The code of silence ends here

As outrage burns over the murder of George Floyd, my commitment to police reforms & accountability has never been stronger. I’m outraged because the actions of those officers do not represent our honorable profession. I’m outraged by the depravity shown by Derek Chauvin under the color of authority, and we all instantly knew every cop was going to wear that crime for a long time. Rightly so. 

Not because all or even most women and men who serve as police would ever condone such despicable behavior. That’s a given. What brands us is the internal malfeasance that keeps us from removing such people long before they commit their violent act or crime that stains everyone in a uniform. 

The video of George Floyd’s murder laid bare the complicity of our entire profession. We have insisted for decades that only bad apples commit the worst abuses. Any mention of those “bad apples” is met with strong protests and denials. It’s not me, it’s not me! We cry.

The last two weeks exposed the ugly underbelly of a law enforcement culture that has been tolerated far too long. The horror of George Floyd’s death showed us all the deeper systemic cancer: One truly criminal actor and the shock of three others who either did not care or did not feel empowered to stop him. No, police misconduct isn’t increasing, it is simply being videotaped. The ongoing civil unrest is policing’s collective penance for refusing to reform on its own.  

Good cops & police leaders: Just because you think there is no problem in your community doesn’t mean people of color feel the same. Understand you have blind spots. The civil unrest in your city should tell you things aren’t quite as rosy as you think. People who have been on the receiving end of rude, dismissive, aggressive, or abusive cops are walking around with unresolved pain and anger. Please hear the pleas of marginalized communities who have been crying out over mistreatment and abuse by people you know need to be removed from the police profession. 

We all know who they are. Line officers know who they are. Police managers and staff know who they are. There’s just never enough collective will to purge them. So, they remain among us like cancer, insidiously infecting the squads around them. Supporting a subculture that in practice counters and undermines the police mottos of protect and serve and all of our lip service about community policing. We have always pretended because they haven’t done something that rises to the level of criminality, their behavior can be ignored. Like our racist uncle who rants and we shake our heads, the time has come to acknowledge that the harm they do. The daily microaggressions they inflict on people are just as damaging to our professional credibility and when their conduct rises to outright criminal behavior? God help us, we’re seeing the result. 

Police leaders have failed our communities by failing to address this systemic, pervasive issue that they absolutely know exists. Why are so many disciplined officers allowed to resign and keep their certifications? How is it possible that there are databases of cops known to have committed sexual misconduct or are flagged as criminals, and still walking around in uniforms? Why is there no leadership push for national standards to decertify bad cops? 

Why is it taking two weeks of rioting in the streets to get most of you to even acknowledge publicly that we have to make some changes? 

After Rodney King’s beating, evidence showed us LAPD officers sending racist computer messages like “gorillas in the mist.” Ten years later, I knew officers who used racist acronyms to remember the streets in the projects: AFRO SCUM. The investigations following Ferguson, Chicago, and Baltimore revealed continuing racial undertones. Minneapolis has a long, fraught history of police brutality in their city. Let’s not forget it is where Philando Castillo was murdered, even though he was a lawful gun owner and did everything the officer told him to do. 

These are truths. Police truths. It is no longer enough for any of us to say, “I’m not racist” or “I’m not that cop.” We refuse to look at our racist past in the eye and deal with it and it is long past time for our police culture to stop pretending race isn’t still a significant issue. The people of color in our communities still feel the undertow of bias in many encounters. They are frustrated by our collective failure to do anything meaningful day to day. We need to drop our defensive shields and get real with our fellow citizens.

And we have to start cleaning our own house. The cops that make every call harder because they piss the citizen off almost immediately. The cops that intentionally piss off the citizen so they can say, “Uncooperative. Back in service.” The supervisor who runs an entrapment traffic detail to stop cars in the black neighborhood. The jerk who purposely drives through puddles and splashes people just for fun. The one who “testilies” because the guy in the back seat probably got away with plenty of other stuff anyway. The non-stop microaggressions and indignities committed by these kinds of cops are festering wounds in minority communities. So, why are we surprised when the next shooting turns into a riot? 

