As I watch the events in Ferguson Missouri I can't help but think about my own time in law enforcement and just how much I've changed since I wore the badge.
It's only been a few years but seems like a lifetime ago. I would come in to work and feel like I could make a difference in this world. Back then when I lined up for roll call, I would look around me and see a squad room full of diverse personalities and experiences that I knew made us all more effective. I trusted these men and women because I believed in the good we could do and the bond of brotherhood we shared. But a little over a year ago something happened that forced me to take a hard look at the realities of the system that I had been a part of. When I did I learned a lot about myself and finally had to accept some hard facts.
I learned that justice is not blind and there is a very thin blue line that unifies cops. I learned that Americans are not just divided by red and blue, when it comes to the law we are divided by black and white. I accepted that sometimes we have a justice system with two sets of rules. I had to accept that no matter how well I raise my son he will grow up in a world where I still have to be afraid for him. Not just from criminals, but from my brothers and sisters in blue. For most of his young life all my son has ever seen is me in a uniform with a gun and a badge. He doesn't know to fear the police because I have always told him he didn't have to. The police are the good guys and he is a good kid, so no worries. I guess I was naive. I never thought that I would have to explain to him that despite my years in law enforcement, I am still a second class citizen in the eyes of the law.
For his sake I have to tell him no matter how professional he looks, no matter how well he carries himself, no matter how much education he obtains, as a black male he has to meet a higher standard of submission to authority or his life is at risk. Even if he chooses to raise his right hand and swear to protect and serve this country with his life it doesn't change that fact. It hurts to know that I'm going to have to give my son that talk. I tell myself that things are still like this because of ignorance and fear. I blame it on politicians who turn fear in to resentment and the wealthy elites who exploit those resentments to satisfy their own agenda. The hopeful part of me thinks that our differences are not really as bad as they seem. My head tells me that time will change things. Time. But my heart tells me that right now I just need to protect my son.
As a cop I learned that it is usually best to wait until you know as much information as possible before you go on the record so I'll be completely honest;
I don't know why an unarmed 18 year old was shot multiple times.
I don't know what that police officer felt in the seconds before he pulled the trigger.
I don't know why the Ferguson Police chooses to withhold details about this shooting.
I don't know why this police chief decided to have SWAT teams on foot patrols.
I don't know why this police chief deployed Armored Vehicles and Snipers to this area.
I don't know why police officers were locking up reporters.
I don't know how a community that is 67% black has a police department that is 96% white.
But here are a few things that I do know. I know what it's like to walk around in a Kevlar helmet, gas mask, shield, and baton dressed in riot control gear. It's hot, it's frustrating, and most of the time you are just standing around waiting. I know that Protests and Riots are not the same thing and just because someone is protesting the police does not make them a "thug". I know that the criminals that are using this situation to loot and cause havoc should be arrested and prosecuted period. I know that whether you are a rapper, a teacher, a nun, or a congressmen you should have the same rights. I know that if your police department continues to let the community's questions go unanswered for days while you post armored vehicles and snipers in their neighborhoods you might not get a very positive outcome. I know that if your unofficial departmental policy is to ignore the underlying problems in a community and never address their actual issues don't be surprised if protests become riots.
I know that diversity makes an organization more efficient and more credible. The fact that the Ferguson Police Department cannot recruit or retain more than 3 black officers in a city that is almost 3/4 black speaks volumes. It takes a lot of effort to maintain that kind of imbalance. What they don't realize is that keeping black people out of their department is doing nothing but hurting their department. I know that a robbery in any jurisdiction is a felony. That means when that call comes in to 911 it should be dispatched as a high priority call. That dispatcher should alert everybody that the crime has just happened and give a BOLO with a detailed description of the suspect, and what direction they were last seen headed. If an officer sees a person fitting the description of the suspect that officer should advise dispatch what they have, THEN make a FELONY stop. If that is what happened the day that Brown was killed then there should be a dispatch recording of the robbery call and of the officer stopping Brown. Get the tapes.
Now I know this having never set foot in Ferguson Missouri. Whatever their intent was, the way that the Ferguson Police department has handled this situation has seemed incompetent, petty, and disrespectful to the community that they are supposed to serve. I don't even live there and I feel insulted. You can't just drop into black churches during the day and then drop the hammer on black people at night. It's ridiculous to believe you can withhold details about an officer involved shooting victim then release a video of that person committing a crime and believe nobody will figure out what you are doing. Even from an investigative standpoint the decision to release that video served no logical purpose. If it was Brown, the robbery case was solved the minute they positively ID'd him. You don't prosecute a crime when the suspect is deceased, you just close the case. Other than just shear vindictiveness I can't see the legal purpose in releasing that video. So either this chief has no clue, no control of his command staff or he doesn't care.
