Malicious Obedience?


I have advocated the absolute importance of police officers being respectful to citizens when making stops and conducting other police business. But it is difficult to legislate courtesy. In my earlier days on the street, I remember some of my fellow officer often remarking when getting a questionable order, “Okay, I’ll do it — I will ‘maliciously obey!'”

What that means is that when you ask someone to be nice to someone they do not wish to be nice to, they can distort the order or expectation by “maliciously” carrying it out. A good example follows in yesterday’s New York Times:

“The officers asked for ID. They threw in the word ‘sir.’ They are trying to belittle you by saying ‘sir,’ like being sarcastic in a way, like, ‘I’m really your sir. You have to do what I say.’ “ Barlo Jones, 28, Brownsville, Brooklyn


Some excerpts from the article…

“They batter away with questions, sometimes laced with profanity, racial slurs and insults: ‘Where’s the weed?” ‘Where’s the guns?’

“The officers tell those who ask why they have been stopped to shut up, using names like immigrant, old man or ‘bro.’

“Next comes the frisk, the rummaging through pockets and backpacks. Then they are gone.

“Other times, the officers are polite, their introductions almost gentle. ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ ‘Can you step over here, sir?’ ‘We’d like to talk to you.’

“The questions are probing, authoritative, but less accusatory. “What are you doing here?” “Do you live here?” ‘Can I see some identification, please?’ During the pat-down, they ask, ‘Do you have anything on you?’ They nudge further: ‘You don’t mind if I search you, do you?’ They explain that someone of a matching description robbed a store a few days ago, or that the stop is a random one, part of a program in a high-crime area. Then they apologize for the stop and say the person is free to go.

In interviews with 100 people who said they had been stopped by the New York police in neighborhoods where the practice is most common, many said the experience left them feeling intruded upon and humiliated. And even when officers extended niceties, like ‘Have a nice night,’ or called them ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ people said they questioned whether the officer was being genuine” [my emphasis].

[For the full NYT article on June 26, 2012 by Wendy Ruderman click here.]

And here’s the rub. If we want our police to be courteous it has to be part of their initial selection, their initial training, and their leadership. Values and ethics begin on the inside. It’s planted there first. It is what a person intrinsically believes about people — their worth, their importance regardless of who they are or what they have done.

That’s what democratic policing is all about — respect. And that’s why we need it so desperately in our country today.

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About improvingpolice

I served over 20 years as the chief of police in Madison (WI), four years as chief of the Burnsville (MN) Police Department, and before that as a police officer in Edina (MN) and the City of Minneapolis. I hold graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Edgewood College in Madison. I have written many articles over my years as a police leader calling for police improvement (for example, How To Rate Your Local Police, and with my wife, Sabine, Quality Policing: The Madison Experience). After retiring from the police department, I answered a call to ministry, attended seminary, and was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. At the present time, I serve a small church in North Lake (WI), east of Madison. Sabine and I have nine adult children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She is also a retired police officer and we both continue active lives.

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