The code of silence ends here, my friends. You may not have the power to fire a bad cop, but you must make it clear to your unprofessional peers that racism and abuse of power are not tolerated. They make your job more difficult and they endanger your safety every day. You also have the power to change the culture of your unions. If you think it’s wrong to protect bad cops, then make them stop doing it. If they are beating a drum of us vs. them, they are not truly protecting you, they are fomenting dangerous divisions that will endanger you further. 

I believe good cops want bad cops held accountable. The protests in the streets are demanding reforms and policies to help do just that. We all must be part of the solution. You must reject those among you who do not uphold the integrity of policing. You must speak. Follow your oath. Lead, though it may not be easy. Police leaders must help you by standing up and calling out the systemic failures that keep bad cops on the job. Taking these steps will earn community support. Community support and trust are what will make you safer.  

Please do not listen to those who tell you citizens hate you. Or that there is a war on cops. Policing has always been dangerous. The truly criminal will attack peace officers. They always have and always will. But the fact is policing is safer than it has been in decades. There is no war on cops. There is a war on bad cops. There is a war on abusive cops. There is a war on dirty cops. Rightly so. They are the criminal in your midst. 

To my fellow citizens, outraged over a seeming avalanche of videos showing murders and abuses of citizens at the hands of police. I hear you. Change must occur. It is unacceptable in a democratic, civil society, and should not happen. Sadly, it happens over and over. Police misconduct is a cancer and protests are the cure. As Dr. King famously said, “A riot is the cry of the unheard.” 

I believe the images of uniformed police officers callously murdering a man in their custody has finally awakened us for good. The time has come for real change at long last. Keep up the fight, but do it peacefully. We’ve had lots of examples of good cops kneeling & expressing solidarity with you. Let’s build on those connections. Hold those who do not deserve the public trust to account. Let’s demand justice and control over how we are policed. That’s how it works in a democracy. You have the entire world’s attention. Let’s finally achieve the dream of justice.

A police reckoning has arrived

Since the murder of George Floyd one week ago, I’ve been concerned about the escalation of violence and the risk to more citizens and cops. We should be thinking about the exponential risk to every good cop who now has to wear the depravity of one of our brothers in blue, callously snuffing out the life of a person in his custody. This event has ramped up violence nationwide and, as always, cops on the front line are the ones in harm’s way.

My friends, we must understand how we got here. I want to talk to you truthfully and frankly, as a fellow cop, because we have to tell each other the truth and see our faults, or we’re going to lose our legitimacy once and for all.

We have convinced ourselves for decades that there was something a suspect did to cause his death. That their actions must have caused their own death. Always. That’s the mantra, right? It’s on a mental loop in our heads, “If he had only”…surrendered…not fought…complied…pick a term. And most of white America goes along with us. If only the person had done, or not done, whatever. The person is never killed by the fault of the cop. Never official misconduct or malfeasance. Their actions dictate our response.

Qualified immunity shielded almost every bad actor that came along. Shootings of individuals lawfully carrying firearms, children playing with toy guns, people playing video games inside their home, women sleeping in their home, the list goes on. We do mental gymnastics and think up a myriad of reasons to absolve the cop of any responsibility. Regardless of training. Regardless of the circumstance. Regardless of common sense. We are tone-deaf to how this looks to the average citizen.

Then came Minneapolis. I’d like to think the image of a cold, callous cop calmly kneeling on the neck of a non-resisting man is finally, finally a bridge too far for my fellow Americans and cops to swallow. This time, it is impossible to look away.

It’s time to put up or shut up, my fellow good cops. We’ve been crying for years “bad apples” not us! Any direct question about individual responsibility is ducked and dodged. Then came Minneapolis and it was all laid bare. The depravity of the primary cop and the failure of the others on scene to stop the murder. What you need to understand is that this is what has been at the heart of the issue for decades. That complicity has tainted you as well. The disgusting behavior of police misconduct has always painted us all with an ugly brush. We were fools to tell ourselves that it could be otherwise.

That is the critical message we have failed to hear. When the criticism comes we immediately go to our defensive crouch, insist it’s only those unnamed bad apples. Trust us. Except that nonstop videos say otherwise. They keep coming daily. We must make it stop.

