Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 8:42 pm

“The police are the good guys and he is a good kid, so no worries. I guess I was naive.”

To the extent I’ve gotten any respone to my postings here and on Facebook about Ferguson, it has mostly been private (which is fine), and a common theme has emerged: I need to listen to the cops’ side because I know nothing about being a cop.

And as I’ve pointed out, although I don’t, in fact, know what it’s like to be a cop, I have an idea, based on having spent several years of my career around them, often in cases in which the threat of deadly force was justified and at least once when deadly force had to be used.

But, yes, we should listen to the cops. I listened to one last night. Now here’s another one.

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’m 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.

This is one of the saddest damn things I’ve read in years — years that have not lacked in sadness.

But Sean Hannity will open his big thug mouth to argue, and a good 30% of the country doesn’t give a damn about this guy’s problems anyway. And it’s not About Race, because as Charlie Pierce has pointed out, in this country, Nothing Is Ever About Race.

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.

Oh, sure, it might be coincidence. But, like Jethro Gibbs, I don’t believe in coincidences.

And yet that young man, Michael Brown, he stole some cigars from a store, didn’t he?

As a cop I learned that it’s 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 chose 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 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.

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 sheer 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.

But he was 6 feet 4 and resisted arrest! At least, that’s what I heard!

 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 [expletive] 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 [expletive] 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.

But … but … but … RIOTS!

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 congressman 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.

Yeah, but those people didn’t get treated any differently from how anyone else would have been treated!

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 them 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. …

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 hanging the American flag upside down, or 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.

Oh. Um. Well.

So, there, I listened to another cop. And so, by way of reading this piece, did you.

Pop quiz: Did you hear him?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 9:18 pm

Time to yank a knot in the thin blue line

It’s time to get law enforcement in this country back under meaningful civilian control.

You think it already is? Then just read this remarkable piece by a Los Angeles police officer, published in The Washington Post:

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

That’s just one small section from a long piece that makes clear that the writer believes it’s his world, a world that belongs to his fellow cops, and that the rest of us just live in it.

Now, I’ll grant him right up front that he does offer one piece of advice that anyone, irrespective of circumstances, should take to heart unless you’re badly hurt and/or desperately need help: “Don’t even think of aggressively walking toward me.” And even if you are badly hurt and/or need help, if you’re going to walk toward a cop at all, shouting, “Help! Police!” until the cop responds to you would be a very good idea.

With that out of the way, let’s unpack the rest of his imperative.

He starts by stating that failing to “do what I tell you” could get you shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground.

He does not allow for the fact that he might be issuing these orders while lacking relevant information, perhaps even information pertaining to his own safety. He does not allow for the possibility that his orders might be given on shaky, if not nonexistent, constitutional grounds. “Don’t argue with me,” he says. Unconditionally.

But, you say, cops never, or almost never, give orders they don’t have the right to give.

Horseshit, say I. In 25 years of daily journalism, I lost count of the number of times I was ordered off public streets, sidewalks, or other property by local, state and federal authorities. I don’t mean ordered back behind police lines or barricades. I mean ordered off property on which I had a perfectly good legal and constitutional right to be.

The example that sticks out most in my mind was during televangelist Jim Bakker’s fraud trial, 25 years ago this summer. Early in the trial, Bakker had what later was revealed to be an anxiety attack. Court was recessed and Bakker and his lawyer went to his lawyer’s office. But the judge had other ideas and ordered Bakker taken into custody and taken to the federal mental hospital in Butner for observation. So the assistant U.S. marshals went to the lawyer’s office, which was in a restored old house. Naturally, reporters and producers jammed the sidewalk — but it was a public sidewalk and the agents had all the access they needed.

