Healing the Rift Between Police and the Public
I recently wrote an essay about the Michael Brown shooting (https://chrishernandezauthor.com/2014/08/24/a-dose-of-reality-for-ferguson-missouri/comment-page-4/). In the essay I debunked some of the most commonly used arguments to “prove” the shooting was unjustified (i.e., “Shooting an unarmed person is always wrong”). Not surprisingly, many readers took my essay to mean I’m part of the “blue wall”, and that I’ll back up a cop no matter what he does. That’s not the case.
If a cop is guilty, he’s guilty. During my career I’ve known three officers who were charged with committing rape while on duty. Two of them went to prison, because they deserved it. I didn’t hear anyone defend them. Every cop I know hates a rapist, especially one wearing a badge. I’ve known other officers who went down in flames for other crimes, because they should have.
So I’m not always on a cop’s side. Law enforcement isn’t a gang. Loyalty doesn’t override principle.
Now that I’ve shown where I stand, I’ll point out that my essay wasn’t about law enforcement’s many problems, or racial bias in society, or how to fix everything that’s wrong with everything. The essay was intentionally very limited in scope; all I did was address misconceptions many people have about violence and lethal force encounters. I avoided the other issues because I’m no sociology professor. I’m just a cop, soldier and community college non-graduate.
However, a few readers asked me to comment on the larger issues, because they thought my perspective was important. So I’m going to address three ways I think we cops can get the public back on our side.
And let’s face it, we police are losing more and more public support with every high-profile incident like we just had in Missouri. Parts of the public have never trusted police and never will, but we’re also losing support from traditional allies like the military. When a retired Marine officer says we’re the standing army the founding fathers warned everyone about, we have a serious problem. And it’s a problem we created.
It should go without saying that every opinion I write is mine and mine alone. I don’t speak for my department, and won’t even publicly acknowledge which department I work for. I don’t represent the military either. I’m just speaking my opinion, based on two decades as a cop.
Method 1: Lose the military gear
Even though I’m a minority and police allegedly want to murder me because of my skin tone, for some odd reason I’ve never been afraid of a police officer in America. And in another strange twist, neither I nor any of my dark-skinned friends or family members have ever been shot by a cop. I grew up lower middle class, obviously Hispanic, but never felt oppressed.
But I was scared of cops once. In another country. During a war.
In 2001, while I was working as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo, I had to stay overnight in neighboring Macedonia to catch a flight early the next morning. Macedonia was at that time embroiled in a civil war between the Slavic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. The Macedonian military and police were run by Slavs, and they believed Americans were backing their Albanian enemies. Despite the war, borders were open and the capital’s airport was still running. One of my Albanian translators in Kosovo lived in Macedonia and invited me to stay with his family before the flight.
I had a very nice dinner with his family. Then the translator, his brother and I walked to the town square. Before we left the house they warned me: “If we get stopped by the police, don’t talk. Most of the police are drunk, and they hate Americans. You look Albanian, so if you don’t talk they won’t know.”
The town square was nearly empty because of recent fighting. We only spent a short time there before heading back. And as we walked back through a darkened neighborhood, we turned a corner and ran right into the police.
There were maybe four or five of them. The “police officers”, if you could call them that, looked exactly like soldiers. They were dressed in camouflage fatigues and black combat boots, wore chest rigs and carried AK-47s. They were closer to a fire team than a police patrol.
When they saw us they almost stopped, and glared hard at us. My heart rate quickened. One officer in particular, a small dark guy, focused on me. Crap, I thought, and looked away. I was unarmed, had no idea where exactly I was and had no realistic expectation of either fighting or escaping. If one of those guys decided it would be fun to throw an American in jail, into jail I’d go. And jails in semi-third world, former communist countries aren’t known for being pleasant.
My Albanian hosts gave the officers a friendly greeting in Serbo-Croatian. The officers mumbled back a reply. We turned toward the house, which actually put us in front of the police. I didn’t look back, but I expected to hear “Stop!” in Serbian any second. My friends whispered, “Just act like everything’s normal. I don’t think they figured out you’re American.” Eventually, several minutes later, one of them looked behind us. The coast was clear.
I relaxed, but it had been an odd feeling. I had never been scared of a cop before. I guess when police are geared up like soldiers in a war, and look like they hate you, they can be intimidating.
Anyone else ever seen a cop wearing so much military gear you literally couldn’t tell whether he was a cop or soldier?
I’ve been a Marine and Soldier longer than I’ve been a cop, and I served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I understand that military gear can be useful to cops. If some wacko with an AK is dumping rounds out his bedroom window, I want an MRAP there. If ISIS is attacking a school, I want SWAT teams to be fully geared out like I was overseas. Other than those extreme situations, why do we need to look and act military?
This is a fine line. We soldiers have learned a lot of hard lessons in the past 13 years of war, and anything we learn that can help make police safer, which then makes the public safer, is a good thing. But there has to be a balance. Yes, officers should carry tourniquets and pressure bandages, because those items save lives. No, officers don’t need to wear desert boots or camouflage uniforms on the street. And good God, someone please explain to me why a cop on duty in America would ever need to wear a shamagh (Arab head scarf).