This is what I want to say to you today with all the love and brotherhood I can muster. It is not enough to say you are not that cop. You must stop that cop. You must reject that cop. You must purge those cops from your ranks. You must make those cops pariahs. You must rise above those cops if you are ever to release yourself from the stain of their deeds.

I realize right now it’s easy to get caught up in the anger against protestors. I’ve been there, too. Taking rocks and bottles, holding the line with a gas mask & shield. This is the part of the job nobody tells you about when you sign up thinking you’ll save the world. Please try not to buy into the negative war on cops rhetoric. There have been riots and difficult times before. Good cops are the ones who will weather the storm, like always.

What’s different now is the political climate mixed with social media and nonstop noise. Will law enforcement live up to the lofty ideals of its code of ethics or succumb to the basest depravity of the disgruntled or criminal in our midst? Resist the temptation to believe the worst and stay true to your oath. We are at a critical juncture in law enforcement, my friends. The future is up to every one of you.

I have always maintained we are better than the worst of us. Those brave enough to run into gunfire or burning buildings are brave enough to stop misconduct by our peers. I believe in the better natures of the true heroes behind the badge. Hold tight to your humanity. There is no us and them, only one human family. Let’s get through these difficult times by committing to our communities and one another to demand only the best serving beside us.

Police honor and integrity are more important now than ever before. A police reckoning has arrived. Our profession and our nation are depending on our morality and courage.

Be safe.

George Floyd was murdered under color of authority

When the fight’s over, it’s over. No amount of respect for policing should ever excuse criminal cops.

My friends, I’m struggling this morning. I’ve struggled all week since the murder of George Floyd. At first I couldn’t even process the cold insensitivity I watched on the video. A public servant, entrusted to maintain law and order, completely indifferent to human life. I’ve watched that video multiple times, trying to figure out how to understand the actions of those public servants. I cannot imagine how traumatic this is for Black Americans to witness another Black man killed right before their eyes.

Every once in a while, a video comes along that is completely indefensible. Right now I cannot excuse is the deafening silence from my policing peers. Silence is complicity. Silence is consent. If we do not condemn wrongdoing publicly and loudly, we are lost. Our silence tells the world we’re okay with one of our peers calmly kneeling on a man’s neck for seven minutes and killing him under color of authority.

When the fight or resistance ends, it’s over. Period. And, no, we’re not going to get into adrenaline and all that as an excuse. It’s real in some cases, but that’s what your partners are for. That didn’t happen here. Also, an experienced professional should be able to draw some calming breaths and get control in much less than seven minutes. Let’s leave that there.

Here’s what happens in those horrific seven minutes. Three of these cops are on the man’s back, one calmly pressing his knee into his neck. There is no resistance because only the officers knee is pressing into his neck, he doesn’t use his hands, which means there is no struggle. The man begs for air, the officer calmly remains on his neck. The man makes a feeble attempt to rise—no doubt trying to survive, not resist. The officer remains on his neck. The man goes silent. The officer remains on his neck. The man goes limp. The officer calmly remains on his neck. The paramedic comes and checks his pulse. The cop calmly, callously, remains on his neck.

Not one of the other officers appears to register alarm or tell their fellow cop to get off his neck. Not one. If they do, the cop ignores it and calmly keeps kneeling on his neck.

Most of us have been there, subduing a person for whatever crime. When you are straddling a person’s body you can feel their movement, tension, shifting, and struggle beneath you. You feel the moment when the struggle stops. The movement ceases. And when that happens, you are the professional. You are supposed to stop as well. This is the part I cannot wrap my head around. When the fight is over, it’s over. When the human tells you they are in distress, it’s your job to summon help. When they stop fighting you, it’s your job to stop all force. When they stop breathing, it is your job to start life saving efforts.

There is no gray area here. That is the job. Prisoners in our custody are our responsibility. Yet, there are far too few voices from our side of the thin blue line calling for accountability. I’m struggling with why not. I’m struggling with how the vast majority of us have gone silent. I’m appalled that a fellow cop could calmly, callously, press his knee into the neck of a non-combative human, ignore his pleas for help, ignore his pleas for air, feel the moment when he goes limp, and keep kneeling on his neck without so much as a change in expression on his face.

