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.

Moms in search of humanity

I spent twenty-five years wearing a badge. I’ve lost friends and colleagues at the hands of hardened criminals and deranged madmen. I’ve hugged their family members and fellow cops, sharing our grief and asking, “Why?” I’ve also investigated countless shootings and murders, absorbing the visions of carnage, forever seared into my memory. I’ve hugged victim’s family members, sobbing in grief and unable to answer, “Why?”

As a human being I can be equally moved by the pain of mothers who have lost their children to gun violence or police encounters and the pain of slain police officers’ spouses and families. I think our common humanity requires us to see one another’s heartbreak and fear as the one important emotion that can unite us, regardless of what side of the social argument we’re on. If we can stop for just one moment to acknowledge the grief in our hearts, it might become possible to see our common humanity.

Perhaps that narrow but critical breakthrough might help us all to focus more on solutions to the violence that plagues our communities and claims the lives of far too many citizens and police officers. Despite the media narrative, fueled by extremists bent on using hate to vilify and divide by race and occupation, I heard a different message last night from a group of women bound together by loss. Their stories differ in detail, and I am very aware of the highly emotional debates raging on both sides of the thin blue line. So, I listened to the mothers speak with trepidation, uncertain of what message they might share.

What I heard were words of loss and pain, but also a plea for an end to violence. I also heard a message that most of you probably didn’t hear. I heard a statement of law enforcement support. It’s true. I don’t care what any news outlet tells you, Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, shot at a Jacksonville, FL convenience store over loud music said this:

“We’re going to keep building a future where police officers and communities of color work together in mutual respect to keep children, like Jordan, safe. Because the majority of police officers are good people doing a good job.”

I’m not certain how any of us could possibly argue with that. We all want that. We can argue about the how’s and why’s, and in a democracy we should have those debates. The deep wounds our country has experienced recently have exposed the folly of our continued refusal to listen to one another. Our denial of our common humanity and the pain of those outside of our social circles or rung on the ladder or race or profession is blowing up in our collective faces.

There is no other way to say it.

My friends, law enforcement is at a critical crossroads. Never in my lifetime has the danger of the job been more real. But, you have the backing of the vast majority of the citizens you serve. This is not some civil war of black communities vs. the police. Those mothers spoke unequivocally that they support good and decent law enforcement, and know that most of you are doing your jobs well. It is not incompatible to say you support police, but want bad police held accountable. Just as it’s not contradictory to say you support the community, but condemn those committing violence. This should be easy to totally agree upon. Bad officers make all of us less safe, whether you wear a badge or not. Real criminals should be dealt with severely, but not every activity should be criminalized. Gun violence is shredding the fabric of our society and making everyone less safe. The toll on us all is breaking every one of our hearts.

To those who continue to sow divisions by twisting words or editing messages for a negative agenda, please stop. You are not helping. I, for one, am willing to talk to anyone who wants to join together to find solutions. That is what my conscience calls me to do.

I can say #blacklivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter without a hint of contradiction in my heart. Our humanity matters. We can end this suffering, if we only start seeing and hearing each other.

Peace.

Angry Rants Aren’t Leadership

We are at a time of crisis in our country. Police and community relationships are strained as never before. Everyday I hold my breath when I open the morning edition of the news, bracing for a new headline of violence. Communities are mourning the loss of citizens and officers, and although we disagree on many underlying causes, one thing we can all agree on is that all responsible citizens want the violence to stop.

In the midst of all of the bloodshed and heartbreak our country has endured, especially in the past few weeks, fear has taken hold. Fear can be healthy when it pulls us together for the common good or fear can fuel divisions and morph into suspicion, blame and hate. Each new tragedy further shreds the fabric of trust and provides justification to entrench ourselves more deeply in opposing positions. Our feelings of helplessness and vulnerability lead us to search for answers in our faith and our leaders. But we must find the right leaders.

When I talk to my law enforcement friends, I hear the stress and fear because it feels as if the attacks are coming from all sides. The murder of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge was an attack on the fabric of society, and the outpouring of love and support nationwide certainly shows that average citizens are with you. Yes, even those who belong to protest organizations like black lives matter denounced violence against police officers unequivocally. In fact, those peaceful demonstrators had spent an entire afternoon amicably with the Dallas PD before a madman decided to act. Because evil will always try to divide us in the most heinous ways and our most vulnerable moments. That’s why we need leaders with a steady hand and temperament.

