In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement, Social commentary on January 8, 2013 at 12:07 am

So you want to report a crime to the FBI?  Then be ready to give up your most private information before you get to speak with an agent.

If you feel you’re an upstanding citizen with nothing to hide, then fine.

But many people who don’t have anything to hide will hesitate to surrender such personal information to a powerful law enforcement agency–simply to talk with one of its agents.

This is even more true in this age of right-wing crusades against the Federal Government–and especially its law enforcement agencies.

At a time when Federal law enforcement agencies need all the cooperation they can get, this is definitely not the way to go about getting it.

It’s analogous to the famous joke about an English-speaking reporter covering a civil war in a foreign country who enters the scene of a massacre and asks: “Is there anyone here who speaks English and has been raped?”

Good detectives know that if you want to establish a bond between yourself and a potential source, you must prove, over time, that you can be trusted.

People who get most of what they “know” about police work from TV crime shows know almost nothing about its realities.

Cases aren’t wrapped up in 45 minutes.  Oftentimes, cops make deals with hardened criminals to solve a case: “You have to use a smaller bum to get a bigger bum,” as a deputy U.S. marshal once said about protecting Mafia informants through the Witness Security Program.

And merely slapping handcuffs on an accused criminal and saying “Book ’em, Danno” isn’t the same as ensuring his conviction and imprisonment.

As cops know better than anyone, today’s arrest is often followed by tomorrow’s release on bond.  And, still later, by a watered-down sentence under a plea bargain agreement–if not an acquittal by a judge or jury.

Shows like “Hawaii Five-O” and “Law and Order” have proven great hits with the public.  But they don’t reveal the highly mixed feelings that most people actually have about the men and women who enforce the nation’s laws at local, state and Federal levels.

On one hand, many children are taught to believe in Officer Friendly as their protector in times of peril.  They grow into adults who want to believe the best about those sworn to “protect and serve.”

But if someone breaks into your home and steals your TV set, chances are, that’s the last you’ll ever see of it.

The cops aren’t going to put out an APB (All Points Bulletin) for a missing TV set, even if you’ve inscribed your own driver’s licence number on it with an engraving pen for quick identification.

And while “the law is the law is the law,” the quality of the police response depends heavily on the status of the person who gets victimized.

Thtreaten to kill the President of the United States and you’ll instantly get a visit from the Secret Service.  You may be arrested, indicted, convicted and sent to prison.

Or you may simply be added to a “watch list” of those considered possibly dangerous to the President.  If he visits your city, you may be put under temporary house arrest until he’s passed through.

The same holds true–but to a lesser extent–for those who threaten the governor or mayor.  If the threat is deemed serious, you can be certain that official will have a full SWAT team assigned to his protection.

But suppose you’re just Mr. Average Citizen.  If your neighbor thinks you’re trying to horn in on his wife or girlfriend and threatens to blow your head off, the police will take an entirely different tack.

“If he does anything,” will be the standard police reply, “give us a call.”

Odds are that by the time the police arrive, there will be a warm body for them to draw a chalk circle around.

In San Francisco, calls to the regular police number–(415) 553-0123–will usually get you a recorded message (in English, Spanish and Chinese) letting you know what agency you’ve reached.

You’ll then be told that if this is an emergency, hang up and call 9-1-1.  So if it is an emergency, you’ve already lost valuable time calling a number that nobody is answering.

But even calling 9-1-1 isn’t a guaranteed way to get help.  At times you’ll get a recorded message saying that “all calls are answered as quickly as possible.”

That’s small consolation for the caller whose house is burning down or who’s threatened by someone pounding at the door.

Even reaching the police department offers no certainty of assistance.  In cash-strapped San Jose, short-handed police are no longer responding to home burglaries.

Meanwhile, police departments loudly complain they get no support from the public they’ve sworn to “protect and serve.”

Law enforcement agencies–at all levels–need to vastly improve their relations with those whose support they need–and who need their protection.  Until this happens, both the police and public will be the poorer for it.

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