First let me say, once again, that I am very supportive of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and nationwide against police brutality and racism. I want it to end too and I am very thankful it is happening and very prayerful that this movement will lead us toward a more just way of being a nation. But, in order for that to happen, I also think it is important that these protests lead to concrete ACTION plans that stand a chance of going somewhere and that is going to take a lot of education. Knowing something about the history and roots of systemic racism is obviously important. But it is also important to know something about the nuts and bolts of policing. That is where I think I might be able to help and why I am blogging about it, trying to answer questions that activists ask me.
Yesterday, I tried to answer the question “Why don’t ‘good cops’ turn ‘bad cops’ in.” Today I am going to try to answer another question that keeps coming up, “Why don’t police shoot people in the legs?” Here is why:
1. It is virtually impossible to do. Police receive firearms training that is much more extensive than that most civilian gun owners receive. In addition, they are required to demonstrate proficiency with firearms at least once a year at the firing range. As a result, most cops can hit a paper target with much greater accuracy than most. Many probably could deliberately hit something smaller than a human chest, like a human leg – at the range that is. But the range isn’t the streets. Firing at a paper target, under optimal lighting conditions, where the target doesn’t move and no one is shooting back at you is way different than shooting a person who is moving when you feel your life is threatened. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers on this. (Firearms instructors may correct me here.) but I think the average “hit ratio” in a street gun battle is about one in ten for police and one in twenty for civilians. That means, on the average, if a cop fires ten rounds, only one is likely to hit the suspect anywhere on the body. That is why police are trained to aim for “center mass” or the chest and not even try to aim for a leg or other smaller target.
2. There is no such thing as “shoot to kill” versus “shoot to injure.” That only happens on TV. In real life, there is only shoot to stop.
3. Shooting is deadly physical force. Period. Police are not legally justified in using a gun unless they are in a situation where deadly physical force is justified, such as they have good reason to believe that there is an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to them or someone else and there is no other way of stopping the threat than to shoot. Asking them to use guns as “less than lethal” weapons – or any other way – is asking for more trouble, not less.
So what DOES make sense? In my opinion, it makes sense to demand that police stay within the current legal and department guidelines for the use of deadly physical force, that police-involved shooting investigations be thorough and transparent, that black and brown suspects be treated the same way white suspects are treated, that police receive more and better training in all areas including firearms training and not just the paper target kind, but also the “shoot – don’t shoot” kind, such as what is available via the FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) where they have to make simulated judgment calls about when to shoot and when to hold their fire, where the race of the suspect can be controlled for and things like a tendency to shoot black people more than white people can come to light and corrected.
Those kind of reforms stand a chance of actually being implemented and, more importantly, actually saving lives.
Saying “they should shoot people in the legs” while totally understandable, isn’t.
In community – police dialogues I am often asked why it is that the many “good cops” – meaning those who respect the public, particularly communities of color and don’t use excessive force and don’t engage in brutality – don’t “turn in the bad ones” meaning those who do. I am told that the fact that they don’t is a major reason why people don’t trust police.
OK, fair enough. I can see that point. When “good cops” don’t turn in “bad cops” it makes it look like all cops are bad. In many, if not most, lines of work people do turn in colleagues who don’t live up to professional standards. It is a matter of pride and integrity. But it rarely works that way in policing. Here are some reasons why:
1. Unlike other professions, with the possible exception of that of a professional soldier, police literally hold each other’s lives in their hands. It is very hard to “turn in” someone for questionable behavior if they may be the ones to either rush to your aid if you call a 10-13 (officer needs assistance, as in a life threatening situation) or take their time getting there.
2. Police often find themselves in ambiguous situations where things are not necessarily as they seem. They don’t always have time to weigh all the facts before acting. It is a difficult job and not all of it is pretty. What may look, on the surface, to be an obvious act of brutality may turn out not to be. Therefore, the phrases “don’t Monday morning quarterback” and “you weren’t there so you can’t judge” are pretty common in police circles.
3. Police feel like nobody understands them but their own. I have to say, that is legitimate. Before I was a police officer, I was a major critic of police. Growing up in the Vietnam era, I was part of a number of anti-war protests. I always had an opinion about how the cops (actually, in those days I called them “fucking pigs”) did their jobs. I felt like I could do better. So I tried. In the process I discovered that, while some of my criticisms were very valid, others were not. You can’t find that out from reading books (or blogs.) You have to have worn the uniform to get it. Obviously, the “us and them” thing is not healthy. I personally try to reject it, particularly since so much of my life has been, and continues to be, in non-police contexts. But there are aspects of the work that do need to be experienced to be believed and the idea that “civilians don’t get it” has some basis in fact.
