Friday, July 31, 2009

Chapter 2: The Letter of the Law Versus The Spirit of the Law

Everyday you are receiving orders from someone telling you what they want you to do. This is especially true at the workplace. Mrs. Smith is an office manager who supervises a pool of receptionists. Her immediate supervisor is Mr. Brown. Mrs. Smith goes into work one day and Mr. Brown says to Mrs. Smith, "Mrs. Smith, I need to see you in my office when you have a moment." He doesn't look disturbed about anything so she tries not to worry too much. But, the fact that he is asking to see her raises concern that she might have done something wrong. Mrs. Smith sits at her desk for a while trying to garner up enough nerve to see what Mr. Brown wants. She gets up and walks to his office door, which is slightly ajar. She knocks and he beckons her to come in. Mrs. Smith says "Mr. Brown, you wanted to see me?" Mr. Brown says "Yes, please have a seat." As Mrs. Smith is bending to sit in her chair, Mr. Brown says "I just spoke with the CEO, Mr. Brooks, an hour ago and his is displeased with how much we have spent this quarter on office supplies. He said that he understands that business has picked up, but that we need to be a little more conscious of not being wasteful. He isn't making a big deal about it, but please tell the staff just to be a little more conservative in their use of office supplies."

Mr. Brown thanks Mrs. Smith for the fine job that she is doing and tells her to have a nice day. Mrs. Smith goes back to her office and sits for a while digesting what Mr. Brown told her. At this point, she pulls out a pencil and pad and begins writing a memo to her staff saying that authorization to enter the supply cabinet must be approved by her. She goes on to say that each receptionist is allowed only one pen and pencil a week or until one or the other runs out. She begins making a long list of Do's and Don'ts. By the time she distributes the memos to her staff, they feel like they are back in elementary school. What did Mr. Brown say that sparked her behavior? He merely stated that Mr. Brooks was concerned about the excess waste of resources. This is a legitimate concern. However, a case can be made that Mrs. Smith went a little overboard! She took broad and general concerns and created drama. Mrs. Smith is taking Mr. Brown's statements literally and is enforcing his statements to the letter.

This scenario best describes of difference of mindsets within policing. The two mindsets in policing are described as the letter of the law versus the spirit of policing. The situation described by Mrs. Smith best exemplifies a person who goes by the letter of the law or as some refer to as "by the book". Officers who police by the book leave little room for interpretation. He reads the law and says anyone who breaks this law will pay the consequence. There is no "gray" area. Everyone is placed in the same category and there is no variance, because the law is the law. The positive point of letter of the law thinking is that everyone and every situation is equal. No one can claim that the officer is prejudicial because everyone and every situation is treated the same. There are no emotional fluctuations to consider. His response is "I'm only doing my job according to the law. If you don't like the law, you should write your congressman to change it." The responsibility is not his, but the people who make the law. The shortcoming of letter of the law thinking is that individuals are not given credence for their "unique" situations.

We may all at some point find ourselves in a situation that warrants a view that considers our perspective. We have to look at issues of intent. In this particular instance, was the person trying to violate the law? If we can see this person's point of view, should the strong arm of the law be leveled against her? This introduces what may be defined as the spirit of the law thinking. With the spirit of the law thinking, the officer considers the intent of the law combined with his own experiences and reasoning. Under this doctrine, the officer looks at the intent of the law and ways the intent of the law with the actions involved. To further clarify the situation, he may ask the violator "what were you thinking and what did you want to accomplish?" He is essentially weighing all the possibilities before determining if these sets of circumstances warrant severe consequences based on the intent of the violator.

This line of reasoning allows for each case to be seen separately and not lumped into a "typical" category and does not leave room for interpretation. The good point of spirit of law thinking is that it brings a degree of humanity into every situation. Laws are created to promote peace and order as well as justice. Laws in themselves don't have the ability of discernment as well as what we commonly refer to as the "system". These intangible entities over the course of years have taken on human forms when they only have life through the activity of people. Society has given up its choice to determine laws that were relevant for its time, but has lesser meaning in a "New World". If a person does not intend to violate a law and the public good has not be harmed, we should defer to the spirit of the law. The shortcoming of the spirit of the law thinking is that its may lack continuity. One officer views a set of facts one way, while another officer may view the same set of facts a different way. The risk of the spirit of law thinking is that people have different spirits. The illusory "reasonable man" standard is a ceaseless debate that rivals a maze where the exit is challenging to find.

Finding our way out is challenging when society in its inconsistency does not know where it wants to go. We actually need both perspectives together! The letter and the spirit which may be referred to as the mind and the heart have to co-exist together for the best that humankind can create to come to fruition. Those public servants who have effectively fused these perspectives together are the one who are making a positive impact on "the system".

