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.

Admitting the problem is the first step

At my retirement ceremony, given the opportunity to say a few words, I decided to end on this challenge: To my peers, I said don’t fall into the numbers trap, remember these are people you are serving, not numbers. I turned to the department staff and added: Please don’t forget the officers who work for you are people, not numbers.

A friend of mine asked recently what systemic changes could address the very contentious issues of policing and race in our country today. For me, it has to be reconnecting with people. To be sure, there are dangerous criminals and police officers must be ready to defend themselves, but most people are not. This affects even our interactions with average citizens and victims. We are taught to maintain this “safety distance”, and too often that morphs into a superiority buffer. The compassion I talked about last time dissolves in that defined space.

Early in my career, a homeless man was beaten and robbed. He was upset and desperate to have someone listen to him. In his emotional state, he grabbed my arm, begging me to hear him. My sergeant immediately shoved the man and chastised me for allowing him to touch me. I know he was thinking of safety, but I honestly, to this day, I do not think the man wanted to harm me.

As a new supervisor handling my first citizen complaint, I realized after speaking to the officer and citizen, the officer was wrong. The citizen, a calm, rational woman, wanted the officer to apologize. I asked him to do it. The woman was very satisfied and the complaint was resolved. Soon after, I was shocked when a colleague of mine told me I handled it wrong, saying flatly, “We don’t apologize.”

I’ve thought about this attitude a great deal with the recent scrutiny of law enforcement misconduct. I wonder, what are we so afraid of? Why can’t I do something as humane as giving a victim a hug if the situation warrants? Why is it wrong to simply acknowledge our shortcomings, fix the issues, and apologize, if applicable? I mean, if you and I are friends and I do something to hurt you or make you angry, the only way for us to really get past the harm is for me to acknowledge my actions and apologize. Right? Otherwise, I cannot regain my goodwill with you. It’s a very basic human dynamic. And law enforcement is all about human dynamics.

We are starting to see a change. In the video age, more officer misconduct is exposed, leading to more accountability. It’s a painful, positive step. I take no pleasure in seeing officers charged with felony crimes, but we cannot have a double standard. Most officers have integrity. Human mistakes can be fixed, but the profession loses credibility by ignoring or attempting to excuse those who do not. There are simply too many shocking videos to ignore the problem. Too many of these individuals have checkered histories or been allowed to move from agency to agency. Law enforcement has to own it and take credible steps to fix it.

Good cops should not be sorry to see the bad go. They only make your job harder and you and your peers less safe. Only when the entire police profession is willing to tackle systemic issues, be honest with the public at all times, and purge those who violate the trust of the badge will police be able to begin the process of repairing its crucial relationship with the citizens of our country. As retired NYPD Chief Phillip Banks said last week, “Cops hate two things: The way things are and change.” This change in thinking has to come, and it has to happen sooner than later. We can bridge this credibility gap. Fixing law enforcement’s house does not mean giving in to criminals. Accepting one’s flaws makes you stronger, not weaker. The first step to healing is always admitting the problem.

~Be safe.

Lessons of Ferguson-for the good of law enforcement

I promised to examine the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, just as I did the DOJ’s report on the Brown shooting. The report on Ferguson got the lion’s share of headlines in the past couple of weeks, with most headlines shouting that the PD was engaging in racist behavior, illegal stops, and violations of civil rights. After reading the report in its entirety, which, again, I urge everyone to do, it’s painfully clear that Ferguson has some very troubling systemic problems. I’m not going to tap dance around saying “not every officer”, because common sense tells any intelligent person that’s a given, but the pervasiveness of the policies geared toward revenue generation and statistics alone, paint a picture of a police department in need of a major overhaul. City and Department officials were found to openly request more tickets written from the Chief to increase revenue. One DOJ example:

“City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget. In an email from March 2010, the Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. What are your thoughts? Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”

Worse, officials were found to author and forward racist emails on city computers. When people are unafraid of being caught sending racist emails, I’d say the culture is evident. DOJ cites numerous examples throughout the report.

“We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”

Statistical analysis, combined with interviews of city and police personnel, examinations of public records, to include emails, provide numerous examples of improper practices of using the PD to generate revenues, and in some more damning examples, outright racist remarks in city correspondence. I’m a retired cop, so I’m concerned with the overall city leadership culture and performance standards (a sanitized way of saying quota) that make otherwise good cops do the wrong thing. It’s a slippery slope when leaders aren’t leading in a moral way. Here’s the DOJ take on it:

“The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation. Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

In other words, police officers in Ferguson understand that their job security depends upon those tickets. Sadly, they didn’t have a police chief strong enough or honest enough to stand up. Unfortunately, Ferguson isn’t alone in that leadership vacuum. The problem is that when you stop looking at tickets or other enforcement as the public safety instrument, and only consider the next “stat”, the person you encounter becomes less an individual and simply a number. I get that problem. I railed against stat-driven policing for years. Here’s the thing. Stats should never be an “outcome”. The only measure of police success should be the absence of crime in a community and the ability to work with the community to achieve that goal. Period.

