What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Want to know what I did on my summer vacation?   I died.

Twice.  Three times if you count when doctors stopped my heart during open heart surgery.  Overall, the first week of vacation with sun, sand, seafood and family was fun, the second week with two heart attacks, three ambulance rides, four hospitals and double bypass surgery…not so much.

On the morning of Saturday, August 10, 2013, I was sitting alone on the deck of a beach house in Kitty Hawk NC, drinking coffee and thinking about going for a run.  I had been running during vacation, part of my lame pattern of every few months deciding I was too fat so I had to exercise.  But this season I was not able to go very far, less than a mile before huffing and puffing brought me to a walk.  This was unusually poor performance, but I attributed the weakness to getting up there at age 54.  I decided to hold off on running because I felt a little sick to my stomach.

I woke up moments later flat on my back, looking up at the bottom of the table, wondering why I was lying down.  Spilled coffee soaked into my shirt and shorts. I felt no pain or shortness of breath, no crushing chest sensation or dizziness.   I thought I fainted and when I went inside and told my wife Ruth, she guessed the same.  We decided I was dehydrated after a week of vacationer’s diet of coffee and beer, so I would drink more water and we’d keep an eye on it.  In the back of both of our minds was an episode I had the day before, where as we went to lunch I remarked that I should be a lot hungrier than I was, having skipped breakfast and all.  She told me we had in fact had breakfast together, ate bagels at the table and read the newspaper.  I could not remember any of it.  I had lost about an hour of the morning. Spooky but not terrifying. Yet.

Two hours after the fainting spell, while walking back from the beach, I began to feel sharply nauseated.  It came on fast like sea-sickness.  I wondered if the same fainting thing were about to happen and began looking for a place to sit down.  Again I woke up on the ground, this time face-down in the sand next to the beach road.  Eyeglasses were bent, forehead cut.  I went and found Ruth, who drove me through the heavy departing-vacationer traffic to a local urgent-care clinic.  They gave me saline drip, and an EKG which showed nothing, but they were concerned and ordered me an ambulance to go to Outer Banks Hospital in Nags Head.  The nurse hugged me and told me she would pray.  That was scary, as was my first personal – not police-work-related – ambulance ride.  Staff at Outer Banks Hospital also found no damage on the EKG nor enzyme-related evidence of heart attack in my bloodwork, but guessed that I had experienced a sudden arrhythmia – a break in my normal heart rhythm that dropped my blood pressure and flow of oxygen to the brain.  Further serious tests were not available there, so another ambulance ride (same crew, it’s a small town) took me to Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City NC, on the mainland.   Preparing for the ride, the EMTs put conductive patches for defibrillators on me, and showed me the big needle I’d see myself getting when I woke up if I went out again.  They knew more, and were worried more than I knew to be.

At Elizabeth City the next day, I had a nuclear stress test where radioactive dye that sticks to damaged heart tissue was injected into me, then I ran on a treadmill.  The dye revealed no heart injury but my blood pressure skyrocketed during the test – most unusual.  I have always had slightly high BP, but nothing ever to trigger treatment or concern.  I recently started taking Crestor to begin working on slightly elevated cholesterol, but again nothing that really concerned my personal doctor.  I had never seen a cardiologist until this day, when I met Dr. Lindsey White, who saved my life.

Dr. White said I had no apparent damage to the heart, no history to indicate serious issues other than two episodes of “syncope.”  Syncope is my new word, it is doctor-speak for fainting but sounds so much more serious, which I appreciated because until that point it was looking like I had triggered a lot of EMS and ER response for just a little dehydration.  Dr. White said this was more than fainting, that he heard me when I said I had spilled my coffee all over myself and that nobody spills their coffee when they faint.  Even if they don’t remember, they always have a few seconds as they fade out to put the cup down.  He decided my syncope was instantaneous, thus very serious.  So he ordered a cardiac catheterization, where tubes were run up my wrist to the external cardiac arteries feeding my heart muscles and dye again injected.  The dye is monitored in real time via a device like a small CAT scanner over my chest.  My wife sat near him as he used this rig to locate first a 100-percent blockage of the LAD (Left Anterior Descending artery, the biggest artery supplying blood to the heart muscles) then an 80-percent blockage of the ramus artery, then a 30-percent blockage of another one.  My wife heard his great concern as he related this discovery to his staff.  If he like others had mistaken my syncope for simply dehydration, I would have been released that day, likely to die another.

