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 forty 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 giver(s).
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 things up."
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
"Remember, being right on a factual basis
supercedes any popular social acceptance of an
alternative, and always temporary, idea of
what is right." ~ Barry M. Baker
|Copyright © 2019 Barry M. Baker