The problem gets worse as it progresses. The City of Ferguson, like many other communities, sets a fine for minor offenses, with usually steeper, often criminal penalties for unpaid fines or failure to appear in court. Of course, when the cop on patrol stops the person again, they have a job to do. The person has a criminal offense or warrant. What’s the cop supposed to do? They have to arrest. It’s their job. So, then the citizen is booked into jail, and the cycle grows. Again, I get it. But, what is the police officer supposed to do at that point? It’s not the cop that sets the fines or criminalizes behavior. Our representatives pass laws that cops enforce. It’s just the cops who get the brunt of the blame for enforcing society’s rules. True story.

So, otherwise decent cops, just enforce the rules of society. The bad cops use the sketchy culture of a city like Ferguson, in ways that none of us want to acknowledge. But, just like I called on the Black community to face some tough thoughts last time, I challenge law enforcement not to look away. It’s a fact. A subpar or flat out bad cop uses stats as a cover for their bad behavior, and they can get away with it without strong leadership. If all his chain of command cares about is being at the top of the arrest/ticket stats, then nobody cares how the numbers come. I’ve seen it.

That, my friends in blue, is where we have to change. Now. Because the animosity that bad policies and policing sow, by even a few, get blown exponentially out of proportion, and the result is that it makes every cop on the beat less safe. Police officers must have the willing cooperation of the citizens to be effective. Sir Robert Peal said that at the dawn of our profession. With the proliferation of guns and violence in criminals today, that idea has never been more important. Our profession must have the courage to address systemic issues that lead to undesirable behaviors in our ranks. Our badge is a symbol of public trust. We have the responsibility to adhere to the ethics it represents and stand for justice.

Hands Up But Don’t Lie

The DOJ reports on Ferguson are in. My policy is to read the full accounts prior to commenting, and in this case, I’m very glad I did. The two reports issued by the DOJ offer very different and conflicting images of the August events in Ferguson. As usual, you will never get a clear understanding unless you read BOTH reports in their entirety with an open mind, rather than skimming to find supporting evidence of your own preconceived notions. I watched social media for the past couple days, not surprised that my policing friends view the exoneration of Officer Wilson as proof of policing integrity and media bashing, while my community activist friends seized upon the DOJ’s scathing report on the systemic abuses within Ferguson’s criminal justice system as proof that we don’t need to know whether Michael Brown’s hands were up or he was attacking Officer Wilson because the community is fed up. As a country, we need to read both reports because the truth will never be found inside our own little boxes.

I’m going to start with the DOJ report on Officer Wilson, because I think even now, most press coverage is not fully examining and informing the public of the entire picture. Reports have consistently vilified the officer and the entire law enforcement response with bold, front-page headlines and sensationalism, printing any charge of police brutality as fact. Even now, when the DOJ’s own report largely corroborates Wilson’s testimony by forensic evidence, completely discrediting witnesses that LIED, the best we can get from most of the press is a mumbled mention of witnesses “misstatements”. Why isn’t this a front page headline? Witness lies caused outrage and led to rioting and looting! It seems to me that fair reporting demands at least equal front page coverage.

Most of the uproar and outrage of this incident revolves around a few key assertions:

  1. Michael Brown was stopped by an arrogant officer who told him to get on the sidewalk and became enraged when his “order” wasn’t followed, and consequently, he shot Brown.

Cops know that situations like this do not occur in a vacuum. We hear the description of the incident and understand instinctively that officers’ radio and computer communications are constantly spitting out audio and computerized messages regarding crimes and an alert cop uses them proactively. That’s good policing. The DOJ report confirms this:

“The dispatch recordings and Wilson’s radio transmissions establish that Wilson was aware of the theft and had a description of the suspects as he encountered Brown and Witness 101 [Dorian Johnson]. As Wilson drove toward Brown and Witness 101, he told the two men to walk on the sidewalk. According to Wilson’s statement to prosecutors and investigators, he suspected that Brown and Witness 101 were involved in the incident at Ferguson Market based on the descriptions he heard on the radio and the cigarillos in Brown’s hands. Wilson then called for backup, stating, “Put me on Canfield with two and send me another car.”

  1. Mr. Brown never attacked the officer, only defending himself when the officer grabbed his neck through the open SUV window.

