The guy in the parking lot asked me for a few bucks because he was out of gas. Pure scam. His story became more elaborate the longer I faced him – his car was just down the road, out of sight, and he needed a gas can too so the bite was for fourteen dollars. But I elected to believe him, or to act that way. I gave him a twenty and told him to pass the change forward. I didn’t believe his story, but that day I needed to believe…something. This was the day the Department of Justice released its report on Ferguson, Missouri, and I felt sick.
I am the luckiest man in America, as I have told my friends and family ad nauseum. I survived sudden cardiac death – twice! – underwent open-heart surgery (read: new pipes) and retired to the happy life of a family man, ex-cop and as-yet unpublished novelist. I had $200 in my pocket. If I felt tapped by my gift to this guy I could make it up with a slightly thinner envelope at Mass on Sunday. Alms for the poor, whichever wouldn’t matter.
My friends and family also know I am a police apologist, or at least a police explainer. I try to come up with a reasonable, officer-safety related explanation for whatever the news media so often reports as brutality or insensitivity. I yell at the CNN announcers who misinterpret police actions in broadcast videos, pointing out to the unaware news talkers on the other side of the TV screen that, for example, “The guy is grabbing the cop’s gun!” Or, “Thrown rocks ARE dangerous, to them and to the public.” Or, “We’re trained to shoot at twenty feet if he doesn’t drop the knife.” The media and the public never get what goes through an officer’s mind at critical moments, never appreciate the job dangers and the duty requirements. Cops see things through a different lens than the public. Danger is everywhere, and cops have few ways other than fast reflexes and force to protect themselves from anger or assault that can come from any direction, at any time, without any warning. Ask the officers who were just shot in Ferguson from an assailant hidden in a crowd during a night of protests. Cops learn to distrust, to question, to doubt everyone.
But I needed to believe this gas guy. I wanted to be the kind of relaxed, normal citizen who happily helps someone in need without cynicism or distrust. Just like I need to believe that Michael Brown’s mom did not write the horrible things attributed to her this weekend on FaceBook. And I now must believe that the Ferguson Police Department and in fact the entire town government were, if not are, evil.
I have to believe the Department of Justice report that calls out the police and court system in Ferguson for “harmful…intentional discrimination on the basis of race.” I sure don’t want to. I would rather think that it just so happened that a higher percentage of Ferguson’s blacks commit minor infractions that whites, that it’s because the police spend more time in the poor neighborhoods, which are so often the homes of minorities, an operations-based cause that I saw in my career on the police department in Alexandria, Virginia.
But I would be wrong.
From the DOJ report: Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities. Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between legitimacy among African Americans in particular.
Makes me sick. If I hadn’t worked for a fine, balanced, thoughtful and community-responsive police department for fully half my life, I would be embarrassed to have been a cop. But I’m not. I’m proud. I was good, and my brothers and sisters who remain in uniform are as good as cops can be: fair, impartial, careful, smart and just. As I always believed, or wanted to naively believe, all police departments are that way. But I can’t anymore.
From the DOJ Report:
Our investigation indicates that this disproportionate burden on African Americans cannot be explained by any difference in the rate at which people of different races violate the law. Rather, our investigation has revealed that these disparities occur, at least in part, because of unlawful bias against and stereotypes about African Americans. We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson.