One hundred percent blockage of the LAD is well-known among medical personnel, my sister the surgical nurse told me, as “The Widowmaker,” and is almost always found only on autopsy.  As I moved from facility to facility, through emergency room to exam room to surgical prep and recovery, several nurses and doctors confirmed this nickname.  Many could not hide their shock and concern when they met me and learned of this diagnosis.  It seems I was not supposed to have survived.  The most eloquent and direct among them, a much older and traditional nurse at the hospital where my eventual surgery was performed, held my shoulder and said, “God must have something more for you to do here.”

Dr. White said my options were two:  cabbage or stents.  Cabbage is more doctor-speak, for CABG – coronary artery bypass graft, commonly known as bypass; or stents – flexible pipes inserted in blocked arteries to be widened in place so they open a hole through which the blood can flow.  Neither sounded pleasant, but as I had learned from Dr. White and a senior nurse, the most likely scenario involving my syncope was that I died each time, that my passing out was in fact my heart simply stopping due to inadequate oxygen supply, and that I had banged it back to life by the impact of falling to the ground.  AKA sudden cardiac death.  Twice.  They don’t know for sure since I was alone each time and certainly not hooked up to EKGs or other monitors.   I took that as an indicator of fantastic luck, and ignored my fear of a little unpleasantness like chest-cracking open-heart surgery.

Another ambulance ride, to Norfolk General Heart Hospital, where cardiac surgeons agreed that CABG, though far more serious and invasive, was the better solution.  Stents, easily implanted via remote surgery and little incisions, are temporary, lasting maybe five to seven years before requiring replacement and are not always successful in opening or maintaining arterial flow.  Bypass surgery  involved sawing the breastbone in two after a foot-long incision is cut down the front of the chest (this is why surviving open heart patients are said to have joined the “Zipper Club”) and requires the actual medical stopping of the heart by drugs and freezing slush poured into the open chest cavity.  Terrifying stuff, but not when compared to the alternative.  I figured  I’d already stopped my heart twice all by myself, so a third time with doctors there could not be so bad, and what’s a new scar?   Let’s go for it.  Ruth, my absolute rock, my healthy heart at my side every moment, was very but quietly scared.  I was not.

Surgery went well.  (How should I know, I was asleep. But I woke up, a reliable  indicator of success.)  Surgeons reached in the hole in my chest, snipped off the end of the non-vital artery that feeds my left mammary gland (tits on a boar and all) and attached the end to the LAD just below the blockage, restoring  blood flow to that area of the heart.  For the ramus, they removed about a foot of the saphenous artery from my left thigh, apparently an artery I can live without. (For many older CABG patients, it is this harvesting of the saphenous artery that causes the greatest ongoing pain and disfigurement, as removal used to require cutting a trench the length of the artery to snip off each end and scoop it out.  Nowadays they go in through a one-inch lateral cut at one end of the harvest, and robotically roto-root around it via cutters of some sort.  Miraculous.)  The bypass artery is sewn above and below the blockage.  The third 30-percenter, they left alone to be monitored for the rest of my life.

Just as miraculous was that the very next day, I was sitting up in a chair, out of bed, and eating a sandwich.  Modern medical procedures, good drugs and fantastic staff.  Other than agonizing pain when I forgot to get morphine on schedule (the schedule is, take it well before you need it because it takes a while to catch up), one of the most challenging things was getting shaved for surgery.  Shaved from chin to ankles.  Everywhere except, oddly and thankfully, my arms.  Nurses were cute and would say, “Oh, you’ll look good, you’ll look so young, your wife will like it.”  Great, like I’m eight?

