Law Enforcement and Guns

The total number of law enforcement deaths by gunfire for 2016 came in at a very grim total of 63. More than 200 other officers were shot, but thankfully survived. A toddler shoots themselves or another sibling on average of once a week in the last two years. Road rage shootings are on the rise, and an average of 40,000 gun-related suicides occur each year. An armed society is a polite society? This doesn’t feel polite to me.

Why doesn’t law enforcement have more to say about this issue? Can’t we, for the sake of non-political, reasonable discussion, resist the temptation to fall into the traps of political theater and really talk about what we can do.

We’ve all been to too many police funerals and lost too many friends to remain silent. Our tears alone will not help if we do not also acknowledge the many flaws in our system that allow criminals and mentally ill individuals access to guns. Not to mention the folly of ignoring the proliferation of guns in our society, coupled with the levels of incivility, anger and intolerance in our country right now. Everyone is frustrated, short-tempered and armed. Somehow, we must acknowledge this combustible mix that is taking a toll on us all in too many bloody tragedies.

Forget the war on terror, we’re terrorizing each other in this country every day.

This is not about Constitutional rights. Cops know there are practical ways to impact gun violence. We just have to agree not to allow our thinking to immediately jump into a defensive posture or all-or-nothing scenarios about 2nd Amendment rights. Let’s start by agreeing we don’t want to take guns from law-abiding citizens. Let’s also reject the defeatist premise that says there are so many guns that there’s nothing we can do. Cops solve problems.

So, let’s talk reality and common sense from a police perspective. For me, it’s not about the debates raging about whether we need more laws or more guns, etc. It’s about ignoring the noise and getting down to what can help us do our jobs better and improve our safety on the street.

Of those 200 cops shot on the job in 2016, tragically, 63 were murdered by gunfire. The vast majority of those murders were committed by criminals (mostly felons) and mentally ill subjects. Many factors dealing with these subjects have little to do with the cop on the beat, but ignoring them increases the danger for every man and woman wearing a badge.

Investigations: Once the crime is solved, we should be tracing guns more thoroughly, all the way to the source, really examining their paths. NYPD recently traced firearms used in multiple police shootings of officers to the same gun shop in Georgia. Some agencies are becoming more proactive but this needs to become the norm. If we consistently investigate deeper, patterns will develop in criminal activity and more crimes will be solved. More guns off the street. Less danger for cops. Safer communities.

You say funding? Cops ought to be angry that the very federal agency tasked with helping our firearms investigation has deliberately been underfunded for decades. There is no excuse for hamstringing the ATF. Local law enforcement needs greater federal assistance in order to solve more gun crimes.

Mental illness? We express outrage and shock when an unstable person shoots an officer or civilian, whether mass incidents or not. We decry the ability of these folks to get their hands on guns, yet stand idly by while politicians fail to take more aggressive action to prevent it.

Terrorist watch list? I’m told that law abiding citizens might erroneously get put on a list. I’d respond that law enforcement routinely relies on databases for arrests or other action on virtually every aspect of our job. Do some people get detained or even arrested by mistake due to clerical error? Yes. Do we say we should shut down every NCIC, State or DL database? Of course not. Then why would we not use this same technology to keep guns away from individuals flagged as terrorists or mentally ill?

Domestic abusers? Violent felons? Same thing. Are we doing enough to proactively ensure they no longer have guns in their possession? Laws prohibit offenders from having guns. We need proactive strategies to use those laws to remove guns before the tragedy happens. Are we going to their homes and removing them before the next crises?

Last week, congress voted to remove a procedure to “flag” folks identified as having mental disability. The bill didn’t automatically call for taking their guns, merely to notify the FBI database of status. Opponents say it is wrong to flag people who have mental illness, dementia, or other issues. Consequently, a whole class of people who are possibly erratic and maybe dangerous can now keep their guns because we don’t have the courage to act.

How many cops will this place in danger on the next call to a home about a family member who’s become violent?

My brothers and sisters in blue, it’s time for us to speak up in the plain and simple language of a street cop. The ones in the line of fire. The first responders to every horrific crime scene, whether a suicide, murder, or the accidental shooting of a child. You carry this burden. You know that slogans and politics are never going to fix this. It’s time to weigh in on how to reasonably put a dent in the issue of criminals, mental illness, and guns. Law enforcement must speak out for good laws, but even more important, advocate for smart, proactive enforcement. Aggressive prevention that we know will save lives. Maybe even your own.

Be safe.

What the nobility of policing requires

“We are rightly critical of journalists and members of the public who misrepresent what we do as police officers. Do we not, therefore, owe it to ourselves to be equally critical of fellow police officers, whose actions misrepresent the work we do?”