I've done the job. I don't know everything but I understand the high-points as well as the risks of police work. When I was on the street I wasn't perfect by any means. I made mistakes and sometimes I let the moment get the best of me. If I saw two guys walking in the road when there was a perfectly good sidewalk, I would probably have told them to get out of the street. If they were knuckleheads they might tell me to fuck off. Now I could choose to either ignore it or I could engage them. At this point I've got enough probable cause to charge them with pedestrian in the roadway but that's pretty much it. If I decided I wanted to make that charge I could give them each a ticket and a court date or I could put handcuffs on them and take them to jail. Either way I would have had to physically get out of my patrol car and make contact with them. Once an officer decides to make contact in a situation like that things can go from OK to very bad in seconds. Right now we don't know what happened once that officer got out of his patrol car. We don't know what Brown did or what the officer thought he was about to do, but going from a pedestrian traffic charge to lethal force is a very steep climb.
Once that officer's gun comes out it's hard to climb back down from that. Officer Wilson has to be able to articulate how he got to that level of force with an unarmed person. If not he's in trouble. There is no way around it.
It doesn't matter if your subject looks like the hulk, is talking shit and refusing verbal commands, that's not enough for deadly force. Even if you are trying to put the hand cuffs on him, he jerks back and pushes you off to get away, that's not enough. It doesn't matter how angry the guy makes you. It doesn't matter if he embarrassed you. It doesn't matter if he told you what he was going to do to your wife and kids. All that matters is at that moment: was the suspect armed? Did he have the ability to seriously hurt you? Did he pose an imminent threat to use that ability? Were you convinced that you were in immediate mortal danger?
Just resisting the police does not meet the standard for deadly force.
Even when a suspect has gone from simply resisting you to actively fighting you, once he complies with your commands and can be taken into custody he should be taken into custody. Once the threat has stopped, then your need to use force stops too. Even if you respond to a call and a suspect has just shot and killed dozens of people in a movie theater, once he throws down his weapons and puts up his hands, and you can safely take him into custody, then you take him into custody. You don't execute him because he's a mass murderer.
What that officer did or did not do right is something that has to be resolved soon for the sake of the Brown family, the community and everybody else involved. I know all too well that police make mistakes. Unfortunately mistakes in police work can be deadly for either party. That's why in the heat of the moment you need to make good tactical decisions. Hopefully you have other officers to help you. Hopefully you self-correct before you get too far out there. But what the Ferguson Police department has done in the aftermath of the shooting indicates a serious lack of respect for the community that they serve. From what I can tell that lack of respect starts at the top.
Respect is probably the most essential resource that law enforcement has. Respect is what maintains order between you and the public. Even on the street respect is what governs the interactions between criminals. It's not your gun or your baton that commands respect, it's your presence. Your success and sometimes even your survival depend on how people perceive you. As a police officer you need respect from the citizens and criminals alike. But those same people also need it from you. Some respect is automatically granted to you because of the profession but in police work the kind of respect that is earned is what is most important. A lot of officers lose sight of that.
When I first hit the street a veteran officer asked me "hey Rook, what's the most effective piece of equipment that you have?" I looked down at my gun belt and thought about it for a minute. I knew that in most cases deadly force was not called for so it wasn't my gun. My ASP Baton seemed like the next logical choice but I figured you can't just beat people into compliance all the time. Finally I answered "my OC Spray?" He just smiled and said "naw rook, your best weapon is your mouth piece". He was right. The way you talk to people. The way you deal with them. Officer presence. Being able to command respect and exude authority without having to constantly use force. That is what is most important. I'm not saying an officer needs to be all smiles and never use force, that's ridiculous. But being a professional means being firm and prudent. If somebody mouths off to you, you can't get so caught up in it that they always end up in handcuffs with a busted lip. Being able to manage yourself and a violent situation effectively without losing control, that's what makes you a professional. You just can't beat everybody that is non-compliant and you certainly can't shoot everybody that you have to go hands on with.
Respect is the only thing that keeps you in your job.
Respect is what allows you to put a 6ft 5, 280 pound killer in hand cuffs and load him into the back of your patrol car without a fight, not your elite unarmed combat skills.
Respect is what makes that citizen on your beat call 911 when see their cousin you've been looking for who is wanted for burglary.
Respect is what makes that junkie you arrested a month ago for possession warn you about the suspect you are about to arrest who hides a gun in his pants and has been telling people "he aint going back to jail".
Respect can keep you alive.
When you show up on a call with your shiny badge and gun citizens automatically give your uniform a base line respect. Not you the person, they are respecting the uniform and the authority that it represents. But as soon as you step out of that patrol car the clock starts running. How you do your job and interact with people from that second forward will be the reason why you get respect or not. Some of my most valuable lessons were not learned in the Academy but in getting out and interacting with people of all backgrounds. Learning to appreciate where they come from. I learned that trying to maintain a basic level of respect for a person can make your job easier and will take you a long way in your career. Believe me it's not always possible. It's a grimy job. You've got to put your hands on people sometimes. The things that people are capable of doing to one another is shocking. The job can get to you because there are bad people in this world who can't be changed and you can't see any humanity left in them at all. On occasion you feel so overwhelmed with the misery around you that you see you feel like you simply can't stomach it. That's when you have to respect yourself enough to stay professional. You can't lose yourself. If you do eventually all that negativity will turn into contempt and that can take you to a very dark place.