Morphine was great, but I wanted off that fast, so I worked through Vicodin to Percocet.  Vicodin gave me post-surgical delirium – monsters that looked like evil versions of Where the Wild Things Are came out of the walls to eat me – and I learned the next day that this was not uncommon.  Percocet got me out the door after four days of recovery to spend a week at my mother-in-law’s home near the hospital, too sick to travel home while Ruth drove the kids to college.  The kids were outstanding through all this, never letting on how scared they were, but still not letting me win at Scrabble. Mama was wonderful, she is 90 and as a registered nurse was glad to have a patient to care for again.  She about nursed me to death, in that good way. Stepped further down to Tylenol 3.

After a month at home, with visiting nurses monitoring my progress, I began 12 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation, wherein wonderful exercise physiologists at INOVA Alexandria Hospital watched me closely while I pitifully pedaled a stationary bike, walked on a treadmill and gripped an elliptical without pumping the arm bars because I couldn’t do chest work till the sternum healed, six weeks away.    I worked out while connected to an EKG, and every so often one of the EPs would rush over and tell me I had exceeded my target pulse rate, which is 126, kept deliberately very low by a beta-blocker drug called Metoprolol.  Plus , in rehab I got lectures on proper diet (low- or no-salt, reduced fat and cholesterol) and stress reduction.  I didn’t want to feel disabled, but more on that later.

Stress reduction was made very easy from the start.  I have not returned to work since the heart attacks, haven’t carried a gun or answered a call – for service or for any commander-related issue. I would read the work emails, but others now answered them since I have been replaced quite easily and ably in both of my assignments as police  PIO and Records commander.  My family tells me I am happier, and nearly everybody I meet says I look relaxed.  I’ll take it.  Stress-fighter pro tip:  turn your smart phone off at night (or day if you are a night-shifter) and on weekends.  I know this actually can’t be done in our work environment, but it is the one piece of advice I truly wish we could follow.  We never get down time nowadays because technology keeps us in harness at all hours.  If it’s a true emergency, someone can call you on your home phone.  Stress makes your heart beat faster in a fight-or-flight response, and makes your blood vessels constrict for the same reason – which makes your heart work harder to pump blood through the constrictions (same as cholesterol buildup in the arteries).  I have learned I can lower my pulse rate by, well, thinking happy thoughts.  Really.  I can also raise it by thinking about work – not the fun stuff like bad guys and handcuffs but meetings and City Manager’s reports.

Diet change was surprisingly easy, too.  In the hospitals for nine days, then at Ruth’s mom’s for another five (she is a former nurse who allowed no nonsense at meals) provided a forced period of transition from bacon burgers and fries to boiled vegetables, tuna and fruit. These were never my favorites but they became if not preferred at least appreciated.  Sodium restrictions were challenging and oddly fascinating.  Sodium raises fluid retention, increasing the blood volume and thus placing pressure on the interior of blood vessels.  Blood vessels must be flexible to allow for pulses of blood as the heart beats and for bodily movement, but pressure makes the vessel surface hard and irregular. Hard spots and irregularities are where fat globules (cholesterol) in the blood supply stick, causing blockages.  Blockages slow blood flow throughout the circulatory system, making the heart pump harder, and cut off blood to vital things like, well, the heart itself. Cut off enough and things die, like heart muscles, which is what typically happens in a heart attack.  I had no apparent or measureable heart muscle damage, although we recently found nerve damage that probably indicates some level of injury.

But back to sodium.  I used to be a salt fiend. Ask anybody I worked with as a police Field Training Officer.   Forced to dine with their FTO, recruits and I would go to Arby’s where my standard meal was two beef-n-cheddar sandwiches, fries and a soda.  After my heart operation, my restricted diet limited me to 1500 milligrams of sodium a day.  That is about a teaspoon.  Not a teaspoon added to food, but total.  Each of those beef-n-cheddars had contained 1540 mg sodium.  So I would double my current restriction, add fries, and put table salt on all of it.  Imagine the total.  Now add constant stress.