As humans, although we have the ability to be multi-faceted, we tend to be one-dimensional. We favor views and perspectives that make us feel good or come easy for us. Although the ideal officer is multi-faceted, we know that we are going to encounter an officer who practices either the letter of the law or the spirit of the law. So, how do we combat this inevitability in our favor? While there are no "sure-fire" ways of dealing with human dynamics, there are ways of positioning ourselves into a more positive light. Although, the two perspectives are different, we are still dealing with human beings that have emotions, experiences, and perspectives in line with most of humanity.

For example, the letter of the law mentality is logical. He is motivated by rational thinking. He is not created in a vacuum, he has determined that he favors his ability to reason over his ability to emotionalize. Consequently, he needs to be convinced logically why your actions do not warrant a violation of the law. If your case is valid, you may be given the benefit of the doubt. It is not a matter of concocting a brilliant story (although this may sometimes be the case). It is a matter of strategically escorting the officer from point A to Z in defending why you made the choice that you did. Even if he does not see your point of view, he will respect you and charge you with only the violations he feels that are relevant. It is unlikely that he will "throw the book at you." The term "throwing the book" is a relevant term.

As a former police officer, I was once assigned to an annual event called "Freaknik" which consistently brought mayhem and chaos to Atlanta every year. It was frowned upon by many officers for many reasons. It was consistently unorganized with no real direction. Officers were called in on their off days to insure proper manpower. Essentially, it was a citywide party that no one, but the participants, wanted to attend or see happen. On this occasion, I was assigned the task of diverting traffic in one direction. Under the circumstances, this was no easy task. One car attempted to go through the barricades that we had set up. I politely informed the driver of what we were trying to accomplish and begged his indulgence.

Over the years, I had learned to calm down from the abrupt manner that I would have previously handled such situations. That's the importance of individual growth! The driver persisted in debating his choice to go through the barricade. I knew that I did not want to be bogged down in paper work. I could only imagine the court being filled with partygoers and having to wait all day for the case to be called. This after twelve hour days of policing! No thank you. However, I knew that the officer, who was fairly new to the job, would not mind charging the driver with every imaginable violation. This officer wanted his "stats" to look good and still believed that policing was arresting people and giving out tickets first and asking questions later. After talking with the driver without success, I turned the matter over to the new officer and walked away. The officer commenced to charge the driver with everything he could find. The moral of the story is that if the driver would have understood that we were trying to maintain order and not stop him from doing what he wanted to do, he would have saved himself a court appearance. If he had merely articulated his point, we could have maybe explored other possibilities although limited given the situation. We often make things more difficult by not understanding the motivation of the person before us. We all want something and can live with disappointment. But in turn, if you make people feel disrespected you will not achieve anything, particularly when they have more power than you do.
On the other hand, those who practice according to the spirit of the law make decisions with feelings. While both points deal with a certain amount of emotions, spirit of the law policing is predominated by empathy. This officer knows the law, but knows how you feel. Please do not make the mistake of believing that this officer is inclined to allow violations of the law for the sake of knowing how you feel! He decides to make decisions from having walked in your shoes and having had a wide variety of experiences. The addition to this mindset is that it is not only personality driven, but experientially driven. Consequently, a veteran officer who knows the ropes and has mellowed over the years does not take the letter of the law too seriously and opts to add his wisdom to the equation.

Of course, this is not always true, because another officer with similar time and experience on the force may feel jaded and pessimistic about the job where "all men are thieves and all women are whores". He is disenchanted with the world and views his choice to spend his life in such a decadent profession as a waste. I can recall first coming out of the police academy and patrolling with an officer who demonstrated these characteristics. His entire demeanor smacked of unhappiness, mistrust, and general disregard for the public will.

In retrospect, he should have chosen another profession ages ago. But, police officers like most of the majority of the society make decisions the same way, which is by staying in a situation out of fear of trying something new and different. In my rotation to another veteran officer, I experienced the exact opposite. This officer enjoyed coming to work and had a positive outlook about life. He was compassionate as well as firm. The specific situation at hand determined his responses. In general police officers are much more like the latter than the former. The shortcoming for society is that it takes time to have more of the latter. Most new officers police according to how they have seen in the movies all of their lives. It is the experience that they undergo that allows them to see policing from a greater and wider perspective. It is the luck of the draw of which one you may encounter during an incident. Again, the good part is that most officers try to be understanding. The way of stacking the odds in your favor is as previously discussed. Articulate your perspective and you will normally receive a fair hearing.

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