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Do Black Lives Matter?

So yesterday we received word that there will be no indictment of any police officer in the death of Eric Garner. As one who has already admitted that “it could have been me” meaning I could have been that cop, I am feeling all sorts of conflicted emotions. On the one hand, I feel like it is my duty to say something, to not let “it could have been me” be my last word on this subject in this blog. On the other hand, seeing the deep pain and outrage so many people are feeling I am afraid of saying anything that in any way might rub salt in these open wounds. But I trust God is bigger than this retired white cop trying to be a theologian and that whatever is missing in my words or in my heart God will fill in somehow.

I don’t know why the Grand Jury found “no true bill” in this case. As I said before, I can see the “take down” as legitimate but not the choking on the ground. I have gone into my reasons for taking this position, but I am thinking more discussion about rules and procedures and tactics isn’t going to be very helpful right now. The real question isn’t about that is it? The real question is DO BLACK LIVES MATTER?

It’s easy for me to say “Well of course. All lives matter.” But that doesn’t answer the question. It avoids it. The truth is I really don’t know if black lives matter or not. I mean, I believe they do, but I can’t honestly say I have gotten to a place in my white life where I really, really know it in my bones and that’s after having worked at at least trying to know it for a while now. So no. No cheap answers. I will let the question sit there and take responsibility for my own discomfort and defensiveness and still let the question sit there unanswered.

One of the first of many black people to die during my own police career under tragic circumstances  was Eleanor Bumpers. Do you remember her? She was an emotionally disturbed black woman who was killed by police in 1984 as they tried to evict her from her apartment. At the time, I was a rookie with two years on the job. I remember talking with a black cop, citing all the reasons why this was a justified or “clean” shooting, going right by the book, showing how she might have been a threat etc. I was adamant that “It wasn’t about race” and I really believed that. But then he said something that stopped me in my tracks. He said “Yes, it is about race because the officers were too quick to shoot her because she didn’t look like THEIR grandmother.”

Those words stuck with me. I wondered if he might be right. Do black lives really matter? I mean, beyond just thinking that they ought to matter. Do they? More to the point, do they matter to me? Yes, I have black friends and yes I love them and all that, but that isn’t the question is it? The question is, everything else being equal, would I shoot someone who looked like someone else’s grandmother faster than I would shoot my own? Would I choke someone who looked like someone else’s father or brother faster than I would choke my own? The defensive part of me wants to deny such a thing, but the more honest answer is I don’t know. I don’t know if black lives really matter in the way they need to matter to me.

Getting back to Eric Garner and my previous blog posts, when I say “It could have been me” meaning the cop in this scenario, what about the other question underneath it? As a good friend pointed out to me, others look at that video and see Eric Garner and think the same thing – “It could have been me” meaning Eric Garner. Am I seeing that side as clearly as my own? I don’t know yet.

Someday these two kinds of “It could have been me” might come together, but that day has not yet come and pretending it is here is just another form of cheap grace, a peace without justice that is no peace at all. So, for now, I do my work. I ask myself DO black lives matter to ME? At this point, all I can honestly say is I know they OUGHT to and I know it’s up to me to get to that place where they do.

Let us pray for one another on this journey. Amen.

Good Death: A Human Right

It is November now, the month in which trees let go of their leaves and appear to die, a month that begins with the remembrance of the dead that Christians call All Saints Day and ends with Thanksgiving tables that sometimes have empty chairs. So I am fixin to blog about what else? Death – specifically good death – not painless death, not griefless death, not easy death but good death and, yes, good death is political and it is about social justice and it does call for faith.

In the past few years I had the profound privilege of walking with both of my parents as they journeyed from this life to the next. They both suffered greatly on the way but, at the end, they both died well. These were good deaths.

My mother went first. We didn’t expect it. Dad was in much worse health and she was his caregiver but, as often happens, the caregiver is the first to tire out. After ongoing complications following heart surgery the day came when Mom just said “enough.” She chose to refuse all medical treatment and, as she put it “just close my eyes and go be with God.” I was with her in her hospital room during her last night of consciousness. Unlike the weeks before when she was so miserable, this last night was neither sad nor difficult for either one of us. Like my dad, mom was a world traveler so we talked about what was about to happen as one more trip, more marvelous than anything that came before, going all the way from earth to heaven where she would finally see God face to face. She asked “Are you happy for me?” I told her yes, yes I was happy that she would soon see God. Then she told me something I will always treasure in my heart “You will see God too some day because you are a very good person.” Not long afterwards she slipped into a coma. By the next night her journey was complete. It was a good death.