I’m not okay with this. Those cops do not represent me. They do not represent the profession I belonged to for twenty-five years. They do not represent the humanity and courage of those good cops I was proud to serve beside. They, and those like them must be purged from our profession with impunity. This cannot stand. These horrors cannot continue.

Right now we need to ask ourselves who we are. Are we the heroes we want everyone to see us as or are we cowards? Why do we have the courage to run toward gunfire but not to tell our fellow cops to get the hell off a guy’s neck? Are we so invested in our membership in the brotherhood of the badge that we can’t call out bad behavior in our own house? Have we so convinced ourselves of our own infallibility that we cannot tolerate any insinuation that any one of us might be wrong? Do we believe that because the job is dangerous and any one of us might fall is a reason to never speak ill of another cop, even when they are unethical or even criminal?

My brothers and sisters in blue, we must stand against this. We must own the damage done by a long line of cops who did not deserve to wear your badge. We must reclaim our honor. We must stand for the rule of law. We must call out crimes under color of authority when we see them so that the citizens of our country know we care. Only then will we begin to heal. Only then will the bloodshed cease on all sides.

A fellow cop and dear friend told me through tears yesterday: African Americans are all screaming: We can’t breathe in America!

Riots are raging and cities are burning. The howl of pain from the unheard that Dr. King told us about fifty years ago. George Floyd was murdered under color of authority. We must not look away. We must own it and work to ensure it never happens again.

What could possibly go wrong?

Last week, I wrote about the issue of law enforcement and mental health, specifically wondering why our profession isn’t the loudest voice in calling for commonsense gun safety legislation. The issue is part of a much larger mix of factors that combine to take a huge emotional toll on officers today.

From last week: “In the past few years everything has gotten worse. Everyone’s angry. Politics, social media, non-stop noise and hatred, putting us all on edge. We know as cops what that means. The cop on the street is the one on the front line of this crap when it boils over. Mental illness, domestic violence, murders, fights, opioids, homelessness, poverty, desperation. Oh, yeah, and assume everyone is armed in our gun culture existence. And our nature is to stuff it down. Unwind with a drink, close our social circles, tell ourselves it’s us versus them like never before. What could possibly go wrong?”  

And then yesterday, Police One reports yet another NYPD officer commits suicide. California cops got into a gun battle with another shooter armed with an assault rifle. One killed, two wounded. Every single day we are surrounded by carnage.

First-Responders-and-PTSD

My friends, our mental health has always been under stress. Police work is inherently dangerous, thankless, stressful stuff. In our modern world, the darker side of our profession is now on full display. The bad apples are now exposed as never before. Social media and cell phones are blaring the ugliness daily. Guns are more prevalent, and available than ever, to the point that every training you get instills the fear “everyone is armed” and “everyone hates cops”, therefore everyone wants to kill you.

Talk about stress.

On top of that, mass shootings are on the rise. The .223 or AR-15 or AK-47 type rifles are all the rage now, flying off the shelves at a record pace, thanks to slick ads that equate ownership with “manhood” and “strength.” Our gun culture has reached a fever pitch. Our anger and partisanship has reached a fever pitch. Our race wars haven’t been this heated since the height of the civil rights riots. Police are underpaid, undertrained, under equipped, and still expected to perform at unrealistic levels of superhero (or antihero) status, just like on primetime TV.

Every problem polite society won’t deal with lands at the feet of the street cop. Rarely do we solve the problems to anyone’s satisfaction. What human can live up to that kind of expectation in the face of so many threats?

Then there is the very real presence of bad actors within police ranks. Racists, sexists, homophobes, white nationalists, and just plain old incompetent and lazy. Every good cop wonders daily why these people don’t get fired, and if they do, why don’t they get de-certified? Why do they too often get to move on to another agency to fuck everything up for those of us just trying to do a good job and stay alive?

