A few months back, my wallet slipped out of my pocket as I walked back to my car from the grocery store.
When I realized it was gone, I called the store and learned that the wallet, which I’ve somehow managed to hold on to since high school, had been turned in. It was a great relief, but one majorly dampened by the hundreds of dollars that had been taken from the wallet before it was returned.
When I mentioned the missing money in passing to management, they suggested, without a hint of sarcasm, that I should get the police to check my wallet for prints.
At the moment, down enough money to pay half a month’s rent, I was stunned by the suggestion — that’s not how this works, I thought. There were no cameras, no witnesses, and forensic science isn’t that simple. Crime, in that instance, was going to pay.
The deputy I spoke to about the theft was a lot more clear-eyed about the situation: I was out hundreds of dollars and there was nothing to be done. Barring divine intervention, I wasn’t going to get it back, and there wasn’t going to be an arrest.
Though the deputy didn’t promise me anything he couldn’t deliver, he was hesitant at first, and I suspect many he’s talked to before don’t take as kindly to being told, “Sorry, but we can’t help.”
Heads of law enforcement agencies will often sternly deny claims they aren’t doing enough to solve minor property crimes, presumably because they’re expected to be able to solve every problem. But is the problem that we expect too much?
A lot of creative work in Hollywood has helped create this image of the police as unstoppable agents of good. From the folksy wisdom of Sheriff Andy Taylor, to CSI:NY’s Mac Taylor mumbling “enhance” at grainy surveillance footage, mainstream American entertainment has generally painted law enforcement as super-humans that always get their man.
But the police are humans, flawed as we all are, making do with the scarce resources they have in a world that doesn’t line up evidence like plot points in a 30 minute TV show. Almost no agencies in this state solve even half of all reported crimes in their jurisdiction, and I suspect that holds true for the entire country.
Could the Grant County Sheriff’s Office have swabbed my wallet for DNA samples, waited months for the evidence to come back, and then ran the probably muddled results against every resident of Grant County? Beyond being ridiculous and constitutionally dubious, even those ridiculous measures wouldn’t guarantee success.
What it would guarantee is wasted resources. We all are better off when those limited resources, from backlogged laboratories to too-few officers, are dedicated to solving violent crimes and busting meth labs. We can look at adding more resources to solving more crimes, but those improvements happen at the margins. In the end, cops will never be magicians.
But, then again, perhaps the unfair expectations are a necessary evil if we’re to hold together in an unpredictable world.
Orwell wrote in “1984” about a world whose characters were so often under surveillance, they believed they were watched even when they weren’t. The exact same principle would seem to apply in the reverse — as long as the police can protect us often enough, we’ll believe they always can.
Maybe we need that comfort. Was the store manager a tad naive? Maybe. But I know that he’s another human, flawed as we all are, trying to get by in a world that isn’t fair. If, to get by, it helps him to believe that every injustice can be remedied, if that makes life seem a little bit more manageable, then power to him.
Let’s just not blame the police when that doesn’t always happen.