My father, who suffered from dementia, was just not ready to go on living without his partner of sixty years. He really couldn’t even process it and sadly sunk into a world of frightening delusions full of loneliness and the deep pain of loss. It was a horrible time for me and for my brothers, but it was not without love. There were moments of grace and connection, even as the disease took over and destroyed what was once a brilliant mind. When death came to dad fourteen months after mom’s passing, it came as a mercy. I even remember it as a kind of joy. You see dad was a musician, an accomplished tenor. Even after his mental faculties had eroded, he could still connect in song, particularly when it came to songs he once had sung. Years earlier, when he was still singing in his church choir, he told me that he wanted the song “And The Father Will Dance” by Mark Hayes to be played at his funeral. I asked him why and he told me “All my life I have struggled with a judging and punishing God. I need to know an affirming God, one who loves me without conditions, one who will dance when He sees me.” So I got the sheet music and learned the song – just in case. On the day dad died, we all waited around his bed for hours as he lay there unresponsive not opening his eyes, not squeezing anyone’s hand until the very end. All day I envisioned God dancing and prayed that soon dad would see that image. When his legs began to mottle, indicating that transition was happening, I sang a piece of the song. Dad squeezed my hand when he heard it, opened his eyes, and let go. Dad saw God dance just for him. It was a good death.

Seeing my parents have good deaths not only gave me a sense of peace about my relationship with them and with God, it also helped to heal me from some of the trauma I felt from having experienced so much violent, or not so good, death during my police years. But I also realized all over again how death, like life, is political. Not everyone has the chance to die a good death. Impoverished people, people of color, mentally ill people, incarcerated or otherwise socially marginalized people are all more likely than others to die violently or die needlessly before their time or to die alone with no one there to love them and hold their hand as they cross over.

Good death is often more a matter of social privilege, something that happens to people who are able to live a long life and not be shot down on the streets, who have access to the best medical care when they are sick and don’t get neglected, and who have the kind of social support that ensures someone will be there in the end. Good death is a privilege, but it needs to be a right, the right to die with dignity, surrounded by love, the right to be buried or cremated with dignity, the right to be remembered, the right to be mourned, the right to have a name, the right to have mattered to someone as a human being, the right to go in peace, the right to go in justice.

That’s what I want my life to be about, working to create a world where all people have the chance to live good lives and die good deaths.

Why Police Don’t Shoot People in the Legs

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.

Why “Good Cops” Don’t Turn in the “Bad” Ones

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.

It Could Have Been Me: Further Reflections on the Death of Eric Garner

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?

The Death of Eric Garner: Brutality or Tragedy?

On July 19, 2014 on a street corner of Staten Island an African-American man named Eric Garner died while being arrested by police for selling “loosies” or individual, untaxed cigarettes. Some say this death was the result of an illegal choke hold, captured on a now well known cell phone video. Once again, an unarmed black man has died in police custody. Once again, the dividing wall of enmity between the police and communities of color is re- fortified with mortar made of tears, anger, outrage, and mutual distrust. As a person of faith committed to police reform as well as a retired NYPD Captain, I feel obliged to speak up about this.
On the one hand, I really want to see change. The legacy of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, of unconstitutional, quota-based, stop question and frisk tactics, and racial profiling must end. We need much more community-based policing, increased cultural sensitivity, and just plain R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the people the police are supposed to protect and serve. I can only imagine the pain Eric Garner’s family and loved ones are going through and the anger they must feel. I am sure it seems like part of the long standing assault on the lives of black men in which police brutality is often at the center.
However, in this case, I honestly don’t think that is what happened. Watching this tape, I see a number of tactical errors, ways in which the job might have been done better, but I don’t see brutality. I am not alone in that thinking. Just about every police officer I talk to – active and retired, of all races, across the political spectrum – is saying the same thing. What the tape shows is not a choke hold. It is a head lock. When a person resists arrest, as Garner was doing, we are taught to take them face down to the ground as quickly as possible in order to handcuff them. A head lock is one way that is done. A head lock looks like a choke hold because the officer’s arms are around the suspect’s neck, but it differs from a choke hold because there is no pressure to the wind pipe or the neck. We still await the final medical examiner’s report but preliminary findings indicate that there was no injury to the neck and a heart attack, not asphyxiation, was the cause of death.
Let’s not forget, we are talking about a man with many health problems. It is quite possible that the stress of the arrest was more than his body could take. But that doesn’t mean the police, who had no way of knowing his medical history, either intentionally or recklessly killed him.
Like everyone, I want a complete and thorough investigation into the cause of this tragedy. Like anyone, I can be wrong. This is just an opinion on a blog. But it is an informed opinion. I would ask activists to at least consider it.
What we need is radical, systemic change not the scapegoating of a few police officers who may well have done no wrong.