Early in the Chicago Police Academy, I remember our homeroom instructor, Bob Trumbo, talking about the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law.

Following the letter of the law means that you enforce the law precisely as it is written with no wiggle room. The spirit of the law forces you to interpret the law and enforce it as you see best. 

Our instructor said the guideline was to further the betterment of the police purpose. The betterment of the police purpose. That stayed with me through my entire career. I tried to use that as a guide for my work every day. Most of my fellow officers did too, even if they had never heard the phrase. I believe that even today, most officers would prefer to use this as their guide. It’s unfortunate that society will no longer allow it.

Friday the thirteenth

(Photo courtesy Fae)

 

The spirit of the law is a result of the end justifying the means, whereas the letter of the law places the means ahead of the end result.  The spirit allows you to avoid certain actions provided the end result is achieved.  Letter of the law requires strict adherence to all guidelines, and if the end result isn’t what was hoped for, that is okay as long as you followed the rules getting there.

I remember one officer’s response to a domestic disturbance.  The wife had kicked out her husband for being a drunk.  They were arguing over their new TV.  She was mad because he had bought this large television without consulting her, and insisted he take it away, immediately.  He was on foot and had no way to take it.  The wife was pushing it out the door while the husband was shoving it back inside.  And the husband knew it would be long gone before he could get someone to help him move it.  The shoving match ended up with the two shoving each other and the neighbors calling the police.  The officer solved the problem with buying the TV from the couple.  He got a TV for his man cave for a dirt-cheap price and the couple split the money.  Everyone went away happy.  The officer loaded it in the trunk of the squad and took it to his van in the station parking lot. 

No one went to jail, everyone was happy, and the police purpose was best served.  You might see how this didn’t follow the exact rules for handling a domestic violence case. But in the end, both parties were happy. There was no further violence. While unorthodox in his methods, I think the officer handled it both creatively and efficiently.

There was a time when this was the norm.  As a result, problems were solved, disturbances ended quickly, and trouble areas were eliminated.  That was when we could be the police.  Just the other day, a Niles PD officer solved a problem with a homeless man by giving him a pair of shoes.  I’m sure their department protocol might have required the officer to contact some county agency, waiting for them to arrive in an hour or so and then transporting the man to some public aid shelter where he would have gotten a pair of shoes and been allowed to go on his way. 

(Chicago_Police_Interceptor_Utility Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by Asher Heimermann)

(Photo by Asher Heimermann)

 

Niles, the PD, and the homeless man were the winners because the officer followed the spirit of the law, not the letter.  The homeless man got the shoes he needed, the officer returned to patrol quickly, and Niles and their PD got a great public relations opportunity. 

Times have changed and departments no longer allow an officer the option or discretion. Everyone has a phone with an excellent camera built in.  Officers have body cams, squads have dash cams and every business has security systems. There are hundreds of people waiting to jump on any perceived deviance from the accepted protocol.  Departments have turned from training officers and then allowing them to do their job, to micromanaging their officers and crucifying them when someone makes a mistake.  We are human and that happens.

People micromanage when they don’t have faith in their employee to do the job properly.  I believe they don’t believe the younger officers can handle the job because underneath it all they are not sure they could handle it themselves if they were in the officer’s shoes.

What is the young officer to do?  If he is single, without a large financial commitment like a mortgage, he can risk actions that might jeopardize his job.  As soon as he gets married, buys a house or has children – that all changes. That flexible freedom is now gone. The department or city have shown they are not willing to back up the officer’s actions except on rare occasions. Instead, they look for scapegoats and distance themselves from the officer and his actions, even when what he did bettered the police purpose and therefore benefited the citizens of the community. This further enhances the poor public relations and increases the problems. 

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Police Academy, November 1938 (Courtesy Robert Weisskopf)

The burglars, corner dope dealers, gangbangers, and car-jackers all know this and use it to their advantage.  The officer in the beat car knows this.  The brass in headquarters and the politicians seem to be completely unaware.  When the press turns to them for an answer to the crime problems, they love to put the blame on the shoulders of the micromanaged police officer.

So, officers, until the departments and politicians get their head out of places it shouldn’t be, be conservative.  Follow the letter of the law.  Use their rules to your advantage.  Pay your mortgage and put your kids in good schools.  Retire when you can and live the good life.

Before you go, I’d like to leave you with this quote I found from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn;

 “A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”

Stay safe officers, run low and zigzag.

Robert Weisskopf (retired Lt. CPD)

www.bobweisskopf.com

P.S. You can find all my articles published in Law Enforcement Today by following the links at https://bobweisskopf.com/l-e-t-articles/

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Spirit vs. Letter: Should police be 'by-the-book' or enforce as they see fit?