No wonder I died.

Sodium is in everything – bread, cheese, almost any processed or boxed food.  Read a soup can label sometime just to blow your mind.  And low-fat “healthy” items have more sodium in them than their regular-fat counterparts because it hypes the taste.   Drives you crazy.  Shopping at supermarkets is like a science test during a scavenger hunt but after a while we got good at it.  We shop at Harris Teeter, but go to Trader Joes just for the marinara sauce and a specific bag of tortilla chips.  Because sometimes you have to have something crunchy and tasty, and low-sodium tortillas are as naughty as I’ll get now.

You have to have help, too.  Such complete dietary inversion would have been impossible without my sweet wife along for the bumpy ride (and she has lost 10 pounds on our new healthy diet.)  I’ve eaten more vegetables in the last year and a half than in the prior ten.  Fish is a huge percentage of our diet now, chicken and turkey are big (as are chicken and turkey sausage and chili, soup etc).  I dropped 23 pounds after the attacks, but am now putting some back on. I use the fact I am on baby aspirin as a blood thinner as my excuse to grow a beard and avoid the mortal danger of nicking myself. Actually, I like the beard, and Ruth does too, along with the long non-reg hair.

And for my cop friends:  you have to have help navigating the bureaucracy of a serious illness, too.  Heart disease is covered under the Police-Fire Heart Lung Bill as a disability related to police work, but it is not simple or clear cut like a car crash or an assault injury.  Police Personnel, City HR, the City’s insurance organizer PMA, City Finance, the state Workers Compensation board and the state Industrial Commission – everybody has a piece of this.  They overlap, but they don’t always communicate well, so if you think you gave forms to one city agency, don’t be surprised if you get called down for not providing to another.  The bureaucracy is challenging and stressful – just what you won’t need. What you will need is a lawyer. Call me.

But there is light at the end of, and at a couple of places inside, the tunnel.  (Again, this is mostly for my cop friends:  I followed some good advice and applied for a disability retirement a few days before City Council voted to drastically cut our disability pension plan. My thanks to out to the Commanders’ Association for this advice, and no thanks to the Alexandria Police Association from which I  heard nothing since this started – I want my 28 years of APA dues back.  But as it turned out, I did not  pursuing disability retirement. First, the pay is the almost the same  but the system is weird and complicated, and the “disability” classification of a disability pension  and its tax advantage cut off when you reach “normal retirement age” so the money converts to your standard retirement pay.  Which for me was December 2014, while I was out on sick leave when I turned 55.)

Second, I don’t feel disabled or want to describe myself as disabled.  Already I am stronger than I was before the attacks, as documented by my performance in rehab.  And how could I claim to be disabled when I plan on running (well, sort of running) in 5Ks, and rowing with my son in crew competitions?  And hang-gliding, and kayaking.  Did you see those former NYPD jerks who took 100 percent disability retirements after 9/11 and were just shown on the news riding on personal watercraft and teaching self-defense?  Fraudulent? TBD. Embarrassing? OMG.

Not for me, nope.  I retired straight-up, 28-year, honorable, I-did-my-time service.  And proud of it, but ready, too, for great change.  Those who know me know I had planned on getting to 30 and out, so this was only two years early.     The bottom line, the final determining factor for me was my doctor’s simple equation:  “Coronary artery disease is caused by stress, and police work causes stress.  You should not go back if you want to continue to live.”   I will always have to take heart medication, will never be allowed to shovel snow, and my kids will have to check “yes” on doctors’ forms asking about family history of heart disease. Due to the seriousness of my condition, my cardiologist advises me to seek out other less stressful employment, as it appears that I am permanently physically unfit for unrestricted duties as a police officer. So far, it’s writer and lately, blogger.