Do desert boots, camo and shamaghs make us safer or help us do our jobs? No, but they do accomplish two other things: making us look like wannabe soldiers, and gradually eroding public respect for police. The cool gear some of us wear isn’t worth the bad feelings it generates.
People get why we cops do what we do. Most of them respect what we do. But they don’t respect us if we look like we’re trying to be someone else. A cop in all camo with desert boots, a shamagh, chest rig and carbine looks like he’s trying to be a soldier instead of a cop.
Americans don’t want soldiers patrolling the streets looking for combat. They want officers there to help people who need help and keep the community safe. They understand we need to fight sometimes, they understand we need to shoot sometimes. But they don’t want us all geared out unless the crap hits the fan. And that’s not unreasonable.
We’re not at war here in America. We don’t need to look (or act) like those “cops” I encountered in Macedonia. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any military-type gear; on patrol I carried a carbine, plate carrier and helmet in my trunk for special occasions, and I broke it out several times. We should put that gear on when circumstances demand it. But we shouldn’t break it out simply because circumstances “permit” it.
Method 2: Cameras. Lotsa cameras.
Many cops don’t like having cameras in their car or on their body. I understand why. Even in cases where we do everything right, police work can still be ugly. There is no nice, gentle, eye-pleasing way to take down a violent suspect. And the language of the street ain’t too pretty either. Cops are human, and there are cases (lots of cases) where we use bad language during a high-stress incident. Some police actions just look bad on video, no matter how right we might be. And it’s a bit unreasonable for someone to watch a video of a violent struggle between a cop and criminal and say, “Just because that PCP addict attacked an officer with a tire iron, there’s no reason for the officer to curse. The officer should have called him ‘sir’.”
Video doesn’t always tell the whole story, either. An officer in the middle of a critical incident may miss something that’s readily apparent on video. There are good reasons for this: an officer may have been stunned by a blow, or had a brief visual obstruction, or may be suffering from physiological responses to stress such as tunnel vision. People watching video of an event might say, “Why didn’t the officer see that? It’s totally obvious!” And maybe it is obvious – to the camera. To the guy fighting for his life, it may not have been.
I hate comparing any real-life activity to sports, but consider how often players, refs and fans see something in an instant replay that they missed during the actual play. If someone never played sports and only watched instant replays, “what should have been done” might seem real obvious. It’s not so obvious to the guy playing the game. Video doesn’t capture everything, and even when it does it may not show what the officer saw.
Here’s an interesting example. A dash cam captured part of a fight between an officer and suspect, but didn’t capture the suspect hitting the officer. If the officer hadn’t been wearing a body camera, he would have been stuck trying to convince the public that he was assaulted.
Without question, video has its limitations. But even if it doesn’t tell the whole story, it still provides the public with critical information.
Consider this shooting, which superficially compares to the Ferguson shooting. An unarmed black male was killed by a white police officer. The officer claimed he was attacked and had no choice but to shoot. Without video, and absent any significant injuries, that officer would be hard-pressed to explain why a grown man with a Taser and maybe baton and pepper spray couldn’t defend himself against one unarmed guy.
The video shows just how big and aggressive that suspect was. It clearly shows the officer did not provoke the fight. It shows his Taser fail. It shows the first punch that floored him. In short, it removes the “he said/she said” atmosphere swirling around the Ferguson shooting.
Here’s another one. Officers kill a suspect trying to stab his girlfriend.
Two major points from this incident: officers accidentally shot the girlfriend in the arm when they killed her boyfriend, and the girlfriend says repeatedly “Y’all didn’t have to do that.” In many domestic violence cases, the victim will claim she wasn’t in any danger and the officers didn’t have to take the action they did. This woman insisted the officers didn’t have to shoot; however, in the video (at around 00:57) we see the suspect trying so hard to stab her that the knife blade actually bends from the downward pressure.
The officers were obviously justified. The video proves it. But imagine how it would have been reported without that video.
“White officers shoot black woman while allegedly trying to save her from her black boyfriend. ‘They didn’t even have to shoot him,’ woman says. ‘He wasn’t really trying to hurt me.’”
Cameras may not be perfect, but they give us a better option than expecting everyone to believe us just because we’re cops. The public doesn’t give us that much benefit of the doubt anymore. But if we all have car and body cameras, and the public hears us testify to facts that are backed up by video, we’ll start getting that benefit of the doubt when there is no video. We cops should start demanding that our departments provide cameras. They’ll save a lot of officers who might otherwise be going through the same thing Darren Wilson is.
Method 3: End the Drug War (or at least legalize marijuana)
Many years ago I responded to a robbery call. A local teenager tried to rob a business owner at an ATM. The business owner knew who the teenager was, because he was a frequent customer. He gave me the name, I found an address in our system. Another officer and I went to the suspect’s house and knocked on the door.
