You're beginning your police career in a time like no other. Police officers have always been the subject of attention,
because police officers are simply the first and last line of defense against those who would disrupt society. Every
generation has had its hot button issues, and police officers have always adjusted, and they've learned how to navigate
thorny social issues.
It's a bit different today. When you combine rapidly expanding categories of politically correct issues along with a virtual
explosion in media technology, any police officer can find oneself in deep trouble. Even in today's environment of social
hysteria, you, as a police officer, can stay above the fray by simply educating yourself on the issues of our time and
learning how to properly exercise your authority. This is easier said than done, because a police officer's authority is so
broad. As a new police officer, you'll experience some complicated circumstances early in your police career, and you'll
have to rely on your reasoning power to exercise your authority reasonably.
A perfect example of a hot button issue is child sexual and physical abuse. Firstly, abuse can only occur at the hands of a
parent or one who is responsible for the care and custody of the child. Abuse does not apply to children sexually or
physically assaulted by others.
When I began my police career in 1971, I was amazed how sexual and physical child abuse was investigated and handled by
police and social services. When complaints of abuse were made to police officers, the investigations were promptly handed
off to the Department of Social Services. Early on, I had confrontations with social workers, because I sought arrest
warrants for those responsible for abuse. Some social services supervisors even complained to my supervisors, because I
was operating outside the normal way of doing things. While my own supervisors were not happy with the confrontations,
they supported me. My supervisors had no choice since child abuse was unlawful by state statute, and I was acting lawfully.
You have to remember that thirty-five years ago, society had a kinder, gentler view toward criminals of nearly every
category. Since child abuse was most often a family matter, the social experts believed that the involvement of police
officers and the courts was a disrupting factor in the counseling process which was far superior to punishment.
In the beginning, I was amazed how truthful children were when they were questioned about suspected abuse. However, as
the years passed, and child abuse became unacceptable as a purely social issue to be handled outside the criminal justice
system, I noticed more children wising up to a great way to exercise revenge against their parent(s), guardian(s) or care
In the mid 1980's, child abuse was well on its way to hot button issue status. Police departments were paying much closer
attention to the problem, and police officers were expected to seek prosecution of those suspected of child abuse. During
that period, I was dispatched to the pediatric emergency room of a very prestigious Baltimore hospital. The treating
physician met me, and she explained that while treating a ten year old female patient for a minor ailment, she observed
healing cigarette burns to the patients thighs and buttocks. When the Doctor questioned the young girl, the girl stated her
mother had burned her with a cigarette as punishment for "being bad."
I interviewed the child, and I found her to be quite intelligent and credible. I interviewed the mother separately. The
mother was not nearly as intelligent as her daughter. She insisted that she'd not burned her daughter with a cigarette, but
her unsophisticated manner made it difficult to gauge her credibility. Her only defense was that her daughter "makes
After interviewing the doctor, the child, and the mother, sufficient probable cause existed to charge the mother with
physical child abuse. The next part in the process was to have the child placed outside the home by the Department of
Social Services. This is where things really became interesting.
I'll never forget this social worker. She was middle aged and not terribly friendly. When she came into the emergency
room, she sighed and dropped her overstuffed shoulder bag on a table and asked, "Where's the child?" I started to explain
the circumstances. She tolerated me for a few minutes as she nodded her head. When she'd had enough of me, she simply
replied, "Okay, where's the child?"
This woman took the child into an examination room where she interviewed the alleged victim for about fifteen minutes.
When Ms. Social Worker emerged from the room, she announced, "She's lying." As I waited for a further explanation of
her statement, none was forthcoming. She simply put her notepad into that big bag and threw it over her shoulder. I then
asked, "How did she get the burns?" Her response was short and to the point. "They're not burns…it's Infintigo."
Well…the doctor, who was standing nearby and listening to the social worker's diagnosis, was not impressed. After the
doctor had her say, the social worker offered no response as she politely said good bye and headed for the door.
I followed her through the door and onto the sidewalk. I told her that she'd have to give me a better explanation than she
had. Her tone changed from one of seeming indifference to one of sincerity. She looked me directly in the eye and said,
"Officer…I know you're concerned for the child, and you want to do the right thing. I've been at this for twenty years, and
I can tell you without a doubt that those marks are Infintigo. I don't know why the child is lying about being burned by her
mother, but she is lying."
I returned to the emergency room where I encountered a very irritated Pediatrician, but the social worker had made a
point. She had years of experience observing a condition among children living in a low socioeconomic environment;
whereas, the examining physician was young and new to real world realities. I ask the doctor to get a second opinion on the
apparent burns while I did a criminal records check on the mother.
I found myself in somewhat of a dilemma. I had a young child claiming that her mother had purposely, and repeatedly,
burned her with the lit end of a cigarette, and now I had, not one, but two, highly qualified Pediatricians verifying the
child's account. In contradiction to this evidence was one overworked and underpaid social worker. Further, the record
check of the mother showed no arrests for anything. There was one thing left to do to verify, conclusively, who was right.
The lab work on cultures, taken by the doctor, would be completed the following day.
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Think about this for a moment. This is an example where your power as a police officer can have enormous effects on
peoples' lives. If the child was abused by her mother, I'd be doing the only right thing by arresting her mother thereby
forcing the Department of Social Services to place the child with other family members or foster care. On the other hand,
I could wait until the following day for the laboratory results. There was a very easy solution. I had ample evidence to
arrest and charge the mother. Even if the laboratory results showed the child to be lying, no one could fault me for my
actions, because the evidence at hand was more than sufficient probable cause.
Initially, the mother's fate was sealed after the first doctor's diagnosis; however, nothing is rarely the way it first appears,
so I decided to do some additional investigation before deciding the mother's fate. I transported the child and her mother
home. I inspected the home's physical environment, and I was pleased to see this child resided in a much better
environment than many other children in the neighborhood.
I'm sure you've already guessed that I did not arrest the mother. A lot of things affected my decision, not least my prior
experience in similar situations. I'm certain you've already concluded that the social worker was right. The laboratory did
confirm the social worker's diagnosis. That's life…even highly qualified doctors can't be right all the time.
Now…think about yourself as a police officer handling a very similar situation in today's environment. If you'd take the
same action I did, somebody from the hospital might call the local TV station, and you could find yourself on the evening
news. The Police Chief would be shown on a split screen taking about "the children" while the other side of the screen
would show a street filled with police cars and flashing lights as police officers escort the mother from her home in
handcuffs. Let's take it a step further. What if the child was the child of a "somebody." Imagine the child being the
daughter of an influential person who is really newsworthy.
As I said, you're beginning your police career in a time like no other. There is so much media today with so many
politicians and advocates falling over one another to grab the spotlight. Social issues form the basis of so many
controversies which are the stock and trade of the media, and you, as a police officer, are going to be right in the middle of
those controversies. The most important thing for you remember is…never take anything for granted.
A police officer must develop a reasoning process; wherein, you're continuously evaluating information. If you commit
yourself to this process, it becomes second nature, and you don't even have to consciously think about the process. A lot of
police officers never really perfect the process. In fact, some never even develop the process in a rudimentary form. These
are police officers who always act on first impressions, and they let prior or existing prejudices guide their actions. A police
officer's ability to fairly and accurately evaluate information is what separates you from everybody else.
You're not perfect, and you never will be, but being right most of the time is a really great feeling. Besides making you
feel good, being right keeps you out of trouble. Remember, being right on a factual basis supercedes any popular social
acceptance of an alternative, and always temporary, idea of what is right.