Beat Cop: "I know it when I see it"

Thanks for all the great questions. Keep 'em coming...


When is something considered by the Police to be considered a civil matter, as opposed to a criminal one?

Beat Cop:

Mark, “I know it when I see it...”

That’s a line made famous by the U.S. Supreme Court when trying to define obscenity in the ‘60s. Well, trying to answer your question caused me to recall that famous line. How do we know if the situation put before us when we respond to a call is civil or criminal?

In short, we know it when we see it. In the world of police work, criminal law trumps civil law, and civil laws are many times hands-off for the police. We have well-trained dispatchers who can help you decipher the nature of your particular situation and let you know if the police can help. If there is still some uncertainty, please feel free to ask for an officer to respond.

Police departments can generally only enforce criminal laws. Sometimes a person will clearly violate a civil law and a citizen calls the police to take action. In a case like that, the police can assist by providing the appropriate court information but could not take action or force the issue.

One of the most common civil cases we come across are tenant-landlord issues. Local police departments do not handle most issues relating to evictions. The Sheriff’s department has a civil division that can assist with the eviction process and ultimately the physical eviction. It can be a long process, and we understand the frustration when you call the police for assistance and we can only point you in the right direction.

For more eviction information, contact the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department Civil Division at (408) 808-4800. The California Department of Consumer Affairs has a website with information, forms and explanations of laws. You can even request a free booklet explaining landlord tenant issues.

‘Til next time, proudly serving you,
Your Beat Cop



I know SJPD officers are not allowed to go on strike. I can also see how low morale might increase the temptation to slow down self-initiated activity. Is this the solution to the problem of poor staffing and low morale? It would not seem so. Instead, what might be the result of a “work speed up”? If officers did no self-initiated activity until the end of the shift, then made as many car stops as possible and wrote tickets or made arrests at the end of shift, using at least an hour of overtime to do so, provided this works into an officer’s personal schedule, (assuming he or she doesn’t have to pick up kids, make a doctor’s appointment or get to secondary employment right after work etc that day), what would the financial impact on the City be if at least half or more of the patrol division, on all 3 shifts, put in at least 1 hour of overtime each and every day? I understand officers do not get paid for their overtime and can’t use these hours by getting time off, so these hours would accumulate into unfunded liability for the City. I’m sure the City would jump on the Department and overtime would become heavily scrutinized but what can a supervisor say when a citation or an arrest report supports an officer’s use of overtime? What would happen if a supervisor orders an officer not to make the arrest or issue the citation and the officer follows that up with a memo to the chief, AND the SJPOA AND the city manger confirming that this was done and asking for a formal explanation as to why? What would happen should this occur? Would it finally get the City to notice what is going on and the price (unfunded liability) of low morale?