King holiday still fights for respect

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

Oh, but I remember those days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King.

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