Fear and intimidation will only take you so far. Any cop that has worked the street for a while knows that. Policing is governed by 2 basic factors. You having the authority to perform your duties and the community accepting that authority. If the community doesn't believe you have the authority to do your job how you are doing it, then you've got a problem. There are not enough rubber bullets and tear gas in the world to change that basic fact. That's why until they deal with their structural issues, the Ferguson police department will never be able to get the respect from the community they serve. Definitely not just by lobbing tear gas at them and pointing sniper rifles at their heads. Fear? Yes. Compliance? For a while. But genuine respect? Without a real commitment to changing the community's perception the only thing these tactics will do is harden resentment.
Now for those people who say "if you just do what the cops tell you to do and your not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about", I say they are correct, some of the time .. But sometimes If you have the wrong situation and if you have the wrong officer then you might be ok IF you are the right color.
Just contrast what has happened in Ferguson Missouri to what happened last spring in Bunkerville Nevada. In Ferguson we had the police reaction to protesters. In Bunkerville we had the protesters reaction to police. Two different groups of citizens with ostensibly the same 1st amendment issues but two drastically different reactions by the citizens and law enforcement. Based on what I saw of the operation on TV it looked like a tactical nightmare. I lost count of the problems that the agents faced when they went in to enforce a court order there. Mostly I believe they gave this guy Bundy too many chances for too long. When the BLM cops finally decided to go in there they weren't committed to whatever the plan was. That indicates a major leadership issue.
I was completely stunned to see those officers surrounded by screaming people with assault rifles, a police dog getting kicked, and open defiance of verbal commands. But when I saw that those officers had sniper rifles pointed at them I could not believe my eyes. Snipers. On live TV. Let me repeat that:
On the Bundy Ranch, armed protesters were violently obstructing law enforcement from performing their duties. Sniper rifles were pointed at those law enforcement officers. Then those snipers openly gloated about how they had the agents in their sights the entire time. And what was the police response? All out retreat. Nobody was arrested. No tear gas deployed. No tanks were called in. No Snipers posted in the neighborhood. No rubber bullets fired. Nothing. Police officers in mortal danger met with heavily armed resistance and no one had to answer for it. Could any reasonable person look at scenes coming out of Nevada and say they looked peaceful?
Nobody called the armed protesters at the Bundy Ranch who threatened police thugs.
Nobody told the Bundy Ranch gang that the government was supreme so they should just let the system work it out.
Nobody told them to just shut up and do what they were told.
2 incidents, same laws, but 2 different sets of rules.
On a certain level I understand the retreat. Bundy was looking for a showdown. He wanted bloodshed. He was just using those people camped out on his lawn as cannon fodder, he had no real respect for them. He just wanted to get out of paying his bills. If actual shooting had occurred do you think Bundy or his sons would have led the patriot army in a revolt and stormed the battlements? Hell No. Clive Bundy and his family would have been on the first thing smoking out of Nevada and some poor idiot with a goatee and a Gadsden Flag shirt would have paid for Bundy's hubris with their life. But thankfully that didn't happen. Once that dog whistle blew, people picked their side and the Bundy Ranch became a manifestation of all that pent up rage. They even had law enforcement supporters there giving speeches about putting women and children out front to get shot by the Feds first. (That guy was an embarrassment to the profession.)
Bundy's strategy was effective because sympathetic news outlets kept pumping him up as a patriotic conservative when in reality Bundy was not conservative and he definitely is not patriotic. The man was just a welfare cowboy who had renounced his own country. But facts didn't matter. Law enforcement let them off the hook and so did the media. The press didn't call what those people did to those officers in Nevada a riot. But I haven't seen any protesters in Ferguson renouncing their citizenship. I haven't heard of any protest leaders on the street in Ferguson Missouri calling for the overthrow of the city council or the removal of the mayor by force. What about those 2nd amendment remedies that politicians were hinting at 5 years ago? Just imagine if there were 150 black folks walking around Ferguson with assault rifles right now. Imagine if a couple of them took up sniper positions on the tops of buildings with their rifles pointed at the police officers. Take a quick guess at how that story ends.
It's been exactly one year since I had to come to terms with the reality of my time in law enforcement. The Zimmerman acquittal seems like a lifetime ago. But it forced me to see what I didn't want to see. I know now that an honest discussion about our criminal justice system is radioactive because race is a factor nobody wants to face. But we need to face it and change it drastically. As a police officer I struggled with that reality. But I won't ignore it anymore. I believe in this country. I believe in the nobility of the profession. I know we are better than this.
Sat Aug 30, 2014 at 1:57 PM PT: There are quite a few people who seem to think that supporting law enforcement means not holding cops accountable when they make mistakes, that's just wrong. The only way to improve outcomes for citizens AND officer safety IS to hold them accountable. When you are in training as a cop you actually spend half of your time reviewing situations where officers did things incorrectly as a learning tool. For those people who are just having a knee jerk reaction to unequivocally defend Officer Wilson and assume Michael Brown deserved to die I'm asking you to step back for a minute and consider. Folks You are not doing cops ANY favors by giving them a pass for shoddy police work. A police officer is just like any other professional if your not doing your job right, it eventually catches up with you.
Police Officers HAVE to be held accountable for what they do, not protected.