Police Are Always “Asking for the Public’s Help.” Here’s a Handy Guide on Whether to Cooperate.

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Aug. 23 2013 1:46 PM

Police Are Always “Asking for the Public’s Help.” Here’s a Handy Guide on Whether to Cooperate.

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A file photo of some bags of Dunkin' Donuts coffee.

Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images

If there’s anything that police officers love more than griping about their bosses and flaunting mirrored sunglasses, it’s asking for the public’s help in solving crimes. Indeed, a Google search for the term “Police are asking for the public’s help” brings up many, many pages of results. But some of these requests are more urgent than others.

Take this story from today’s Hartford Courant, which begins, “Police are asking for the public's help in finding a man who stole a large number of coffee packs from a Dunkin Donuts.” While I’m all for civic-mindedness and getting crooks off the streets and all that, this particular request for cooperation seems a bit ridiculous. After all, you’re a busy person with your own problems to worry about, most of which are probably more important than tracking down some overly caffeinated dude who committed a comically nonviolent crime. And how would the average citizen even be able to help find this guy, who is described as having facial hair and wearing a “baseball-style cap”? I guess maybe your office manager could show up in the break room wearing a Sox hat and toting a sack of coffee packs while saying, over and over, “Let’s just say they were a steal.” But, otherwise, look, it’s not as if you’re getting paid to solve crimes. The police should be ashamed for wasting your time with something so petty.

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So when should you, the average citizen, heed the police department’s requests for help? My advice: Help out if the cops’ plea satisfies at least two out of these three criteria: the crime is so grave that it merits your attention; there’s an assurance that your cooperation will not put you in physical danger; and your help might actually do some good. I picked a few recent examples to help illustrate my point.

“Detroit police are asking for the public’s help in trying to locate an autistic man who has disappeared.” CBS Detroit, Aug. 22. Yes, by all means help with this one. It costs you nothing to keep your eyes open for this guy, and doing so probably won’t put you at any kind of risk, unless you are so intent on your search that you fail to watch where you’re going and fall in some sort of hole.

“Gresham police are asking for the public's help in identifying a masked man who robbed a bar last week.” The Oregonian, Aug. 22. Maybe. I think in this case the cops are hoping that the masked man is also a bit of a braggart, and has been telling his friends and neighbors about his successful robbery. If you’re one of the people to whom the robber has been bragging, then, sure, give the police a call. But otherwise, though this crime is undoubtedly more serious than the Dunkin' Donuts burglary, I still doubt you can contribute anything of value here. The guy was wearing a mask, for Pete’s sake!

“Memphis police are asking for the public’s help in solving a homicide that took place Thursday night.” The Commercial Appeal, Aug. 23. Of course you should help. If you’ve got information that could help get a murderer off the streets, then you should share that information with the police.

“Oshkosh Police are asking for the public's help to find a woman who made off with the donation jar [from a local gas station].” WTMJ4, Aug. 22. This woman is not very nice, but the stakes here are incredibly low and the amount of money at issue is minuscule. You’d be better off looking for the coffee pack bandit.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.