Interview With Rob RIley
Rob Riley has a collection of stories based on his years on the police force, TALES FROM THE BLUE LINE, it’s out now from Down and Out Books. Jon caught up with Rob and asked some questions….
Jon: 32 years with force. How did things change while you were there?
Rob: The mood of the country was quite different in 1969 when I joined the Milwaukee Police Department as a police aide. Tensions were high with the combination of enormous groups of protesters in the streets on virtually a daily basis. There were many causes – the Vietnam war, racial issues, the way the government was handling things, and so on. Veteran officers told me they’d never seen anything like it. Not even close. The Tactical Squad was created so that officers could be available to deal more quickly with threatening activities. Many officers quit the department because of the danger. It was wild and unpredictable, and all cops at that time were on guard throughout their entire shift.
In 1971 I was promoted to the rank of Patrolman. A few months later I was assigned to the Narcotics Squad as an undercover agent. I spent the next seven years on that assignment. That made my career far different from the large majority of other officers. I looked like a “hippie” and conned drug dealers into selling drugs to me. As one could guess, there were many bizarre events on that assignment. It changed not only the destiny of my career, it changed my life.
Once congress stopped funding the war in Vietnam in 1975, things went back to normal for the nation, and for police departments as well. A new normal, with great use of illegal drugs, “open relationships,” grating rock ‘n roll music (which I thought was really good) and a new vision for the country.
What is going on today with the protests of police involved shootings is, by comparing relative volume of events, a drop in the bucket.
Beyond that, at my relatively low rank of detective, I couldn’t say just how much has changed with routine investigations from the pre-protester era of the 60’s and 70’s.
Police training has improved greatly over the years, that’s for sure, despite overbearing claims by ill-informed people that it hasn’t.
Jon: How different are things for the police now?
Rob: Aside from the recent spate of white officers being accused of illegally shooting young African American males, from what I’ve gathered things have gone well. (I have a direct source of information: My son is now a sergeant on the Milwaukee police department, and we have frequent in depth discussions.) Again, one has to put the civil unrest from the 60’s and early ’70s in a separate category in the country’s history. I’d compare those days to a nation being at war; it’s a unique time, and it eventually closes out..
There often is controversy – sometimes heated – with certain styles of policing. That is an ebb and flow situation in all police departments. There are different ways of policing an area: One style is called Community Policing, or Broken Windows. That is a return to having foot patrol officers and squads aggressively converge and cover a certain high crime area. Of course, a counter approach would be to evenly spread the force throughout the district, having officers more available to each other for serious crime investigations, and outright physical attacks.
Both of these methods have been tried in Milwaukee, with mixed results. A problem is if a chief had been in office for a long period of time, using one method that is more popular than another, they get comfortable with it. Eventually a new chief takes over, and he or she might like a different style, and then said chief changes the system to one the officers don’t like. Some chiefs are more heavy handed in the discipline area, in a way that other experienced and high ranking officers agree with the troops: They don’t like the changes, either.
Milwaukee has a very “clean” reputation among the nation’s police departments. It has always been that way. Regarding the previously mentioned civil unrest area of the 60’s and early 70’s, Milwaukee police did have more physical confrontations. It was the nature of the era, the representation of the mood of a certain group of people. I personally knew many young men and women from the revolutionary mind-set before I became a police officer. Many went on to successful careers after their service in the quasi-revolution. One extremely “active” protester in Madison, Wisconsin had been a good friend of mine. I played guard and he played next to me at tackle for two years in a row on our high school football team. I saw him later when he was in full hippie garb – for real. I wore the same type of clothing and hairstyle. He talked about peace. I laughed and told him he loved hitting his opponents while playing in football games, and now he was hitting cops as an anarchic tool of radical activists. We laughed. He told me I was a mindless agent of the Bourgeoisie.
Years later he became an attorney, employed by a team of lawyers who worked for President Ronald Reagan. Fascinating, as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would say..
Those are the high points from my perspective, especially after a conversation with Sergeant Riley (my son) of the Milwaukee Police Department. Relatively little has changed since I retired.
Rob: Yes they do, as a matter of fact. A real problem for us in the field was having suspects quoting “police procedures” they’d “learned” by watching dubious police entertainment shows. Hard core career criminal types would run or start fist fighting with us on the spot. Often there were nearby sympathizers egging them on or worse, joining them in their attack. Officers ended with injuries that required medial treatment. Sometimes very bad injuries. These special citizens of the streets thought they had it all down pat and used to challenge us on what we could do; how we could act; and generally all things listed by The Constitution.