~Paul Grattan, Jr. One Police Project

This quote is very important in the context of our ongoing national struggle over police and public relationships. We do a lot of talking about how we feel under appreciated or maligned, but what are we doing about cleaning up our own house? I think we owe it to ourselves to do some serious soul-searching about this.

I realize that when we look at policing through our personal lens, we see only a few egregious cases of misconduct splashed across the headlines in any given period of time. We are right that the misconduct numbers are a small number of the thousands of calls handled each and every day. The problem comes when you look at the bigger picture.

Step back and look at the numbers nationally and the instances of misconduct start looking more widespread. They are not the norm, but trust me they are too numerous to ignore. We do so at our own peril because every instance that gives the profession a black eye affects your safety. Yet, we refuse to meet this internal challenge head on.

I know there are many checks on officer conduct and Internal investigators do a good job at identifying the worst cases. What I’m talking about is a culture of minimizing bad conduct. We cannot be okay with that.

Whether it’s a willful blind eye or an increasing tendency to conjure up some false equivalency in our collective hearts, we have created a situation where bad behavior lives within our ranks. There will always be criminals and criminals behave in deceitful, treacherous ways, but that can never be an excuse for any law enforcement professional to violate any code of ethics or standard of conduct. We are the professionals.

Let me give you a current example. The Pennsylvania State Police are currently dealing with a scandal regarding cheating at their academy. According to the final report, there was an ongoing practice of instructors giving exam answers to cadets. It had gone on for years. Dozens of cadets from the current class either resigned or were fired. The real problem is that not one instructor or full-time trooper was disciplined, let alone fired.

As a trainer and later supervisor, I personally experienced a number of cases in which I detailed misconduct of either recruits or tenured officers and those individuals were not fired. In two cases, the officers I had identified as being character-deficient, they ended up doing far worse things and embarrassing the agency. One is now in prison. So, why are we so ready to keep these folks in uniform? They are cancers in the community and cancers to internal morale. Purge them.

And before you tell me these are isolated incidents, explain why only four states in this country require decertification for misconduct. How many cases do you know where the officer was allowed to resign in lieu of firing? A little digging into a few of the high-profile cases of the past couple of years will show you that many of those officers had troubled histories prior to the one that made national headlines.

These are the dirty little secrets we don’t want to talk about in mixed company. I know. But we must find the courage to address this. I don’t say this to air dirty laundry. I say this because I care about policing. I care about the tens of thousands of you who are honest and out there doing a great job. Every single bad cop allowed to stay does damage that makes you unsafe. It’s that simple.

I’m calling on police leadership, unions, and everyday cops to insist we do better. Stop saying it’s all about the media or BLM or whoever. Those groups would have nothing to say if we eliminated those who do not embody the ethical code we swore an oath to uphold. If we stood up and publicly said we will not tolerate less than the highest standards, then we would gain so much more trust in the public eye. Some chiefs and sheriffs are exemplifying this approach and their departments enjoy above average public support.

These law enforcement leaders prove we can do this. We must. We owe it to the community we serve. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to every kid who looks at our shiny badge and dreams of being a hero one day. The nobility of policing requires it.

The power of an apology

LaGrange, Georgia Police Chief Louis Dekmar recently did something rare in policing: He issued a public apology.

Even more remarkable was that the apology was for a lynching that took place in 1940 and the Chief openly acknowledged the police department’s role in the crime. Chief Dekmar took this unprecedented step because he understands the legacy of such hatred, committed in the name of justice, will remain a stain on the community unless it is called out. That is the point.

When I was a new supervisor, I received a complaint about an officer on my squad. After speaking with the officer and the citizen, I determined the officer had been wrong in his actions. During my follow up conversation, the woman said that she was satisfied with my determination but wanted an apology. In this particular incident, I agreed because the officer had allowed personal bias to color his actions. The next day I was counseled for telling the officer to apologize. I was told: Police don’t apologize.

I’ve never agreed with that statement.

Police officers are human. We make mistakes like any other human. When someone makes a mistake that harms or offends us, don’t we all want the person to apologize? In today’s polarized climate the ability to acknowledging another’s pain seems essential to bridging the divides between the police and some communities they serve. The character to apologize and genuinely show we understand demonstrates strength and confidence, not weakness.

Policing continues to operate in the shadow of a very dark and not-so-distant past. Police enforced rules from slavery to Jim Crowe, either as active participants or passive enablers. And although there are many who insist that those days are over and we should just stop talking about it, the cumulative effects of the historical injustices—and sometimes crimes—continue to hang over law enforcement like a fog clouding our forward vision.

