Years ago, I worked as a prosecutor of serious crimes in the largest county in Minnesota. I had constant contact with police officers. People mistakenly think that police officers can charge serious crimes. They investigate, gather evidence, and interview potential witnesses. Then they bring that evidence to a prosecutor who makes the charging decision. From my experience, here are some thoughts:
1. Police officers always pushed me to get their cases charged. When I met with them, they summarized the evidence. In my mind, I thought of how I was going to prove each element of the crime and if the evidence supported it. If not, I’d decline the case or ask for more investigation. Even if the evidence was weak, most police officers pushed me to charge it out. Makes sense, if they’ve spent the time investigating.
2. Because of their desire to get their cases charged, some police officers would shade the evidence or exaggerate what they had. It took me months to learn the “art” of charging the correct crime that really fit the evidence—regardless of what the police officer wanted.
3. Does this mean that police officers lie? I never met any that I knew were lying directly to me. I did assume that some of their reports “stretched” the evidence at times. Particularly, in controversial area like the right to stop and search citizens, I found lots of stretching of evidence for the police officer’s benefit.
4. What about the “militarization” of local police officers? Most cities have gladly taken the federal money and military equipment. Most of the police officers I worked with had a “we versus them” attitude. After all the difficult work of catching criminals, they often felt the system, the judges, defense lawyers, and juries all worked against them and for the protection of the guilty criminals. The police officers I worked with certainly didn’t want to harm anyone unnecessarily, but the fancy equipment and its use was justified by their desire to even the odds that they felt were against them.
5. I knew many police officers who worked endlessly on serious cases—even on their own time—because they felt a duty to the victims and the community. These are the unsung heroes that the media rarely tells us about.
6. Where did the most violence occur with police officers? Without a doubt, it was the SWAT teams. They usually broke into homes in search of drugs or to serve warrants for the arrest of suspects. When they suddenly smashed in doors and broke into people’s homes, all kinds of things went wrong and people were needlessly hurt. The action was always justified by the need for speed and surprise, but they left a lot of wreckage in their wake.
What experiences have you had with police officers? Good or bad?