Often the opposite occurs: Officers are shown beating confessions out of suspects, and badly mishandling all aspects of their jobs. Unfortunately, there were plenty of incidents for script writers to call upon. Police officers are human, they lose their self control the way other humans do, and trouble begins. That is in no way an excuse; sometimes humans make mistakes. When it’s a person with a lot of power – and that perfectly describes police officers – bad things can happen.
The slick Mr. or Ms. investigator/detective who has brainpower beyond that of Einstein, and the instincts of a jungle animal – well, it’s another thing that irritates all cops. Properly behaved, law abiding citizens believe all cops have that level of ability, and think that anything less than a completely, perfectly solved investigation is an act of utter incompetence. One can name literally dozens of Hollywood police officers who have helped to convey that message to the public.
TV law enforcement personnel, from way way way over promoted private investigators, to chiefs of police, to conspiring prosecutors and judges, have routinely gone around the law and been anointed as geniuses and heroes, having helped the real criminals avoid their just desserts. Their effect on real law enforcement and legal professionals is not epidemic nor is it too difficult for investigators to be ahead of what a suspect is thinking and to cut them off at the pass, as it were. The TV-to-real thing is mostly easy to properly resolve. It’s mostly just a pain in the neck.
Jon: Some stories are pretty crazy. This all really happened?
Rob: Yes, they all really happened. I left many, many incidents out: I could have written a book on my undercover work alone. I was warned by the Captain of the Narcotics Squad, before I even accepted the assignment, that some things would be “crazy.” He used many more and quite colorful adjectives to describe things that had happened to officers who’d previously been assigned to the unit. Some things that went on during the super wild times of the 1960s and 1970s are indescribable. Literally. Not that officers were committing crimes; they were not. But at times they had to go a long way to fake out drug dealers and their women while demonstrating that they were neither undercover cops or informants..Since I wasn’t there, I cannot accurately report what happened.
First, none of the crazy stories were planned. We did things on the fly, as they say, and at times we were suddenly in places and with wanton criminals, where trying to walk out would have been more dangerous than playing along. Playing along without as much “playing” as possible. The motorcycle gang leader who sold heroin to my partner while they were in a tavern is a good example. You’d better have the amount of money you’d agreed upon, or you would have been interrogated (I use that word loosely) as to why, and what was your real business there? Were you a snitch, calling in the police gang to rip the place apart? I won’t go on.
Drinking alcohol was a necessary perk. Booze and dope flew around as though it had landed on Earth after being launched from the moon. Once people are truly drunk, all bets are off. Sometimes taking care of your partner was the most important task you had to perform.
I will emphatically and with a clear conscience say this: Neither I or my partners ever crossed the line and broke any laws. We were accused of planting dope on nearly everyone we arrested, but not once was it true. Nor were any other accusations of unlawful behavior the truth.
Jon: Advice for a potential new officer?
RoB: Begin learning to keep your social/political opinions to yourself. That goes for everyone, even people who don’t consider themselves to be opinionated. At least not the kinds of thoughts and beliefs that could some day get them in trouble. Many people who considered themselves close mouthed found out that they did have thoughts and beliefs – the kind that once expressed can get you in hot water. Often times your social niche can be selected for you by your expression of an opinion about the current president, or one of the political parties.
I said a lot about one thing, but it was necessary. An officer can create a boiling cauldron for themselves in an instant, and spend time straightening that out.
Accept the fact that police work is very often a physically intense job, that sooner or later you yourself will have to employ physical force. You could end up being treated by a physician. You could be the victim of a citizen complaint, even though you acted by using only reasonable force. Can you handle that? The fact is there are many people who never even considered applying for a police job simply because they are nonviolent in all respects and cannot even consider putting themselves in jeopardy.
Once you’ve accepted that problem – a problem that is certain to make you a participant – you can be a full-fledged police officer. I say it that way because there are some people who do go against their instincts and become police officers anyway. Only rarely do they stay on the job until retirement.
If you pay attention, the rest of the job will come to you. Learning the ticks a guilty person displays when they’re lying to save their skin; learning how to efficiently scan a room or an open area for clues and evidence will all be there for you to grasp and use.
Jon: Any advice for Someone writing about the police.
Rob: Almost no one who writes stories about the police has ever worked as an officer. The first thing I’d say to those without experience would be s a single word: Research. Most people who wanted to write police stories have already done their own version of gathering examples of investigating; trying to imagine doing so from a policeman’s perspective. They are geared for the task. From there, a non officer should arrange interviews with current or former police officers. Take copious notes. Use a recording device if the one being interviewed is agreeable. Of course, peruse instructive books and videos. It would be great, even if hard to do, to interview a prosecuting attorney. They could tell you the second half of a criminal investigation: The court proceedings. A judge would bring rock star status.