Nonetheless, they and local officers started ordering reporters off the sidewalks. But I had an ace in the hole: Next door to the lawyer’s office was my father’s office condo. So I stepped across the property line — and was promptly told to leave. Dad, who had noticed all the commotion, came out of his office to see what was going on and, visibly irritated, told the officer I had every right to be where I was. The officer looked him up and down and, apparently deciding that a dispute with a 59-year-old white man in a $500 suit was not one he was likely to win, walked away, looking back over his shoulder at me as he did so. (Dad then sighed and said, “When are you going to get a real job?” before walking back into his office.)

“Don’t call me names.” Really? Really? Officer, did your mama never teach you that sticks and stones might break your bones but names will never hurt you? Especially when you’re behaving badly on the public dime?

“Don’t tell me that I can’t stop you.” Sorry, but if I’m where I’m allowed to be and am breaking no laws, particularly if I’m functioning as a journalist (and you DO NOT have to be working for a mainstream news outlet to be doing so; freedom of the press belongs to the people), if you want to stop me, you’re going to have to arrest me. And the odds are very good that I’m going to have some kind of recording device, perhaps more than one, going as that happens.

“Don’t say I’m a racist pig.” Fair enough; don’t act like one. Over the years, I heard more than a few white cops say racist trash, knowing that I could hear it and knowing that I was a newspaper reporter. And if there were more than a few who felt comfortable enough to talk like that with a reporter around, I wonder how many more were saying stuff like that when I wasn’t.

“Don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.” Read another way: Don’t threaten to hold me legally accountable for my actions, even though that’s your perfect constitutional right.

“Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary.” Deal, as long as you’re not screaming at me when I tell you. Because it’s relevant. It matters. You are a public servant, not King of the Goddamn Streets.

I am not a law enforcement expert by any means. On the other hand, having spent a lot of time with cops over the years as a reporter, having seen some of what they see and smelled some of what they smell, having even witnessed a perfectly justifiable use of deadly force by sheriff’s deputies to prevent an armed man from harming others, I do know a little more than the average civilian. I get that it’s a tough, dirty and potentially dangerous job even on a good day. I get that cops are underpaid. I get the politics. I get the trickiness of the public relations and the even more important community relations. And I have a lot of respect for good cops.

Too much, in fact, to have any at all for bad ones. And there are some bad ones out there, including the writer of this Post article. The writer says no cop goes to work wanting or planning to shoot someone, which, the very rare very corrupt cop aside, is probably true. But he glides right over the fact that short of killing, a nontrivial number of officers wouldn’t mind very much if they got to get into a fight. You can deny it, but I’ve seen and heard it myself.

That attitude, that overweaning sense of entitlement, is problematic on a number of levels, but perhaps the most important one is that it’s simply un-American. It is exactly the kind of thing that the men who wrote the Bill of Rights were seeking to protect us from and that Supreme Court majorities in cases from Gideon and Miranda to U.S. v. Jones have said is impermissible.

And the Bill of Rights and those court rulings and more are incontrovertible evidence that the American people have never entered into a social contract that makes a cop on the street the absolute arbiter of anyone’s life and freedom of movement. More and more people, sick and tired of being sick and tired, are rising up and telling cops that in no uncertain terms. And they ain’t all black, either.

To be sure, the state of policing today is not all the cops’ fault. A lot of corporations made a lot of money selling military equipment to the government, and then when the government began donating surplus equipment to states and localities, were the cops going to say no? And after 9/11, a lazy but pervasive mental shorthand took hold: We’re in a war on terror, terror could strike anywhere, so we’ve got to be prepared to do battle. But in too many cases, the requisite training on how and when to use that military equipment didn’t accompany the goods. And thus we were faced last week with the sight of a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in an armored vehicle pointing a machine gun loaded with live ammunition at peaceful protesters.

Now, when I was no older than 5 and going dove hunting with Dad and some other relatives (I wasn’t actually hunting, but I did get to hold and carry a shotgun), he distinctly told me never to point a firearm at something unless you intended to shoot it. I bet your dad told you the same thing. So if you’re a resident of Ferguson, protesting peacefully or maybe not even doing that much, and a cop who supposedly has sworn to protect and serve you is pointing a machine gun at you, what are you supposed to think?