When we feel unappreciated and under siege, it is tempting to lash out, to give into our fears, but we must not become what we hate. Some law enforcement leaders seem to be pouring gasoline on the fire, taking every opportunity to antagonize and amp up officer’s understandable anger and frustration. Getting on the news or making national speeches filled with vitriol but no solutions only deepen the divisions and make your officers or deputies less safe. While it might be popular short term, perpetuating the Us v. Them mentality doesn’t help, because we all know that we need each other to survive.

We need leaders who call us to our highest selves, not those who feed our darkest and negative thoughts. We need leaders to unify, not further divide. We need leaders who understand that hate shuts down the heart and solutions only come when we are open to hearing another point of view. We need leaders willing to talk to activist leaders to find real solutions. 1468280264-23109-57841d6ac46188ef6d8b456a-450x250

Exceptional leaders have stepped forward in the past few weeks. Leaders of faith reached out following the Orlando massacre to acknowledge the role of religion in the demonizing of the LGBT community throughout history. They carried messages of love and non-judgment to start open dialogue about ways to bring LGBT people fully into the faith community, in order to stop the hate and violence. Dallas Police Chief David Brown, while acknowledging his anger and grief, also told us that his department will not abandon community policing or allow them to turn away from their outreach.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said this following the murder of three officers in Baton Rouge, “This is not what justice looks like…It’s not justice for anybody, and it’s certainly not constructive. It’s just pure, unadulterated evil. We’re gonna start our conversations here in Louisiana and around our communities, with community leaders, law enforcement, government officials and faith leaders, so we can find out together where we go from here. And there isn’t any one of us who can fix this, but all of us together, can and will fix this problem together. I don’t have all the answers and I know it won’t happen overnight. But I know we’re going to come out of this stronger.”

In our time of unprecedented volatility, law enforcement leaders must reaffirm the values we swore to uphold. We cannot shrink into a defensive crouch that silences all dialogue or spout dangerous rhetoric to sound as if we are at war with our communities—even our most crime-ridden communities. An eye for an eye only makes us all blind. Dangerous rhetoric will not help us to come out of this stronger.

Leading from the bottom

 

“The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” ~ Norman Vincent Peale

The forced resignation of the police chief in San Francisco caused a bit of a stir in law enforcement circles recently. Chief Suhr follows a string of such actions, including the high-profile Superintendent in Chicago, and Chiefs in Baltimore and Ferguson. Chief Suhr and the others had long and distinguished careers by many accounts, and it is not my intention to disparage or throw stones at these men personally. However, it seems painfully obvious that doing business according to the status quo that has existed for decades is no longer working—for cops or the community.

In these contentious times, we need communication and leadership above all else. Policing in a democracy means change will always come as the public’s attitudes change over time. That’s reality. Law enforcement must always be flexible to adapt to those shifts, and leadership is supposed to drive change in a positive way. For instance, the 1966 Miranda ruling radically changed the rules for questioning suspects. No doubt, the chorus of doomsday predictors back then asserted that cops would never get another confession or make another case. Wrong. We worked smarter, adapted and got better at our jobs. We were fast and loose with stop and frisk, touting ever-increasing arrest and ticket numbers, but now we have to refocus on quality not quantity. Changes in pursuit policies and a host of other issues hasn’t ended law enforcement as we know it.

Our current reality is the proliferation of videos in our technology age that can celebrate outstanding police work, but also unfortunately exposes bad police behavior for the entire world to see. It’s not that those minorities of officers weren’t always there in our ranks, it’s just now harder to hide or ignore. That’s where we are today. So, law enforcement leaders have two choices: Rise to the occasion and drive positive change or lash out at anyone remotely questioning procedures and reinforce the status quo. Sadly, too many in leadership positions have chosen the latter.