The public has no clue. We don’t want to tell them because we don’t want to make things worse. But wouldn’t publicly shaming and purging the bad apples make policing look better in the eyes of the public? Wouldn’t law enforcement regain some credibility if we policed ourselves more effectively? What if we actually dealt with the many damaging online law enforcement sites that allow and encourage angry, hate-filled language spewed under the cover of free speech? The dangers we face don’t excuse misconduct or racist rants. Good cops know these sites only feed the malignancy.

Our conduct is scrutinized because the badge and public trust make us different. The shame when bad cops are exposed only reflects upon the rest of us to the extent that we allow or have allowed those stains to remain in our ranks. Officer morale suffers in-house. Officer safety takes a hit when those bad actors shame our profession. Angry people want to hurt cops. That is the real consequence.

We need leadership to face our own shortcomings head on, not cowardly excuses or weak-sauce reasons not to take action. Leaders who demand the highest levels of professional behavior. Leaders who insist on sound policies and tactics. Leaders who stand by their officers when they do the job properly, and terminate those who stain the badge. Leaders who ensure their officers get the training, equipment, and support they need, rather than stoke the flames of division with the ‘war on cops’ rhetoric.

It’s time we take a hard look at ourselves and decide who we want to be. Professional, moral, respected public servants that most of cops are, or the immoral, dangerous, unethical, hacks the bad apples make police seem? Will we continue to enable the worst among us out of some misguided loyalty? Because if we keep telling ourselves empathy and emotion make us weak, we’re superhuman crime-fighters, we’re immune from human feeling, refusing to name problems, provide cover for misconduct, unwilling to admit fault, and unable to reconcile these conflicts, we will not survive. Personally or professionally.

And that, my friends, is what can go wrong.

Be safe.

We cannot tolerate sexual misconduct

A few weeks ago a story hit the news about two plainclothes NYC police officers accused of raping a young female whom they had arrested on a minor narcotics charge. According to the complaint, the girl was with two male friends when stopped. The officers found an unknown number of loose Prozac and Klonopin pills in her purse. They arrested her and told the male companions to pick her up later at the precinct. Here’s where it gets bad. After loading the female up in the transport wagon, the woman says that the two officers sexually assaulted her in the wagon, enroute to the precinct. The officers denied the charge.

I’m fully aware that many complaints are wrongfully lodged against police officers every day. However, in this case, DNA from her sexual battery exam, and I presume the wagon, matches the officers. What came next is really troubling to me. You guessed it, just like virtually every defendant any one of us has ever arrested for rape, they now say the sex was consensual. They resigned from NYPD because they know sex on duty is a violation of NYPD policy. So, they eliminated their firing and are acting like every perp we’ve arrested for rape by claiming she wanted it. The cop in me says a handcuffed prisoner cannot consent. Full stop.71vaBBkMyuL._SY450_

But this New York case gets even worse. Now, there is an allegation by the victim that no less than nine other officers questioned and tried to intimidate her at the hospital the night of the incident. If your instinct is to defend the officers or say the woman and her mother are lying, remember hospitals have cameras and large staffs as potential witnesses. Maybe those other cops thought they were trying to help their fellow brothers in blue, but leaning on a sexual battery victim isn’t helping anyone. It’s only making the situation worse.

Let’s be real. If the woman had accused her two male companions of rape, and we found handcuffs and firearms in the car or on them, we would charge them appropriately with armed sexual battery, or forcible rape, or whatever your state’s language. We would say matching DNA made the case a slam dunk and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. We do it every day. The fact that the accused are cops doesn’t change the probable cause.

The victim’s story and DNA in this case make her complaint credible. The fact that the accused are two armed police officers makes this power dynamic even more disturbing. Their professional status makes this infinitely worse. Yes, they should be held to a higher standard. We should be angry when guys like this shame our profession, not twisting ourselves into pretzels trying to defend the indefensible. No, I don’t want to hear how they’re just a couple of bad apples, or about her personal history. None of that is relevant. The police officers were in a position of authority and power. With that authority comes a responsibility to behave professionally.