4. The price for being a “rat” is enormous. It’s not like other jobs where you may even be rewarded for reporting a substandard colleague. In policing, a “rat” is a pariah for the rest of his or her career, subjected to ongoing hatred and harassment. Reporting a “bad cop” means the end of ones career, and often more than that. There have been a few who did it anyway and paid the price, but not many and for good reason.
5. Finally, unlike many other professions, police departments are very hierarchical. As the saying goes, “shit rolls down hill.” Lower ranking officers are often sacrificed to protect the reputation of higher ranking officers. Therefore, I think putting the onus on the rank and file to “turn in the bad cops” as opposed to starting at the top where policy and procedure is formulated, is not only unrealistic, but also unfair.
So what can be done? For starters, let’s look at what is working. Even though cops rarely turn each other in, they do help each other. There were times in my career, particularly as a rookie, where I confess my own frustration level got too high and I lost my temper and was about to go overboard in terms of the force I used. Thank God, when that happened, there were older and wiser and more mature cops around to take me aside and calm me down and show me a better way of doing things. The public doesn’t see that, but it is also real and needs to be encouraged, perhaps by making sure such older and wiser role models stick around instead of being put out to pasture prematurely by a job that does not value them or their expertise and would rather have younger, lower paid, and “more aggressive” cops in the ranks.
It also might help to stop evaluating cops solely on the numbers of stop question frisk reports, summonses, and arrests as has increasingly been the case in recent years, and be more intentional about tracking and rewarding positive community relations as equally important. One way of doing that might be to institute a kind of “customer satisfaction” survey given out randomly to people who call 911 and request service. Let that be part of COMPSTAT too and I don’t mean as just a side issue. Institute training that emphasizes cultural sensitivity and police ethics and, more importantly, back it up from the top down and not dismiss it as “touchy feely bullshit” (as is often done) but as something that can literally save lives. Include more and better training in the appropriate use of force. Do a better job of recruiting, hiring and retaining “minority” officers. The list goes on but my point is, there are ways of making it both possible and worthwhile to be the kind of “good cop” so many people need while, at the same time, discouraging “bad cop” behaviors.
But it has to be systemic and it has to start at the top, beginning by “turning in” bad attitudes, bad policies, and bad procedures that have hurt our city for far too long and trying a new approach that will ensure both safety, and respect for ALL our citizens.
Yesterday we received the news that the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office has completed its report and finds that Eric Garner died as a result of a combination of pressure on his the neck and chest, along with his positioning on the ground while being restrained by police during the July 17 stop on Staten Island. Acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity, and hypertensive cardiovascular disease were cited as contributing factors. In other words, contrary to what I and many others had hoped, it was a homicide. Whether the officers intended for it to happen or not, their actions caused a man’s death.
So where do we go now?
For some, demanding that “killer cops pay the price” is the answer. For others, demanding an end to the “war on cops” is the answer. These two trenches grow deeper every day, as does the warfare between them and once again, here I am, right in the middle still talking about dialogue.
I could say more about policy and procedure I guess, but a good friend of mine has told me that really doesn’t speak to people who are hurting. So maybe it is better if I just share from my heart how I am feeling and what hurts me and maybe we can take it from there.
What hurts me is realizing that it could have been me who killed Eric Garner. See, I used to arrest people by doing exactly what those cops did because that is how I was taught to do it, head lock, take down, rear cuff, don’t stop until those cuffs are on, and yes, pile on top of the suspect. Thank God, I was able to retire without ever seriously injuring, let alone killing, anyone. But I don’t kid myself that the reason why is because I was better than other cops. I was not better. I was just luckier.
The possibility of getting killed is a very real part of police work. So is the possibility of killing someone else, either justifiably or by accident.
Training may have changed since my days as a cop, but the basic fear that someday things will go horribly wrong, and someone will die has not. Instances like this one stir that up for me and, I think, for other current and former cops as well.
To be sure, there have been plenty of instances of obvious police brutality where I did not feel this “It could have been me” thing because officers were so obviously over the line. When that happens, I feel like my responsibility is clear. I must speak out against them and their actions. But this time is different. Like I said, it could have been me.
So I guess the best thing I can say at this point is that I am so very sorry Eric Garner died. He did not deserve to have that happen to him. My heart goes out to his family and they are in my prayers every day. But the cops are in my prayers too.
I pray they will all be treated fairly. If they did wrong, they must answer for it. But if not, I pray some measure of grace and compassion will be extended to them knowing that they are faced with a very difficult job.
Either way, a man is dead and other men’s lives will never be the same and it could have been me.
Shall we talk about that?