We just recently passed the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Having been there that day and the days and weeks following, I remember all too well the sights, sounds, smells, feelings and other nuances of that time. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago and yet there are still nights when I go to bed over 14 years later and relive parts of that day, and the days that followed with almost perfect clarity, whether I like it or not. I had been involved in all kinds of police related incidents leading up to that time, experiencing things that most people will only see a fraction of, thankfully. Stabbings, shootings, suicides, emotionally disturbed people by circumstances or by design, endless automobile accidents, domestic violence, gang violence, drugs users, sellers, abusers, and every day criminals. Other than the bombing at the World Trade Center within my first year in the NYPD (a baptism by fire so to speak), all of the other things that I and other officers during that time, seemed to make some sort of disturbing sense that this is what you are supposed to see during a 20 or 30 year tenure as a police officer in modern day New York / America. 9/11 was unlike ANYTHING that I in my wildest dreams (or nightmares) would have imagined being involved in or still physically and psychologically feel the effects of. I think for a majority of people at that time, when they stopped to think about what first responders did that day and the days, weeks, and months following, it seemed a kind of mass epiphany occurred, that policing (as well as other first responder professions) was a unique and special sort of job and we heard all sorts of thanks and feelings of gratitude. People relayed sentiments that those who would put themselves at risk everyday for thousands or millions of unknowns as a line of work may have a certain character gene that some people don’t have or don’t want to have. For the first time that i could remember, 9/11 humanized the police and reaffirmed even to the haters at the time, that the police were there to help, that there were good people doing the job, and that there was a sense of respect that was given for quite a while after the dust literally settled and people went on living their lives in a new reality.
That was the past.
That, unfortunately, is not the current climate we are living in now where police in many places are reviled and looked upon with disgust, particularly in some of the larger urban cities (like New York City). In some extreme cases, police officers have been attacked or even killed.
The last year or two in particular we have seen a number of police related incidents that have been sensationalized in the media. Those that are caught on video sometimes earn a certain misconception to them in that if the police are caught on camera doing something by the average citizen then they are automatically at fault. I have had the fortunate opportunity to be able to go on air on various news media outlets to offer commentary on these incidents with the intention to try to make sense as to why police did what they did (check the media folder on this site to see some). Of course many times the media is reporting these incidents with very little facts obtained and in some cases only a short video taken on a cell phone to try to make sense of what happened. Driving the story many times is a lot of MISinformation and conjecture which is why myself and others go on to try to help explain or make sense of the madness. I, by default, will nearly always advocate on the side of the police at first, unless it is a very apparent case of an officer doing something unlawfully or completely out of bounds. For instance, in the case of “Police Officer” Michael Slager in North Charleston South Carolina shooting Walter Scott in the back nearly a half dozen times, there was really no way to advocate on his behalf because his actions were clearly and shockingly wrong. Regardless of the fact that Mr. Scott ran from the officer and it appeared they had some physical altercation at some point, he then ran again and Slager shot him in the back until Mr. Scott fell to the ground and died. I don’t know any police officer that would agree that was a good idea. Myself and others I’ve consulted with were horrified at watching that video and we all shook our heads as to what someone could be thinking to come to that point of taking that course of action and thinking it was within his rights. To add insult to injury he lied about the incident and may have tried to further cover it up by planting evidence near the body of Mr. Scott. For people like myself to now go on local or national television / radio and try to not just explain those actions, but also to reassure the viewing / listening public that not all cops are like that is problematic at best. Of course I did not have to try to explain his actions because they were way beyond anything I have ever done or think to do, so I focused on trying to state the fact that as a matter of everyday affairs the overwhelming majority of police officers are upstanding citizens with a high level of integrity and do their jobs correctly and lawfully which I truly do believe that. I know the doubters and the haters will jump on that and say I have my head in the sand, or I am lying, or maybe just because I was not that kind of officer that they don’t know the cops who work in the areas they live in who treat them badly. I would agree somewhat with the last part. I don’t know every cop in every department across the United States. I have traveled to most of the states in the U.S. and have met numerous officers from coast to coast and in between but not all of course since law enforcement has some 800,000 officers nationwide so I could spend the rest of my life trying to meet them all and wouldn’t be able to due to the obvious number. While I am sure there are many, many knuckleheads in many departments across the United States, I truly believe that the overwhelming majority are doing the job of policing very well otherwise we would need numerous, 24 hour news shows just to report the millions of allegations of police wrongdoing if that was not the case. If you do the simple math of multiplying 800,000 officers x the amount of daily interactions with millions of people nationwide that is a tremendous amount of police-civilian interactions that occur and you don’t hear anything about the overwhelming bulk of them (right, wrong or indifferent). Having said that, we have a much, much different climate and public perception and treatment of the police currently.