What’s crazy is that there is no law in New York that prohibits on-duty, armed, police officers from having sex on duty. The sadder truth is that there is no such law in most states. I served as a police officer in Florida, and I’m glad to say that on-duty sex–even consensual–is grounds for state revocation of police certification. The loss of police certification is the least the public should expect from those we entrust with public safety.

Right now, even in states like Florida, there is no mandatory reporting of sexual misconduct if no criminal charge is filed. There is currently no national database or reporting of officer misconduct. The decertification database is voluntary and woefully incomplete. This allows departments to ignore the practice as they see fit, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how that might empower guys like these former NYC detectives to prey on vulnerable women. We can no longer tolerate a systemic failure to deal with sexual misconduct on duty. Law enforcement needs a professional code of conduct and mandatory standards nationwide. Our profession requires public trust to succeed. A uniform morals conduct policy with real penalties and consequence like permanent revocation of police certification is a good place to start.

“No one is required to choose the profession of a police officer. But having chosen it, everyone is obligated to perform its duties and live up to the highest standards of its requirements.” –Calvin Coolidge

 

Stay on the side of right

The news in the past few days has been filled with the pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and tough guy Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who is selling a new book. I’ve seen praise over the past couple of years from law enforcement officers and former colleagues for both of these men. There is this narrative that they represent tough, no-nonsense leadership that make them the quintessential cop’s cops.

Are these guys who we really want to emulate?

I know it’s easy to get caught up in the tough guy rhetoric. So, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at the men being touted as the example for law enforcement to follow. That way we can ask again if these are our values.

As sheriff in Maricopa County, Arpaio famously bragged that his tent city jail was a concentration camp. Investigations since the mid-90’s have exposed extreme abuses in Arapaio’s jails, where even paraplegics demanding catheters in order to urinate are physically abused. People who require insulin or other medication for survival are denied and some die as a result. You can read more about the abuses at his jails here.

But let’s move on to his street law enforcement abuses. Arapaio ordered the arrest of reporters who wrote stories he didn’t like. He fabricated an assassination attempt on his life, trying to frame a convict for the non-existent crime. He said he considered the comparisons of his department to the Klan as an honor.

These shocking cases pale in comparison to Arpaio’s most far-reaching and devastating attack on the rule of law, professionalism, and integrity in law enforcement practice. In Arpaio’s county, race wasn’t one factor in a law enforcement reasonable suspicion for a stop, the way most law-abiding cops do their jobs. In Arpaio’s world, racial profiling is the only factor necessary for a stop. Officers only need to say the individual “looks like an illegal immigrant.”

These are the reasons that the Bush DOJ opened investigations to the sheriff. Arpaio has been well known as a sheriff who consistently violates constitutional rights. It might fun to wax poetic about what a great world it would be if we could ignore the pesky laws that govern police behavior and just stop anyone we want at any time. Message boards abound with posts about how working for Sheriff Joe would be great. But, no upstanding cop with integrity should be defending the actions by this thug masquerading as a lawman.

In Milwaukee, Clarke’s dubious resume isn’t quite as long, but he also has many complaints racked up, including an inmate who died of thirst after deputies turned off the water to his cell. He became furious when a man on a flight “disrespected him” and had deputies, including a K9, meet the man when he disembarked from the plane in Milwaukee. He said the man threatened him. No charges were filed.

These men attract lots of attention for their bluster and bravado, but nothing about their actions or words are helpful to law enforcement. Police departments rely on good community relationships in order to effectively solve crime, and more importantly, cops need good relationships for their personal safety day to day. Cheering civil rights violations and abusive behavior is not the path to improved community relations. If we truly believe and worry about the dangers for cops in our current national discourse, then we should reject the rhetoric of these kinds of leaders.

We need to be very careful in the way we show our commitment to our profession. Cop’s support for abusive and illegal policies should be a red flag to all who care about our future. Police have to stand on the side of the constitution, because that is the foundation of our freedom. When cops are willing to encourage civil rights abuses and thuggish behavior from so-called real lawmen in some twisted need for validation of our worth, then we need to take a hard look at ourselves. Blind loyalty in our ranks has never been the answer.

Good cops know the difference between right and wrong. Stay on the side of right.

Be safe.