I’m thinkin’ there’s one cop who needs to lose his badge.

So you’ve got a nontrivial number of cops out there who think the Constitution doesn’t apply to them, that your civil rights don’t matter, and who have lots of very dangerous toys but no real idea when deploying those toys might do more harm than good. (The writer of the Post piece, with his emphasis on wanting to de-escalate situations, would be more believable if he acknowledged the reality that people in Ferguson, Mo., and many other places in America want a police force and not an occupying army.)

At no point in its history has the kind of policing the writer embraces above ever been part of the formal social contract. Oh, sure, it happened, but it did so in violation of the country’s own contract with itself. And it needs to stop. The police themselves will benefit from a population that doesn’t have so many examples of cops behaving badly to look at.

So how do we get there? We start requiring federal, state and local law enforcement to operate in a state of complete transparency with respect to how they do their jobs. We decide that no such person is entitled to any right of privacy with respect to his performance of his official duties. We make it all public, good and bad. We mandate independent investigation at the federal level of all officer-involved shootings.

Yeah, it’ll take a little time and money. Worse, it will require changing some attitudes that are generations old and baldly used for political purposes today.

But if we go that route, I can pretty much guarantee that law enforcement officers’ relationships with their communities will improve, and as a result their jobs will become at least a little bit safer and easier. And I think we can all agree that that would be a good thing.

 

 

 

 

Ferguson, Mo., Mayor James Knowles: Out of touch, out of time

In light of the assertion today by James Knowles, the white mayor of 67% African American Ferguson, Mo., that there aren’t any racial divides in his city and that the entire city, black and white alike, would agree with him, my fortuitous stumbling across this passage from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August*, about the beginning of World War I a century ago, seems apropos:

[German] General von Hausen, commanding the Third Army… could not get over the “hostility of the Belgian people.” To discover “how we are hated” was a constant amazement to him. He complained bitterly of the attitude of the D’Eggremont family in whose luxurious château of forty rooms, with green-houses, gardens, and stable for fifty horses, he was billeted for one night. The elderly Count went around “with his fists clenched in his pockets”; the two sons absented themselves from the dinner table; the father came late to dinner and refused to talk or even respond to questions, and continued in this unpleasant attitude in spite of Hausen’s gracious forbearance in ordering his military police not to confiscate the Chinese and Japanese weapons collected by Count D’Eggremont during his diplomatic service in the Orient. It was a most distressing experience.

I love the snark in that last sentence.

Because here’s the thing, Mr. Mayor: Three independent witnesses have proclaimed that a white officer, Darren Wilson, shot a black man, Michael Brown, six times without provocation; many more witnesses know that Brown’s body was left in the street for hours. An autopsy report not only corroborates witness accounts, it also impeaches the police version of events.  Given that, the least you could have done was to have called for an immediate, outside, transparent investigation and seen to it that Wilson was suspended from duty without pay pending the outcome. Instead, you reflexively defended your cops without having had the slightest idea what actually went down (or else knowing and not caring), then denied today that the racial element of this incident even exists. That so many people have gotten so upset, and that your town’s behavior has drawn critical attention from around the globe now, seems “a constant amazement” to you.

And I’m sure it’s “a most distressing experience” for you that people aren’t holding still for your racist blinders, your utter lack of connection with your own community, and the apparent lies you and the police department are telling. But you know what? Some people need to be distressed, and right now you’re approaching the top of that list. The demographic tidal wave of your community is inexorable. But rather than showing leadership, you double down on a vision and a policing approach that are decades past their sell-by date and expect people to appreciate your gracious forbearance in not allowing the police, so far, to mow down with automatic weapons the civilians peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights of speech, press, assembly, and petitioning government for redress of grievances.

That’s mighty white of you, sir.

*h/t: J. Bradford DeLong

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