Dorian Johnson, Brown’s companion and fellow robbery suspect that day, made these allegations to various media outlets immediately following the shooting. Additionally, other community “witnesses” came forward to issue similar stories. Again, the DOJ report and physical evidence disproves this:

“Wilson and other witnesses stated that Brown then reached into the SUV through the open driver’s window and punched and grabbed Wilson. This is corroborated by bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm. While there are other individuals who stated that Wilson reached out of the SUV and grabbed Brown by the neck, prosecutors could not credit their accounts because they were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence, as detailed throughout this report…Brown then grabbed the weapon and struggled with Wilson to gain control of it. Wilson fired, striking Brown in the hand. Autopsy results and bullet trajectory, skin from Brown’s palm on the outside of the SUV door as well as Brown’s DNA on the inside of the driver’s door corroborate Wilson’s account that during the struggle, Brown used his right hand to grab and attempt to control Wilson’s gun.”

  1. Brown’s hands were up in a surrender posture when shot by Officer Wilson. Here’s the DOJ:

“Witnesses who say so cannot be relied upon in a prosecution because they have given accounts that are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence or are significantly inconsistent with their own prior statements made throughout the investigation. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported either to federal or local law enforcement or to the media.”image

  1. The police willfully let Mr. Brown’s body lay in the street for hours, proving that they had no concern for the loss of his [black] life.

Major crime scenes, especially police involved shootings, require detailed and thorough investigations, which take many hours in order to properly catalogue evidence. This does not change based upon the race of the victim. Add the reality of a small police department that relies upon a larger county agency for investigative support, it will take longer for the investigating detectives and crime scene techs to arrive. In Ferguson, the gathering crowd, no doubt fueled by the incendiary, false accusations, became violent. Now the police had to stop investigating in order to defend themselves.. Here’s part of DOJ’s lengthy explanation:

“During that time frame, between about 12:45 p.m. and 1:17 p.m., SLCPD reported gunfire in the area, putting both civilians and officers in danger. As a result, canine officers and additional patrol officers responded to assist with crowd control. SLCPD expanded the perimeter of the crime scene to move the crowd away from Brown’s body in an effort to preserve the crime scene for processing.”

“In this case, crime scene detectives had to stop processing the scene as a result of two more reports of what sounded like automatic weapons gunfire in the area at 1:55 p.m. and 2:11 p.m., as well as some individuals in the crowd encroaching on the crime scene and chanting, “Kill the Police,” as documented by cell phone video. At each of those times, having exhausted their existing resources, SLCPD personnel called emergency codes for additional patrol officers from throughout St. Louis County in increments of twenty-five. Livery drivers sent to transport Brown’s body upon completion of processing arrived at 2:20 p.m. Their customary practice is to wait on scene until the body is ready for transport. However, an SLCPD sergeant briefly stopped them from getting out of their vehicle until the gunfire abated and it was safe for them to do so.”

  1. Authorities released video evidence from the convenience store robbery in order to improperly indict Brown. In fact, protestors and media outlets asserted that the robbery had nothing whatsoever to do with the shooting.

Folks, the robbery had everything to do with the shooting. The robbery set the rest of the events of that day in motion in ways clearly explained above.

Here’s the problem. These false assertions took off and turned into a narrative that still persists today. Those who wish to believe fabricated storyline have openly stated that they are not swayed by physical evidence, including three separate autopsies, and a six month DOJ investigation proving otherwise, even after they themselves demanded this thorough federal review. It’s unfortunate that many in the media and purported leaders of the Black community, confronted with evidence, now say that the facts don’t matter. Systemic bias and oppression is somehow an excuse to lie about what they saw. Make no mistake, those lies directly led to rioting. What’s worse? Nobody is saying one word about charging anyone with a crime. Last time I checked it was a crime to falsify criminal reports, commit perjury, and incite riots. In Mr. Johnson’s case, his involvement in a felony that ultimately led to his friend’s death should earn him a felony murder charge. Where is the media’s outrage that the actions by these individuals resulted in rioting that destroyed the livelihoods of innocent residents in Ferguson and other cities? Where is the community’s outrage?

Last week I talked about integrity in law enforcement. This week I’d like to issue the same challenge to community leaders and the media. Have the courage to stand up for what is right, even if it doesn’t support the “message”. Stop throwing gasoline on problems and try working on real solutions. Black lives matter. Police lives matter. ALL lives matter. But that’s not the point here. How does dangerously embellishing one incident and destroying one officer’s life help further the cause of equality? Hands up, don’t shoot implies that the police are hunting black citizens and shooting them in the street with no provocation. That is not factual. That’s not to say that there are no rogue cops that need to be identified and charged with crimes, if applicable. They do. But, I don’t believe a rallying cry based on a lie helps make things better for community relations. It’s no different than if a cop frames a suspect because he believes the end justifies the means. It doesn’t.

Next week I’ll examine the other DOJ report on the systemic problems in Ferguson with an equally critical eye. Here’s the link to the official DOJ report on the Brown shooting. I hope you will take the time to read with an open mind and heart.

DOJ report on the Michael Brown Shooting