The actions of others are only a reflection on us personally if we fail to repudiate them in a voice that is loud and clear. We must acknowledge and atone for the past or we can never move forward because silence is consent. What does it hurt to apologize if it will open a dialogue and begin to bridge a gap? Honesty builds trust and we desperately need trust right now.

Leaders like Chief Dekmar understand the value of a sincere apology as the first step toward reconciliation. Not every situation warrants an apology, but there is always room for improvement and concrete gestures of good faith beyond attending a community meeting or a mission statement.

An apology for an injustice nearly 80 years old might seem to some as pointless. I believe it is an important step toward reconciliation for all. It validates African Americans’ history and lifts the silent stigma from the backs of honest cops who want to police justly.

“Some might say ‘forgiveness’?” said a descendant of lynching victim, Austin Callaway, “And I say to you that I believe God when he tells us that there is power and freedom in forgiveness.”

I say there is power and freedom in an apology.

 

The courage to police with love

Friends, like you, I swore an oath when I pinned on my badge. I swore an oath to uphold the constitution, to fight for the weak and vulnerable, and to serve my community. Most of us took the job to do good things in our community. We don’t usually think of love as part of the job, but I think it’s the most important part. Remember, we were originally Peace Officers.

Somewhere along the way, I became hardened. Maybe you can relate. Dealing with the worst atrocities that humans can inflict on one another has a way of taking its toll on even the kindest soul. Those who are truly evil prey upon the weak in ways so insidious and violent that it can turn your heart to stone. Those who have simply given up hope and instead turned to crime, violence, or treachery, as a misguided equalizer can also erode faith in our fellow man.

When poverty, despair, crime, and decay are concentrated in our most neglected, minority neighborhoods, that is where policing is focused. We see the carnage. We bear the brunt of verbal abuses. We fight for our lives during physical assaults and too often become victims of the most violent. Many times we are vilified in the very communities we spend most of our time. Inundated in the toxic mix of crime and suffering and survival, too often our compassion is the first casualty.

We call it emotional survival, this phenomenon that causes those wearing a badge to trade their empathy for judgment. A distancing which we tell ourselves is necessary to objectively solve crime. A condemnation rationale to help us stay sane when it feels as if the world is going mad. I get it. I was one of you. It’s so easy to get caught up in the negativity.

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Which officer is braver? This photo went viral because this expression love is radically brave on both sides.

It took me a long time to see how I could have made even the worst interactions a little better.

Policing is really the toughest job you’ll ever love. That brings me to my point.

Love is required to do this job righteously. Giving up your humanity is the easy way out. Feeling and showing compassion in the face of depravity is what’s hard. In fact, it seems damn near impossible when you’re cradling a dying child in your arms or you’ve lost your partner in a shooting or you broke a bone fighting with a suspect. It’s heartbreaking, devastating, infuriating, and too often, emotion-numbing. But you must not lose your humanity.

Your humanity is essential to policing. Don’t let anyone tell you that compassion is weakness. They are wrong.

Who is stronger—the officer who gives in to his anger in the moment or the one who checks himself and ends the situation peacefully? Does it take more strength to talk to agitators in a crowd and prevent a riot or to react the way the want and launch a response, which results in injuries on both sides?

Do not see this as a naïve repudiation of necessary force. Quite the contrary. There are those who want to hurt you. I know. I also believe that most acts of resistance are motivated by an attempt to escape by any means necessary. Which is why I have always believed in what I call aggressive prevention. Controlling situations before they get out of hand. Sometimes that means force to pre-empt resistance, because complacency can put us in situations that escalate and then require force.

Be vigilant. Be alert. Sometimes a situation will require violence, but aggression alone cannot become our default response. Practice aggressive prevention to keep yourself and your partners safe, but never forget the power of aggressive compassion. There are many times when empathy is better than punitive reaction. A mistaken burglary call brings you into contact with the homeowner, who reacts angrily to your presence with verbal insults. Some may react in kind and charge this man with a disorderly citation. It may be lawful, but is it necessary or really the right way to handle this? Yeah, I know, POP can feel good in the moment, but does it help in the long run? The ripple effects of bad blood in that already toxic community really aren’t worth it.

The job is not easy. If it was, anyone could do it. I know what I’m talking about goes against the grain of what most of the loudest mouths are shouting at you right now. That there is a war on police and you must harden your heart and be on the attack.

Statistics do not bear this out. Yes, officer deaths rose last year in comparison to the year before. That’s an important thing to keep in perspective. We pray to lose none of our brothers and sisters in blue, but we know danger is always there. Block out the noise of those who want you to lash out in anger or fear. They cloud your heart and mind when safety and reason are essential for survival, both physical and emotional. Help your partner find her center, rather than feed each others cynicism.

