Robert C. Wadman: How did you form your opinions about our police?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters dance through the neighborhood in Rose Park, during the Dance Dance for Revolution protest for racial equality, on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020. The protest was in memory of Jovany Mercardo who was shot last August by Ogden police by four officers, hitting his body sixteen times.

The only direct contact average citizens have with the police is when they receive a traffic citation. Most of us have formed our opinions about the police from watching television programs filled with unrealistic drama. Opinions formed from TV and movies have an inherent risk.

With your opinions in mind, Descartes said to Father Bourdin, “If you have a basket of apples, some of which (as you know) are bad and will spoil and poison the rest, you have no other means than to empty your basket completely and then test the apples one by one, in order to put the good ones back in your basket and throw away those that are not.”

At this moment in America, we need to empty the basket of opinions about our police and test each one for accuracy and usefulness. For example, “Is it more dangerous to be a police officer in American today than it was in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s?” The answer to this question, for most of us, is, “Yes, it is more dangerous today,” but the answer is wrong. It was substantially more dangerous in the past. Here are the facts:

In 1968, 204 police officers in the United States were killed in the line of duty. Fifty years later, in 2018, 185 police officers in the United States were killed in the line of duty. In 1970, 240 police officers were killed in the U.S. Forty years later, in 2010, 181 police officers were killed in the line of duty. Over the decades, about half these line-of-duty deaths are from traffic accidents.

I want to emphasize, any death of a police officer is a community loss and a sad event, but we need to keep in mind the current events. One of the consistent causes of police officer deaths is traffic accidents, not being murdered in the line of duty. Speeding to calls for service creates traffic accidents. These accidents are a major cause of police officer deaths in the line of duty.

Are these traffic deaths potentially created by a myth? Public pressure for a quick response to calls for service creates a thought in a police officer’s mind that quick response is essential; when, in fact, there is a substantial lag time between the commission of a criminal act and the victim or witness calling the police. Research has shown that armed robbery is a crime that is quickly reported, but there is a 21-minute lag time, on average, from when the robbery occurs and the robbery is reported. I simply ask you, how far away from the crime scene could you be if you are given a 21-minute head start?

A basic premise of all public personnel administration holds that it is productive to have the best skilled and most experienced people in the positions with the greatest potential for accomplishing the organization’s goals. With few exceptions, new officers are assigned to uniformed patrol in high-crime, lower-income neighborhoods and during the nighttime, when criminal activity is at its peak. Their days off come during the week.

Crime consistently occurs most often in the lower-income neighborhoods of America’s cities, on the weekend and during the hours of darkness. Yet, the most experienced officers tend to work daytime hours, in the lowest crime areas or in specialty positions and on weekdays.

It takes three to five years for a patrol officer to reach peak performance. But officers with four to 10 years of patrol experience are often the ones assigned to the detective positions within their departments. According to the Rand Corp., “An investigator’s time is largely consumed in reviewing reports, documenting files, and attempting to locate victims for cases experience shows will not be solved. The bulk of a detective’s time is spent during daylight hours, following via the telephone on information contained in the patrol officer’s report.”

With this information in mind, is it not logical to assume that the number of people arrested would increase if police departments assigned their most experienced people to high-crime neighborhoods during high-crime times?

The “Dunning-Kruger effect” identifies that if individuals are misinformed, but are unaware that they are misinformed, they can form and hold opinions that are incorrect. The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task (in this case policing) are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at the task. If one lacks such knowledge and insight into policing, and has formed opinions, but doesn’t recognize that the opinions are not accurate, and continues to hold on to unfounded opinions that are not based on policing knowledge, obvious problems can occur.

When the “Dunning-Kruger effect” is held by a crowd, the consequences can become critical. Should I close this article with, Welcome to Portland?

Robert C. Wadman

Robert C. Wadman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the Criminal Justice Department at Weber State University.

Return to Story