There are just over a million sworn law enforcement officers in the United States, each existing and working somewhere on the ethical spectrum between Barney Miller and a T-800 Terminator with a melanin-based-targeting system. Most are presumably good people eking out a living, but there are also some who will cross a line that has us collectively reexamining our entire relationship with the police.
As a citizen who is ostensibly being both protected and served by these men and women, you likely have a couple of frank questions that have been building up over time that you may have been hesitant to ask. Breaking social mores with a forward question is embarrassing enough at a dinner party, so it's understandable that you might be hesitant to go there with an individual who could legally lock you up for a few days if you rub 'em the wrong way.
VICE created a safe, judgement free space with Commander Tom Higgins of the Ventura, CA Police Department, and he answered the questions that have been nagging at us the most.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: What are all the things on your belt? What about the trunk of your car? Is there a shotgun in there?
Commander Higgins: Well, a magazine that holds extra bullets. I have two of those. I have a portable radio, a baton, a set of handcuffs, a key holder, and a firearm. As far as what's in my trunk, I do have a rifle. My trunk is different from patrol officers' trunks. They have emergency first aid kits, flares, evidence containers, bags and brown bags for evidence, and additional personal equipment and bags. Things like that.
Have you ever used your status to get any freebies or perks, like at a 7-Eleven?
No, but some places do offer discounts. So, when that happens, you usually leave a tip that would equal what the amount is. You could go into a coffee shop that would give you a slight discount on your coffee. They might take off a dollar, and then you leave a dollar-plus for the tip.
Are you cool with the idea of mandatory body cams while on duty? Why is there controversy around the subject for police officers?
Yes, I am OK with them. I can't say exactly why others might not be. I think it comes down to a personal thing. They may have the thought like, a Big Brother thing. Years ago, we started putting trackers on the cars to find out where the cars are at. [And it was] like, What are these for, they want to know where we're going? So I think it comes down to that thought or feeling of Big Brother now watching everything we do. I think that's disputed now and not the case anymore. In general, if you ask officers now from our department anyways, they're glad that we have the cameras.
How do you feel about officers that report other officers to internal Affairs? Do you have a different opinion about this than your colleagues? Have you had to do it yourself?
I have no issue with that. I think they should, and they're not holding up to what they've been sworn to do if they fail to do that. I think maybe it's harder for some to do it. It just comes down to the individual, I guess. But everyone I know has had to do it at some point. And yeah, I've done it.
What sucks the most about your job?
It's not a very positive job. You know, people aren't calling us to ask if we're having a good day or to invite us to go out to lunch. So most of it is a negative experience that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. For some, over long periods of time, that becomes difficult to deal with. I'd say that's the main difficult thing. That or the fact that if you work in a certain area, you often deal with the same people. It's kind of a revolving door with some people.
How does race factor into how you interact with people, and how do you feel about the phrase "black lives matter?"
Um, I don't see race as being an issue for me. It doesn't really matter. It doesn't come into play at all. Black lives matter… uh… [chuckles.] Y'know, I can't answer to how they feel. So if that's how some people feel, then that's their right to do that. I just know for me, personally, I treat people fairly, and it's not the case with me.
Is there any truth to the claims or speculation about academy-intelligence tests weeding out the smartest applicants?
No. I can't answer to… I don't know. I can't answer to that. I've never heard of that. I worked in the academy as a drill instructor for a year, and that's the first I've ever heard of that.
Which crimes do you hate having to arrest or cite people for, and, conversely, what do you think is an underreported but dire criminal scourge on society today?
Officers have discretion. There's "letter of the law" and "spirit of the law," and, ideally, we want people to mostly follow the spirit of the law. We can't always be following the letter of the law, meaning "if this is a law, you have to follow it or you're gonna get arrested or cited for it." That's where the officer's discretion comes into play. That's the officer's decision to make. I'm not gonna cite everyone I pull over for running a stop sign or speeding. I don't have one particular "I hate to do this to ya" thing. What's a scourge? Well, I think, for California, the releasing of people early from prison hasn't helped the law enforcement profession.
What do movies and TV get wrong and right about police work?
Ease. Ease of the profession. There's a lot that goes on behind our work and success. Movies and TV make it look way too easy. I think some shows portray the effects of the job on police officers pretty well. I'm just gonna throw it out there, and I don't watch the show all the time, but, from what I've seen, Blue Bloods does a good job. Just kinda the effects on families and things like that. That's portrayed accurately. But that just means that these movies and shows have good production people and professional direction from law enforcement professionals on set.
Do you guys actually like donuts? If so, what kinds?
[Laughs] No. That's kind of a misguided thought that most officers are into donuts. I know, for me, I don't like donuts. I tend to eat healthy as more and more people in this profession have started to over the years. When I started 23 years ago, I wouldn't say that was the case. I think, in general, the last couple years, we've become much more health conscious in law enforcement.