Any cop will tell you that attitude tickets are written. A traffic stop that could have ended with a warning ends with a citation because the driver just didn’t get it, didn’t go along. It’s more than just yes sir, no ma’am, it’s a perception that the offender doesn’t get the purpose of the stop, won’t refrain in future and so needs a little written reminder. Tickets are written, or not, every day based on the snap impressions of cops whether to give a break or come down hard with a ticket or two. But not for the sole purpose of raising revenue. Not like this:
From the DOJ report: Even relatively routine misconduct by Ferguson police officers can have significant consequences for the people whose rights are violated. For example, in the summer of 2012, a 32-year-old African-American man sat in his car cooling off after playing basketball in a Ferguson public park. An officer pulled up behind the man’s car, blocking him in, and demanded the man’s Social Security number and identification. Without any cause, the officer accused the man of being a pedophile, referring to the presence of children in the park, and ordered the man out of his car for a pat-down, although the officer had no reason to believe the man was armed. The officer also asked to search the man’s car. The man objected, citing his constitutional rights. In response, the officer arrested the man, reportedly at gunpoint, charging him with eight violations of Ferguson’s municipal code. One charge, Making a False Declaration, was for initially providing the short form of his first name (e.g., “Mike” instead of “Michael”), and an address which, although legitimate, was different from the one on his driver’s license. Another charge was for not wearing a seat belt, even though he was seated in a parked car. The officer also charged the man both with having an expired operator’s license, and with having no operator’s license in his possession. The man told us that, because of these charges, he lost his job as a contractor with the federal government that he had held for years.
And so on, for 100 pages. Dozens of examples of misconduct ranging from inappropriate words to abuse or police power to excessive force. So I can no longer grin confidently back at any police detractors with the certainty that cops, as a group, just don’t do that. I can’t automatically default to defending any cop’s actions as just, proper and dictated by the circumstances created by the offender. Cops shoot people who have to be shot. Officer Darren Wilson had to shoot Michael Brown that day last August. I believed so when I read the first reports, and the Department of Justice believes so after extensive investigation. But I, and police across the country, have lost our reliance on the automatic assumption of lawful justification for our actions. Many police departments have a large supply of positive community relations in the bank, and can weather or even avoid public anger and skepticism when their officers take unpopular action. Others like Ferguson suffer the negative consequences of neglecting the outreach and communication their communities needed, and are quickly judged faulty when tragic or questionable events occur. According to the DOJ, in Ferguson, “(t)he confluence of policing to raise revenue and racial bias thus has resulted in practices that not only violate the Constitution and cause direct harm to the individuals whose rights are violated, but also undermine community trust, especially among many African Americans. As a consequence of these practices, law enforcement is seen as illegitimate, and the partnerships necessary for public safety are, in some areas, entirely absent.” (I will have more on the DOJ Ferguson report in a future column. Or two.)
And most departments are failing to reach out and educate the main offender spreading negative imagery and opinions of the police. The national news media knows nothing of how cops operate, why shootings occur, what makes cops tick. When news anchors can claim cops shot an “unarmed” man who was doing nothing worse than throwing rocks at them, we as a law enforcement body have failed to make clear the bottom-line bedrock facts of cop life: we use lethal force to protect ourselves and the public from death and serious injury.
I recently suggested the media should ask so-called Ferguson protestors of police shootings, what would you have the police do instead? Let’s ask the reporters, “What would you do? If I punch you in the face and try to take control of a gun, if I grab rocks and bricks and throw them at you hard enough to kill, if I advance on you with a knife in my hand, what would you do?”
All cops know what we would do. Why can’t we make this clear to the rest of the world?
And another thing I believe. I do not believe Michael Brown’s mother made the vicious anti-police entries in Facebook that some have published recently. Malefactors and rabble-rousers on both sides of the issue of alleged police brutality have lied, shaded and misquoted often since last August. I choose instead to believe Michael Brown’s family feel the way they showed in a statement released shortly after a St. Louis County officer, 41, and a Webster Groves officer, 32, were shot last Thursday. From that statement:
“We reject any kind of violence directed toward members of law enforcement. We specifically denounce the actions of stand-alone agitators who unsuccessfully attempt to derail the otherwise peaceful and non-violent movement that has emerged throughout this nation to confront police brutality.”
While the former newspaper reporter in me would have preferred to see the word “alleged” in front of “police brutality,” I choose to focus on “peaceful” and “non-violent.” I am sure my former brethren in blue would prefer that too, though they unfortunately must remain watchful, armed and ready for anything.