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.

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.

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.