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90-7-3 effect: They get enough fingers so why don’t the rest of us wave more at police officers?
saturday evening post

Do we still wave at police officers?

If not, then why not?

A few years after moving to Manteca in 1991 a police officer who had transferred here from San Jose shared his amazement about how many people waved at him while he was on patrol.

I had spent the better part of my life before then in Lincoln where — with less than 4,000 people at the time — everyone knew police officers by sight if not their name. They were neighbors. They were friends of our parents. They were members in the same service clubs. They were coaches of recreational sports teams. They shopped and ate in the same places. They were people we bicycled with. They were people who mowed their lawns just like we did.

It is why the officer’s remarks struck me as both strange and enlightening at the same time.

I couldn’t imagine why you wouldn’t wave at a police officer. At the same time I couldn’t imagine a community where no one waved at a police officer.

I get why officers today — or even 30 years ago — would not want to necessarily reside in the community where they worked even if they wanted to do so.

It was a point driven home ironically while bicycling in 1991 near Escalon-Belota Road with an older priest who was assigned at the time to the Northern California Youth Authority in Stockton. Several rather viscous dogs that were chasing us on a washboard county road were rapidly gaining ground. The priest reached into a bag on his hip to pull out a spray bottle of pepper spray when I noticed what seemed to be a small gun.

A minute or so later we shook the dogs without the need of pepper spray. I asked him about the gun. He explained that sometimes he’d come across released offenders who in a flash associated his face with their time in the youth facility without differentiating his role as a priest. He assured me the gun was not loaded.

The questionable wisdom aside of anyone carrying an unloaded gun they were willing to pull to scare bad guys that were menacing them, I got his point.

And it is not just about the officer but their families as well.

Over the years I’ve chatted with my share of those who work in law enforcement. That includes several who were dedicated roadies — cycling enthusiasts who liked riding 40 plus miles at a fairly moderate pace. It is a great stress reliever and keeps your lungs in shape.

One was a department sergeant. We rode enough together that occasionally he’d talk about things to let off the proverbial steam as we pedaled. Not things that were specific to cases but general frustrations with what he dealt with on the job.

Based on various snippets from passing conversations with officers and observations in general I came to fully understand what one particular police sergeant called the “90-7-3”.

In a nutshell, 90 percent of the people you come across in life are cordial and try to do the right thing. Roughly 7 percent of those you encounter are in a struggle with — for want of better analogies — good and evil or right and wrong.

The remaining 3 percent are, in varying degrees, the proverbial bad apples. They are what one might describe as part of the anatomy of a donkey’s cousin.

When applied to what the officer who was assigned to the Yuba City police department back in the late 1980s dealt with on the job, he said 90 percent of his time was spent interacting with that 10 percent of the population where they were struggling with good and evil or else had come squarely down on the wrong side of civilization.

His point dovetails well into one members of law enforcement officers will often make. People are always happy to see firefighters when they come across them. The reason is simple. They are the ones that show up when a loved one is suffering from a medical emergency or an accident or to combat a fire. In the vast number of instances the interaction ends with a good outcome.

Police on the other hand are the ones you see when there is bad news that is much murkier — domestic violence, robberies, burglaries, shootings, murders, terroristic behavior substance induced or otherwise, neighbor disputes and even traffic tickets.

Even when they do “good” by getting an abusive parent out of a house, they are the ones who took mommy or daddy away.

Pile that on top of the fact 90 percent of so of their non-fleeting encounters with the public are spent addressing such issues in order to keep the fabric of civilization from unraveling and you can see where an officer’s sanity and faith in mankind can go through some serious testing by fire on almost a daily basis.

Making matters worse is the drive to keep frontline sworn officers on patrol or in the field as much as possible due to the demand for their services. This has been accomplished by shifting other duties a police officer would have handled years ago to department staffing with less training and less pay as a way to stretch available dollars.  As a result today most officers often have more intense shifts than their predecessors.

The necessity for cities and such to get more “bang” from the buck is only half of the equation. 

Society now has the unrealistic expectations that officers have to be RoboCops. At the same time they are expected to be able to know without fail in a split of a second whether someone making an aggressive move toward them while reaching into a pocket or coat isn’t going for a lethal weapon.

Yes, police officers — just like the rest of us whether we are warehouse workers, people of the cloth, code writers, teachers, or reporters — all likely have in their ranks people that make the case for the “90-7-3” argument whether it applies to competency or who they are overall as a person.

That said most of us don’t have to deal with a world where we don’t go a day without someone getting in our face, people being belligerent or out of control, dealing with those who are intoxicated, folks who immediately get defensive when they initially interact with us, or have a high likelihood of encountering someone carrying a weapon intended to commit a criminal act that may not hesitate to use it on us.

And while most of us have been on the receiving end of a finger, rest assured it is minimal compared to what a police officer can receive.

All things considered, it is well worth what little energy it takes to hoist all five fingers into the air and wave them in unison when you have a chance passing of a police officer on the street.

It might help them — as well as yourself — to keep things in perspective.



This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at