Most of us have seen this or something similar, and the natural impression is that the officer is not doing his job. While that may be the case once in a while, I would like to assure you that in the vast majority of such incidents, there is a valid reason.
Consider a day in the life of your typical police officer on patrol. He starts the twelve-hour shift with one or two unwritten reports from the day before. As he logs onto his computer, he receives a half dozen messages with requests for extra patrol, BOLO (be on the lookout) notices for wanted persons, and a list of recently-stolen vehicles. On top of that, he knows he is responsible for the resolution of at least one problem-oriented-patrol case as well as follow up investigation on any number of criminal offense reports. This sets the tone for a long work day.
Throughout the day, the officer will be dispatched eight to ten times in response to calls for service, and he will be flagged down two to three times by people requesting assistance or information. About four times per day, the officer will be required to start a new police report, each of which can take up to an hour to complete. Amongst all of this, the officer will find time to initiate his own activity either as a preventive measure (foot patrols and citizen contacts) or in an effort to enforce an observed violation (traffic stops, etc). These officer-initiated actions will occur ten to twelve times in a typical shift.
As the officer is going about his work, he is likely to observe dozens, if not hundreds, of technical violations of the law. Examples include moving traffic violations, vehicle equipment violations, parking violations, littering, animal violations, bicycle violations, as well as city code violations. Unfortunately, there simply is not enough time for the officer to intervene every time he sees something amiss. To help decide, the officer will follow an unofficial prioritization list that goes something like this:
- In progress felonies involving personal injury or likely death
- Accidents involving serious injuries
- In progress crimes against persons
- In progress crimes against property
- Violations related to an ongoing problem-oriented patrol
- Non-violent, vice and drug related crimes
- Moving traffic violations
- Non-moving traffic violations
- Incident specific code violations, such as fires or dogs on the beach, parking, etc.
- Nuisance code violations, such as noise or false alarms
- Other code violations, such as unkempt properties
Now, what the officer does when he makes contact with the violator is another subject entirely. Every police officer is given the authority to use his best judgment in making decisions on how to resolve incidents. Sometimes this means an arrest or citation. Sometimes it means a warning. There are even times when the appropriate response is to take no action at all. What the officer decides to do is dependent upon a vast multitude of factors, some of which I will attempt to describe:
- Is this violation part of a larger problem that is contributing to crime or fear of crime? Is there empirical evidence of that problem, or is it just an issue that has garnered the attention of a vocal minority of the population?
- What is the history of the individual and/or location involved? Have there been prior warnings or enforcement action for similar violations? Is he or she somebody who is relied upon to provide information or assistance in other, higher-priority investigations, and could enforcement action jeopardize that resource?
- What is the attitude of the violator? Does he or she appear to be willing to voluntarily correct the behavior? Was he or she aware of the law prohibiting the conduct?
- Are there circumstances that lawfully justify the conduct?
- What is the motivation of the complaint? Is it an independent and concerned citizen or a jealous ex-spouse?
- Are the law and department policies clear on this subject? Any vagaries or doubts could be costly down the road.
- Is the enforcement action worth the required commitment of time (both now and perhaps in court later), or does the officer have the proverbial "more important things to do"?