Be careful, be alert, but don’t believe everyone is your enemy, even in those neighborhoods that challenge your humanity. Don’t give in to those who say it’s hopeless. Don’t let the hate take over your heart. Hate only breeds hate and violence escalates violence. If you truly believe (as I do) that policing is God’s work. Don’t lose heart. Be brave enough to care. Be brave enough to love, even when it feels impossible.

It is the single most radically courageous thing you can do.

King holiday still fights for respect

I’m old enough to remember when the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin L. King, Jr became law. In September, 1989, after a couple of years of debate and rejections, the city Council finally approved a measure to rename Buffalo Avenue as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr Drive. Controversy around the name change was fierce, but time has a way of blurring details and obscuring facts. As I perused a Google search this week, much of the explanations focused on objections from businesses and concerned citizens as to the cost of new street signs and business stationery.

Oh, but I remember those days.

article_3_hires_rm_corbisIn 1989-90, during my first year as a police officer, the debate raged. I distinctly recall how many of my colleagues stated emphatically their refusal to say Martin L. King. Many used it as a badge of honor, purposely putting themselves out on calls along the road just to say Buffalo with emphasis, and some dispatchers gave calls out in the same fashion. In contrast, African American officers and dispatchers said the name of the street with pride evident in their voices.

By 1992, I bought my first home in a suburb east of the city and I traveled sections of Martin L. King Jr. Blvd on my trip to and from work. Many residents east of the city limits continued to refer to the street as 574, the state route number, and for years it was commonplace to see the street signs vandalized or missing as I drove around. My friends with the sheriff’s office acknowledged that many in their agency used 574 instead of Martin L. King Jr Blvd.

Sometimes I heard the excuse that Buffalo or 574 is just shorter and easier to say, particularly on a police radio. Fair enough. But, other streets in the city have long names that were shortened for expediency, while maintaining the reference to the honoree. John F. Kennedy Blvd is a prime example. It’s commonly called Kennedy. Those of us who simply wanted a shortcut did almost immediately start calling Martin L. King Jr Blvd, MLK for short. That, at least, didn’t feel like a refusal to acknowledge the name.

Obviously, my co-workers didn’t have a financial beef with the street name change. It was defiance to the idea of honoring Dr. King—defiance to honoring a black civil rights leader. To my recollection, nobody in police leadership ever made it clear that Buffalo was unacceptable. The stark divide played out every shift and went on for years, fading eventually as most grew accustomed to the name, leaving only diehards still holding out, their bigotry refusing to yield. I wonder how that felt to my African American brothers and sisters in blue or to citizens of color who may have heard them.

When I hear people say that issues of race were settled long ago, that slavery and Jim Crow are ancient history, and they personally treat everyone equally, as a way of dismissing the frustrations of African American citizens, I think of the examples of subtle bigotry like the streets dedicated to our greatest civil rights leader. Acronyms with racial undertones for learning streets in public housing. Endless slurs directed at the President and First Lady with primate references. Ugly social media posts, unabashedly racist. These experiences are certainly not ancient history, nor are they uncommon. They are the realities of daily human interaction where bigotry lives if not refuted.

So, this year, in the wake of a contentious political season that openly challenged political correctness, ignored open shows of racist behavior, yanked the lid off a simmering anger by all sides who feel they are not being heard, I’m imploring us all to look inside. We can do better in addressing bias. More whites than blacks say that our government policies and laws treat both races equally, but once again reality casts doubt on the way race truly plays out, often in less obvious ways (at least to whites). Facts about the MLK holiday provide a useful example.

In 1983, President Reagan signed the MLK bill into law after 15 years of Dr. King’s supporters fighting for passage following his murder. Did you know the last state to fully ratify the King holiday was not until 1999? Again, not ancient history. If that’s not bad enough, the saddest facts of all are that four states, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, to this day, recognize the date in conjunction with Confederate heroes such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. What does that say to African Americans in those states when the day is called Robert E. Lee/Martin L. King Day? Or to see the rise of white nationalists and hate crimes in the wake of this last election? Our fellow citizens of color must interpret our deafening silence and refusal to call it out as tacit support or at best, indifference.

Martin Luther King spoke extensively about moral justice. His was a movement of nonviolence, which also spoke truth to power in order to shine a light on injustices of race, social justice and poverty. His legacy has never been more important than in our current national discord and rupture along fault lines of party, class, race, or religion. Dr. King called us to live up to the ideals of our founders and strive to overcome our differences in the name of justice for all. We have opportunities each day to reject the small-minded slurs and hard hearts of bigotry if we summon the courage to stand up. Hate in any form has no place in our world. The change must first come from our hearts.

This was the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King.