Also check news stories about police incidents. Again, take notes. Think up police action scenes and write them down. Review them with family and or friends. Along the way you’ll see if you have the knack of thinking like an evidence gathering cop. Consider your aptitude for getting reluctant people to tell you the truth. There are many officers who are “natural:.” they are slick and patient and will automatically catch a contradiction and go back and expose the conflict when the time is right. Some non police authors will have to work hard. Some people start switching to romance stories.
Jon: Has the addition of advanced recording equipment – such as camera phones – changed people’s perception of police work?
Rob: The answer is yes but the biggest problem still rests with people; more specifically, some professional journalists. These people have always at least been tempted to present more details about crimes than they should. In too many cases they’ve done it when they knew that they should not; they were fully aware that it was wrong. Add in more and far better equipment and the public joining in with their own gadgets, acting inappropriately at crime scenes, and the problem multiplies. Many videos and photos have been misused as evidence in trials where the audience was nationwide. People are being literally dis-informed as to when a person is guilty or innocent. Nationwide marches wrongfully protesting verdicts, with some of the marches becoming violent and deadly, have been intensified directly through the use of photos provided by unauthorized people who had no business being so close to a crime scene. Sneaking in a photo phone is shockingly easy.
Of course, the trapdoor springs and utterly inappropriate information is dropped onto unsuspecting customers by the unscrupulous members of the news industry. With 24/7 televised news, the country is flooded by what can legitimately be compared to raw sewage.
Ask any Hollywood celebrity about the paparazzi – folks who lurk day and night in places where they may get a harassing photo of a star performer. The term “money shot” was invented for these photos. They printed them in street type rag newspapers, and now days more and more on the Internet. This charming upgrade has allowed people to do all of their “money shot” work in their own homes. It’s cheap, easy to use, and available to everyone. The poster improperly describes a photo as proving a case, the citizenry believes it, and millions of people have in effect just become an ad hoc jury to a criminal trial.
Newspapers will write editorials describing, or at least subtly suggesting, that an officer is acting improperly. Some call that “polluting the jury pool.” There’s nothing as damaging as a physical image being planted in a person’s brain that is used to describe a lie.
Twenty-five years ago a drunk driver was speeding along a Los Angeles highway. He was pulled over by the police and taken out of his vehicle. The prisoner fought with the officers. And fought, and fought, and fought. He fought until he could no longer move, and then would get a boost of energy and start fighting again. Several officers did all the could to subdue him. They could not. Anyone who has ever tried to subdue an extremely drunken person knows how this works. There isn’t a street cop anywhere who hasn’t had this experience.
Said prisoner needs to be strapped to a cart, but if you have to wait a long time, there will be a protracted view of the struggle to anyone who can see it.
Now a citizen with a video camera records it, sends it to the news media who cherry picks it, and an incident is misjudged. To say the least.
Four officers were arrested for crimes from battery to attempted murder. The nation watched the video obtained by an amateur and it is (purposely, I believe) misinterpreted to the point where literally millions of people are forever convinced that the prisoner was a victim of murder by the officers.
The case was presented to a criminal court, the original judge assigned to the case was overheard telling the prosecution “you can count on me,” and then – guess what? All four officers are acquitted of all charges.
The technical details of the event were put in proper perspective, and experts were able to understand what the video actually displayed – a drunk can fight seemingly forever and his captors look like the criminals – and justice was served. Fifty three people died and one billion dollars in damages were inflicted during the rioting because those involved were angry that they didn’t get their way, even though their way had been proven to be incorrect, according the detailed letter of the law.
That began a phenomenon leading to riots in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014/2015, after the Michael Moore shooting. People with no authority, some with criminal records, captured photos and deliberately misinterpreted what they showed. And on, and on at that crime scene, to where protesters – including professional football players from the St. Louis Rams at the beginning of an NFL Monday Night Football game – ran around with their hands over their heads while yelling “Please don’t shoot” and “I surrender” in order to show the country just how bad things have gotten with the police.
A while later – whoops!- the witnesses who claimed that Michael Brown was shot eight times in the back while he ran away begging for his life, all admitted that it was a lie. Other witnesses came forward and told the real story. No police officers were charged with any crimes.
From what I hear from current police officers is that defense and prosecuting attorneys are taking closer looks at information – like images from camera phones – and being more careful when considering evidence that is not scrutinized and vetted by experts in the field.