A red-eyed man in his 30’s answered. The smell of marijuana flowed from the house. The man’s eyes widened when he realized we were cops. He yanked his head back into the house and almost slammed the door, but left it open just enough for me to see about half his face.
I asked, “Does John Smith live here?”
“Yeah he lives here. Why you asking?”
“Are you his father?”
“Yeah I’m his father!” the man blurted. “But he ain’t here!”
“Do you mind if we come in and check?”
“Why do you need to do that?” the man defensively asked. “I just told you he ain’t here!”
The man was nervous as hell. “Sir, your son is a suspect in a robbery,” I said, in as calm a voice as possible. “All I need to do is confirm he’s not inside. I don’t care about the marijuana.”
As soon as I said “I don’t care about the marijuana,” the man’s expression changed. The tension seemed to drain from his face. He relaxed, exhaled deeply, and opened the door.
“He’s not here, officer. I haven’t seen him for hours. Come on in.”
And just like that, an uncooperative family member became cooperative. He led us through the house, showed us his son’s room, gave us information about where his son might be, and thanked us as we left. He knew his son was a bad kid, and didn’t begrudge us for trying to catch him. He just didn’t want to be jacked with for smoking marijuana by himself in his own house. And I didn’t blame him.
Obviously, not every pot smoker will suddenly become pro-police if we ignore their marijuana use. But there are many people who smoke marijuana but aren’t criminals. They don’t get angry at us for arresting robbers, rapists and murderers, but they do get angry at us for throwing people in jail over the functional equivalent of drinking a few beers.
The Drug War, in addition to being unwinnable, has gained us more enemies than anything else over the last half-century. We’ve gained all these enemies because we cops have embraced drug enforcement and all the tactics that go with it. Every time we dig around someone’s groin for drugs, or breach a door for a no-knock warrant against a marijuana grower, or throw a flash-bang into a toddler’s crib during a raid, we turn more and more people against us. The excesses committed in our crusade to eradicate drugs have been so egregious, we’ve actually seen a grand jury in law-and-order Texas refuse to indict a marijuana dealer who killed a cop raiding his house. That grand jury, and much of America, decided drug use may be bad, but kicking in people’s doors to stop drug use is worse.
In most cops’ minds, “anyone involved with drugs” equals “bad guy”. I used to feel that way myself. And granted, a lot of drug users and dealers really are bad guys. But when we arrest for simple possession, we’re not discriminating between peaceful users and actual criminal thugs who happen to use or sell drugs. We don’t need to treat the kid smoking a joint in his apartment the same as the Mexican Mafia murderer who makes his living selling tons of weed and killing rival dealers.
For years I’ve heard drug users say, “Aw man, I ain’t hurtin’ nobody,” when we arrest them. For years, I’ve heard cops jokingly say, “Aw man, he ain’t hurtin’ nobody,” when they’re making fun of someone under arrest for drugs. I’ve said it myself. But now I realize a lot of them actually weren’t hurting anyone, and arresting them literally did nothing to protect the public. All we did was further overload the criminal justice system, create years of problems for people who weren’t criminals, and convince ourselves we had somehow accomplished something positive for society. And at the end of the shift many of us went home and had a beer, even though all cops know alcohol causes the same problems we accuse illegal drugs of causing.
Many cops will have a knee-jerk reaction against everything I just said. They’ll say, “We can’t legalize any drugs, not even marijuana! We don’t want people driving stoned!” or “Would you want your kid smoking weed?” Well, we don’t want people driving drunk either, but alcohol is legal. I don’t want my kids to drink at all (I don’t and never have), but it’s legal. In fact, whenever cops object to legalizing marijuana by saying “But marijuana is bad because (insert bad thing here)!” they should just switch out “marijuana” with “alcohol” and repeat the statement.
Of course, we cops can’t end the drug war on our own. But we can oppose it at the voting booth and make our feelings known, and we sure as heck don’t have to be enthusiastic about drug enforcement. A lot of cops already have shown their support for legalization in a survey conducted by PoliceOne, a law enforcement web site. 44% of officers surveyed were either pro-legalization or receptive to the idea.
Guys, imagine an America where cops wear regular uniforms with body cameras and don’t jack with people for smoking a joint. Imagine how we’d be viewed if we’d only arrest bad guys for hurting others, instead of throwing people in jail for the type of cigarette they smoke. I think we’d get tons of support if the public knew our only job was to help victims and arrest the people who victimized them.
Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe all the ideas I have are off base and would lead to national disaster. Maybe. But I think it would be worth a shot to try them out anyway. Because what we’re doing now sure as hell isn’t working.
Chris Hernandez is a 20 year police officer, former Marine and currently serving National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com, Iron Mike magazine and has published two military fiction novels, Proof of Our Resolve and Line in the Valley, through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed under: Cops | 70 Comments
Tags: body cameras, drug war, ferguson missouri, law enforcement