduct to feel good stories about cops saving the day or making someone’s day. Regardless of one’s feelings about the police, posts from both sides are becoming the equivalent of poorly planned marketing campaigns. OneOldCop is of the opinion many of the posts are a waste of time.

People who hate cops will not be swayed by a story of a police officer engaging in a snowball fight or shooting baskets with neighborhood kids. Likewise, those who support law enforcement will not turn against the police because of a video allegedly depicting an officer pulling a gun on some people having a snowball fight or shooting hoops. With that said, one recently posted and reported story deserves attention.

The incident appears fairly simple. An officer in Texas is working an off duty security assignment at a movie theater. He discovers a seventeen-year-old young man smoking marijuana just outside the theater and takes action.  It is the action he takes that makes this story interesting and complex.

Legally, the officer could have detained the young man, called the department and had the kid arrested. Instead, the officer gave the guy a choice, go to jail or do a bunch of push-ups. The kid chose the push-ups, and someone posted a video of the incident on social media.

Not surprisingly, comments about the video ranged from accolades to condemnation. Many people felt the officer made a good decision, finding a way to get the kid’s attention without arresting him. Others felt the officer was wrong, if not derelict in his duties, for letting the kid off without an arrest record.

At one point these folks would have been considered Monday morning quarterbacks. Unfortunately, an incident like this is ancient history by Monday morning, and these folks are thirty minute later, or less, quarterbacks. Whatever the time frame, none of the people making their opinions known were there. None of them knew anything about the matter, except what they’d seen in the video. Still, many judged the officer’s action as inappropriate.

The truth is the officer acted within the scope of his authority and the law. In Texas, and in most states, the “Code of Criminal Procedure” states a peace officer1 may arrest anyone committing a crime in the officer’s presence.2 That language in the statute means the police officer, even though off duty and working security for a private entity, could have arrested this kid and sent him to jail. It also means he was not required to make that arrest.3 The key word is may.

Throughout the history of modern law enforcement, in the United States at least, police officers were given a great deal of discretion in the area of arrests. In OneOldCop’s opinion, that concept is a basic key to effective and efficient law enforcement.

Police officers cannot take legal action against everyone observed committing a crime. There simply are not enough officers or enough hours in the day to take any kind of action against every crime an officer observes.  Additionally, requiring some formal police action, even the issuance of a citation, in every case a police officer detains or otherwise has contact with someone committing a crime would be stupid and inefficient. Yet some thought the officer in this case, and other officers one would assume, should do exactly that.

One can understand why the average person might be confused and concerned over the officer’s actions, either way.  It is possible for officers to abuse that discretion, as OneOldCop will discuss at some other time, but the real danger is not the public concern.  The real danger comes from administrators and elected officials who want to restrict or prohibit a police officer’s use of discretion.  This is a real challenge that everyone should find troubling.

See “Lack of Discretion” to read more on that subject, and stay tuned for more on policing in 2017.

1. In Texas peace officer is a term for law enforcement personnel in 35 categories ranging from sheriffs (CCP Art. 2.12.1) to fire marshal (Art. 2.12.35).
2. The code includes arrest authority without a warrant for crimes not committed in the officer’s presence under various circumstances.
3. For clarity, the code does not specifically give the officer authority to mete out some form of alternative punishment on the spot.  If OneOldCop was the officer’s supervisor, a discussion about the risks associated with street justice of this sort would have been appropriate.  Still, there would have been risks if the officer simply released the young man with a stern warning.  The use of discretion  involves a certain amount of risk, which is why some would like to curtail it.

© OneOldCop – 2017

About S. Eric Jackson

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