Myths About Law Enforcement and Policing

Three police officers in a portrait shot
••• Darrin Klimek/Getty Images 

Even police academy recruits and criminal justice majors are unaware of the truth behind a host of misconceptions about police work. From the concept of entrapment to the reading of the Miranda warning, law enforcement practices are constantly misconstrued and misunderstood both by members of the public and the media. Here are the facts behind some of the more common myths about law police officers to help you decide whether a law enforcement career is right for you.

Myths About Miranda Rights: Do Police Have to Read Your Rights?

"You have the right to remain silent." No doubt you've heard some iteration, either on television or in real life, of someone being advised of their rights. Known in law enforcement circles as the Miranda warning, these rights are recited or read to people in police custody who are about to be interviewed or interrogated.

The confusion comes when these rights are not read. Most people have the misconception that Miranda warnings have to be read to every person who is arrested. Even people in jail will say that they were never truly arrested because "the cops never read me my rights." Suffice to say, if you somehow find yourself in jail, you have, in fact, been arrested.

The real purpose of Miranda is to inform an arrested or detained person of their constitutional rights, namely their right to legal representation and to avoid self-incrimination. The requirement that the rights be read actually only applies when police intend to question the individual. If no questioning occurs, no reading of Miranda is required.

The failure to read Miranda does not make an arrest itself invalid. It simply means that any information obtained through questioning without Miranda will be excluded from admission in court.

Are Police Speed Traps Entrapment?

People widely believe that if a traffic officer who is conducting speed enforcement is hidden, then he is guilty of entrapment. For some reason, there is a notion that officers must be completely visible at all times in order for any traffic citations to be valid. If they're not, the common misconception is that any tickets issued will be thrown out.

The prohibition against entrapment has nothing to do with whether or not an officer is visible at the time a crime is committed. Instead, entrapment happens when a law enforcement officer or other legal authority actually entices or encourages someone to commit a crime, and then arrests them for it. In that case, the individual is tricked into thinking it's okay to commit an act and is then punished by the same person who led him to believe it was okay to begin with. 

Hiding behind the bushes with a radar doesn't qualify as entrapment because the officer is not telling you it's okay to speed. He's just there to catch you when you do.

Rules for Undercover Cops: Do Police Have to Tell You They're Cops?

Believe it or not, words such as "Are you a cop? You have to tell me if you're a cop!" have actually been said to undercover police. If the police actually did have to tell you they were undercover police officers when you asked, it would probably make for some pretty short-lived sting operations.

Like speed traps, this misconception also comes from the misunderstanding of the prohibition against entrapment. The true test is whether or not the officer is, under color of law, enticing the suspect into doing something they would not have otherwise done.

In the case of undercover officers, entrapment doesn't exist because suspects don't know the officer is really an officer, and so they can't reasonably get the impression that whatever activity they're engaging in is acceptable under the law.

Busting Myths About Police Can Foster Community Cooperation

It's easy to misunderstand not only the way police operate but also the rules that govern their behavior, to begin with.

It's important that people looking to enter careers in criminal justice to get a handle on these and other myths about law enforcement. In this way, criminology professionals can better articulate their jobs to the public and help foster better cooperation between police and communities.