The law enforcement leaders railing against any suggestion of change are not helping to bridge this divide with the community. I’ve seen these public servants say things like, “cops are afraid to do their jobs”, “cops are in a fetal position”, “cops are going to start sitting under trees”, or really incendiary things like “the mayor has blood on his hands”. Even the FBI Director has inferred that crime is rising because cops feel under attack. I have to shake my head. Some of these same leaders are the ones who sold the myth of statistical utopia, which pitted street officers against the communities they serve to begin with. Yes, these are difficult and stressful times, but fanning the flames and giving excuses to reactionaries who resist any change is not the answer. Lashing out against anyone who questions policing is not the answer. That’s not leadership.

Leadership requires honest self-examination and assessment for growth. Leadership requires that we reach across divides and listen to the communities we serve. Leadership urges the best officers to continue to do their best in spite of the noise around them, by reaffirming support for good work. We can’t partner with citizens if we continue to only look for blame externally rejecting any suggestion of self-critique or improvement. Criminals do kill more black citizens than police ever will. Yes. But that doesn’t excuse any cop from crossing the line. Law enforcement leaders need to re-evaluate and address our own shortcomings, not just whine about exposure of what we’d rather not have the public know. It is a shame that some in high-profile positions take such small-minded and defeatist attitudes. Their public statements pander to the worst behaviors, rather than the highest ideals of our profession. It’s lazy and wrong.

Forget leading from behind, that’s leading from the bottom.

We all want to be seen

A few days ago, I was chatting with a few law enforcement friends about the need for a positive message when debating sensitive subjects and it occurred to me that the larger debate on law enforcement and the community was certainly one of those areas fraught with emotion on both sides. I think that is important for everyone to remember this as these debates rage. Policing is under intense scrutiny and both sides have dug into deep trenches because, quite frankly, the stakes are huge—we’re literally talking about life and death issues all around. I realized that is precisely why a more positive and open-minded dialogue is so very necessary.

Since Ferguson, law enforcement has entered a defensive crouch. Videos continue to surface of alleged officer misconduct, exposing some egregious behavior that cops would rather not have displayed for the world to see. Some tapes have the opposite effect, showing the public the shocking realities of undeniably unprovoked attacks on officers just doing their jobs. What I love the most about this current climate is that increasingly, we are seeing outstanding videos of really excellent officers doing what they do every day: serve their communities with compassion and generosity.

The importance of celebrating those officers cannot be overstated. Somewhere during my career, law enforcement shifted into statistics mode. Numbers ruled and tallies of tickets and arrests became the only standard of measure for an officer’s worth. If the numbers weren’t high enough, the officer was branded a slacker and disciplined. The glaring problem with that approach is that it erodes both public confidence and the officer’s morale. Where a cop might have issued a warning on a traffic stop, he now feels the need to write numerous tickets to boost his numbers and stay on the good side of management. Good community work and problem solving doesn’t fit into that model. It takes time and results are often not quantifiable—at least on a stat sheet or pie chart. Citizens become potential statistics for the officer’s eval and officers become reduced to numbers in the statistical game of politics.

Now that we are struggling with perceptions about law enforcement, suddenly the merits of compassion in service are viewed favorably, rather than dismissed as “soft” like they were too often in days past. This is a good thing. We are human. I would argue our emotion and humanity are the traits that make the best cops. When we see the humanity in the citizens we serve and respond with compassion, we show the strength of humanity that is character. Let’s stop attacking and start seeing each other. No one person is all good or bad. Not cops, not citizens. In all of the noise and fighting, why not use this truth as a starting point for seeing one another? We might be surprised at how that one gesture opens a door for change.

Be safe.

JSO Rookie Firing Could Have Been Prevented

Today in the news a video showed a rookie officer from Jacksonville punching a handcuffed woman. Let’s get this out of the way early: I do not believe that officers should never punch a handcuffed prisoner, regardless of gender. I’ve punched handcuffed prisoners a couple times in my career. It depends upon the situation. My trainers always cautioned us that the most dangerous moment is when the handcuffs come out. When that person realizes they are about to lose their freedom, the fight or flight instinct is at its most powerful. So, yes, I’ve had situations where I’ve been attempting to handcuff a suspect who then begins to struggle and fight. Procedures and state law allow me to use “the necessary force to affect the arrest”. I looked at the video from Jacksonville with this experience in mind. What I saw was a vastly different scenario playing out.

