Jardine: Respect for the police exchanged for contempt

There was a time, not too many years ago, when people routinely deferred to police officers.

If a cop yelled "Freeze!" the suspect would stop dead in his tracks, aware that if he didn't he'd soon be, well, dead in his tracks.

If a cop told a homeless guy to move along, he'd move along.

If a cop told a crowd to disperse, it dispersed.

Sure, there were altercations, chases and times when suspects fought back. There have been firefights between cops and criminals as long as there have been cops and criminals. But for the most part, the badge commanded respect.

Those days are a fading memory, as the recent killing of four Oakland police officers and last weekend's incident in west Modesto suggest. Officers find themselves facing growingly brazen and well-armed opposition on a daily basis, whether it involves gangs or individuals.

As a Modesto police officer responded to a stolen vehicle call, he came upon a beating on Pelton Avenue early Sunday. He stopped to break up the fight. The next thing he knew, authorities said, he was surrounded by a mob of anywhere from 20 to 60 people, some of whom challenged him to a fight.

The suspect he wanted to arrest was jerked from his grip. A scuffle ensued, damaging his two-way radio and preventing him from calling for backup. The mob roughed up his police dog after it attacked one aggressor. When the officer drew his gun, someone in the crowd told him he'd never make it out of there. His fate rested upon one of the good people on that street who called 911, and help soon arrived.

The attitude toward authority is appalling. Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy Royjindar Singh said the hostility surfaces during even a simple traffic stop.

"They'll get on their cells and call or text message their friends, and before you know it, there's two, three or four cars there — sometimes 10 or 20 friends there harassing the deputy," Singh said. "And (the deputy) might have only pulled him over to give him a speeding ticket."

Now, at the first sign of trouble, officers are required to request backup, he said.

"Err on the side of caution," Singh said.

These thugs don't even fear police dogs. Officers can point to a half-dozen instances other than Sunday's in which dogs have been attacked, not the other way around, over the past three years.

Two weeks ago in east Modesto, in fact, officers turned a K-9 loose to apprehend a suspect. The man put a stranglehold on the pooch until officers used their batons to free the dog.

Two years ago, I rode along with a team of probation officers. During one stop in the airport neighborhood, the younger brother of a teen gang member strode up to the officers and unleashed a string of F-bombs to express his sentiments toward them.

The kid was only about 7.

This blatant disrespect for the law and law enforcement, particularly from the gang element, isn't unexpected, some cops tell me.

In 2004, the Modesto police formed a street crimes unit that shares information with other agencies to crack down on gangs, among other things. One sweep alone that year sent 50 gang members to jail. The gangs were relatively quiet for a couple of years.

Now, many of them are out on parole — some early because of prison overcrowding — and have returned to the area and their gangs. They're recruiting more bangers who, in turn, want to prove themselves to their buddies. Bravado toward the cops is part of that. Intimidating entire neighborhoods is another.

City officials, including Police Chief Roy Wasden, believe getting to at-risk kids before they get into gangs will make an impact over the long term. But change begins with neighbors who aren't afraid to do the right thing when trouble surfaces.

"You do see good folks willing to make that (911) call even though they don't want their picture in the paper," he said. "We're going to keep partnering with the community and win."

For now, the scorn and contempt for authority is something Wasden finds "deeply concerning."

Because brazenness and bravado can turn a simple police procedure into an ugly and perhaps deadly event.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or