This is the modern day, fairly regular response to police related incidents, especially those in which the injury or death of an individual has occurred while dealing with the police. By and large the majority of incidents we have seen that have made the news have had to do with someone who was in the process of being arrested by the police and clearly was resisting on some level (i.e.Eric Garner / Staten Island) and in some cases had full on physical confrontations with the officer (i.e. Michael Brown / Ferguson) to mention two of the more popular ones of late. As has been discussed in earlier posts on this blog, the focus has been squarely on the police and little mention as to the personal responsibility of those who were engaged with them causing the situation to come to the conclusion it did. Yes, I have said it is sad that an 18 year old young man (Michael Brown) could not have made better choices for himself to not get physically engaged with an officer trying to get him under arrest and also agree that the officer may have had other options before that physical confrontation even took place. The one thing I have always tried to advocate to people young and old is that the police WILL be held accountable for their actions on a local, state, and federal level but only YOU can be held accountable as to how YOU interact with them. The police are not robots. They are people like you and me, with feelings, emotions, families, lives and all the good, bad, and ugly stuff that we all have to deal with in life for our short stay on this planet. Yes they choose to become police officers and they go through all kind of training, but I can tell you that regardless of how much training they get, at the core when things get crazy the training will only do but so much until self preservation and other thoughts and emotions kick in and then the training may NOT be enough to bring that scenario to a conclusion that was first envisioned by either side. No one likes to be told what to do, especially in a “free” society, but our freedom isn’t necessarily free. There are sets of laws that we ALL have to live by and while you can choose not to like police for whatever reason, the fact is in the United States the basic social contract dictates that we (including myself) are to abide by the lawful orders given by police. It is our choice to comply with those orders or not. The police by design are expecting citizens to comply but are fully prepared if they don’t, so I once again attempt to appeal to peoples general sense of right and wrong and ask them to comply. Let the police do their jobs and everything will sort itself out in a matter of time. To decide to not comply, therein making the officers job 10 times more difficult, also now changing the outcome to one of a thousand different endings in my opinion is never a good way to go. By forcing an officer to now feel the need to escalate the level of force needed from verbal to physical (or higher) is setting a fuse for a potential tragedy, but yet many people will not take responsibility for their role in it but look to point the finger at the cop as if he or she is supposedly just accept being a literal punching bag by the person not wanting to comply with them.
It is that dehumanization of the police that has us in the place we are in now in our country. Those who believe that the police as a whole institution is a completely corrupt, dishonest, group of racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic bunch of stormtroopers whose only job is to oppress everyone at the hands of the local, state or federal government. While that may be true of some (since we still live in a largely racist, sexist, homophobic society), it is absolutely not true of the large majority. All cops are human. Some of them are racist. Some of them act in an unlawful manner. Hopefully with the current and future checks and balances in place those misfits (and others) will be weeded out of the policing profession so they do not tarnish the badge they wear and make a bad name for the rest of us who have spent a significant portion of our lives doing the right thing for the communities we have policed and live in. No one is questioning those who would march and hold rallies to ensure officers are being held accountable and/or their displeasure or outrage if they feel justice was not done. The disturbing trend we have seen in the last year or so is a series of violent protests, riots, and assassination of police officers, some of those committing the murders claiming inspiration of recent events and the need to “take two of theirs after they took one of ours” and by others who chant “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now !” For police who may have taken the job to protect and serve, knowing to do that you put your life at risk, this is a little different, with a sense that cops are now moving targets, with some being killed not engaged in any law enforcement action at all by either eating lunch or pumping gas. Nothing good will come of starting a street war with our police nationwide and it makes our country look like more of a laughing stock than it already is to other “civilized” nations. What’s ironic is that nearly everyone, including police killers know someone involved in law enforcement and for those that don’t they know at baseline that police officers are every much the same parents, children, friends and family members as anyone else is (aka humans).
There are some companies, like Blue Courage, ( www.bluecourage.com ) currently engaged in new style of training for police officers which makes the attempt to make substantive changes in the police subculture by almost pressing a “reset” button with the officers to try to get them out of a “warrior” mentality and into a “guardian” mentality. It incorporates all that they already know and enhances their tactics by infusing sets of ways to try and de-escalate potential situations when possible and practical. Trainings of this nature are being looked and favored heavily by the US Department of Justice after the release of the report by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in the spring of 2015. There are many departments across the US that have taken proactive steps to retrain, or incorporate additional trainings like Blue Courage, to try to make further improvements to their officers in the hopes it will avert another Ferguson in their town or city. That is great and I am a firm believer that there is always room for improvement in training and procedures to increase the quality and professionalism of our police. However, that will only cover part of the issue. Until we as a collective society can get along as one “united” people and learn to respect one another and especially respect those sworn to protect us, that is a critical piece of the pie that is missing.
There was a profound quote made by Harris County Texas Sheriff Hickman in the recent killing of a deputy in Harris County, in August 2015, in which he stated; “dangerous rhetoric” against law enforcement had “gotten out of control” and “We’ve heard black lives matter — all lives matter,” he said. “Well, cops’ lives matter, too.” I couldn’t agree more with that statement and later he added that we should probably drop the qualifier and just take “lives matter” to the bank and treat each other as such. All the time.