The video does not show what happened at the beginning of the call. I know many of my law enforcement peers will point to that as a suspicious and important point. No, my friends, that is irrelevant. A statement released by the JSO says, according to the officer, the woman “refused to be handcuffed and was kicking and trying to bite the officer, even in the back of the police car”. She may very well have been struggling or fighting when the officer was applying handcuffs, but if so, then why is she standing on the sidewalk with handcuffs already applied? Four officers stand a few feet away, with their hands in their pockets, not exactly appearing concerned for their safety. Also, of note, another handcuffed person, a male, stands to the left of the officers. He’s also apparently of no safety concern.

Back to the woman. We don’t see the application of handcuffs. The video opens with her walking toward the officer already in handcuffs. She’s saying something, probably upset by the situation. No newsflash, nobody likes to get arrested. In response, the young officer takes the woman by the arms, pushing her back toward the exterior wall of the business and appears to push her against the wall with some force. The woman responds with a kick. The officer then delivers several full swing punches to her midsection.

The debate will rage. The first response from a former officer I spoke to was, “She kicked him!” Her kick is not in dispute. Nor is any possibility of her bad behavior or resisting at the time of handcuffing, which we don’t see. So, I want to be clear on what we’re seeing and saying about the events. Are we saying that her resistance during handcuffing justified escalating force? If so, why is she standing on the sidewalk with no one near her, ensuring she doesn’t do anything else? The three other officers are clearly not concerned. Nobody makes any move to secure either individual who is presumably under arrest. If she was combative, why isn’t she in their patrol car? Why isn’t anybody at least hanging onto her?

Next, the woman walks toward the officer, probably verbally challenging whatever he’s doing. He moves her back to the wall. No problem. The shove against the wall? Probably not necessary and ill advised. That was the first anger response. The woman’s anger response is a kick in return. She’s wrong. No doubt. However, police officers are charged with using force for defense, and that force should be balanced by the threat. Her kick, although factually criminal and wrong, was not an action justifying the flurry of roundhouse punches that he threw. He got mad and lashed out. While I agree, he’s human, and humans react badly sometimes, that does not make him right.

The overall problem I have seen many times in cases like this (some even worse) is unfortunate because it is so preventable and the prevention is the responsibility of the officer(s). We too often jump right to the defense of “that person shouldn’t have done whatever”. I get it. That’s true. What is more important is that we really have to change our thinking from action/reaction, force/escalation to controlling our space in the first place. It’s a form of de-escalation that aims to prevent the escalation before it starts. Again, she struggled against cuffing? Okay, put her in the back of the police car. That’s what it’s for. The officer chose not to do that. Everything else that occurred developed from that poor decision. I think the term for that is officer induced danger or threat. Secure her and she won’t keep fighting you. Period.

What makes matters worse is the other three officers on scene. Shame on them. They stand there, hands in their pockets, proving no real threat is perceived, and showing no reaction whatsoever to the punches thrown by the rookie. One older officer does finally stroll over after the punches and speak to the woman or officer, we can’t tell. The rookie then walks away and the woman collapses to the sidewalk. Still, no one makes any move to place her into a patrol car. I can’t stress this enough—if a suspect like her is so violent, why not? Folks, whether we like it or not, once we arrest someone, they are now our responsibility. Too often, mistakes such as this—not securing a suspect—result in unnecessary escalation and sometimes tragedy. Not just suspects dying, but cops injured and killed. It’s true.

This case is a classic example of ways that police have to get back to basics and do their job properly. Officer safety and prisoner handling training are very specific on how we should handle arrestees and it’s not the way they did it on this video. One last point is about the three other officers. Your responsibility was to intervene. If the rookie was getting pissed off, step in and tell him to relax. What would that hurt? Or what about one of you saying, hey let’s put her in the car? Is that so hard?

The video is a sad reminder that following our training and being responsible for each other at a call is important. Policing by nature is defined by dealing with people at their worst. We’ve all been there. The yelling, screaming. We should already be prepared to hear tirades and endure the inevitable verbal onslaught. It will happen and officers have the tools to deal with it before it gets out of hand. These JSO officers had many opportunities to control this situation. Sadly, they didn’t. Their inaction allowed a woman to be punched, caused the JSO and all cops embarrassment, and cost a rookie cop his badge.