I am the luckiest man in America.  I had a decent career, avoided too much personal violence, rose higher than I thought I could, missed out on few opportunities, had fun and helped people.  I think I was a good street officer, a decent sergeant and at least an okay commander.  On the job I met my wife (I was in TAC, the street-level narcotics unit and she was a Public Defender, it was love at nearly first sight but she beat me on our last case against each other).  We have two amazing kids, “A” students, a dancer and an athlete at big schools, they are happy, strong and smart-assed as they should be.  I now get to write my novel, and maybe someday you’ll get to read it if published. If in fact that happens, I will donate 10 percent of my sales profits to efforts to fight police suicide.  In my 28 years with the APD, I lost one fellow officer to hostile gunfire and three to self-inflicted gunshot wounds.  And that terrible proportion pretty much plays out nationwide.  We kill ourselves far more than they kill us.  So if it’s ever published, risk some money on “Apprehension” by Mark Bergin.  It’s for a good cause.

And some of us eat and stress ourselves to death, so I hope to work on that too.  I waas been invited by City Hall to join the pension committee to help  develop the Department’s health and wellness programs and maybe take that citywide.  I figure I am the poster-boy for what not to do with your life early, and how to save it late. Stay tuned.

I want to hear from, meet and talk with any and all of you, at any time.  Friends know I am good for coffee or lunch.  Shy folks or strangers are welcome to call or write me to talk about diet or death, or the Department, whichever you want.   You know how to find me.

One last thing for my police brothers and sisters (and forgive the boast, because it is not the point.)   I recently  bumped into a parking enforcement officer whom I have known forever, I won’t tell you his name (but it’s not my friend John Nasibi).  He asked after my health, and when I told him it was preventing me from returning to work he looked down and said, “I am sorry to hear that.  We liked it when you were working.  You always came and checked on us.  We felt safer when you were working.”

That was the greatest compliment I have ever received.  It was always my goal, to protect and serve my people, so maybe I achieved it.  It should be your goal, too.  Keep your partners safe always. It means you will be safe, too. I want you to get home every night.  Like I get to, now.

Baltimore

I watch the television news tonight out of Baltimore until my heart feels crushed, and I have to stop.   Doctor’s orders.

Sheesh.   I came out of Alexandria Hospital this afternoon to see flames and cops on the tv screen and it is too much déjà vu for my wounded heart.  Why does a trip to the hospital always seem to trigger conflagration for my family?  Not to mention our distressed neighbors in Baltimore, and my (former) colleagues in blue.

In 1993, 22 years ago this month, I left Columbia Hospital for Women after the birth of my daughter to see news film of the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.  Twenty years ago, I came home after the birth of my son to see the Oklahoma City bombing.   Today, after three days in Intermediate Care after an ambulance ride Friday (another heart-related false alarm, thank you.  More later) I came home to see looters and burning police cruisers and fires and disorder. No deaths so far. I pray.  But at least 15 police injured so far.

And I can’t turn it off.

The restrained and professional police response has given the press little to criticize, until tomorrow when cops will certain face criticism for failures to act or predict or be everywhere at once.  As if a cop or a dozen or a hundred can stop a crowd of motivated thieves set on “getting paid” today, using a funeral and a  protest as cover for  thievery and crime.  A CVS is raided, emptied and burned.  A liquor store is stripped, and the crowd moves one storefront to the right and crashes/trashes a cellphone business.  More and more, and I can’t keep up.  My wife, as she has so many times since I retired, clutched my arm and said, “I’m so glad you’ re not on anymore.”

I’m not.  I want to be on duty, out there, in Baltimore, or in Alexandria where our community has so far escaped the rift of anger and lack of communication and trust that flashes to violence like we see tonight.  Where the good cops, like so many truly are, serve and protect and earn the trust of the people. The good people, who are out there but hidden under the smoke of the arson fires in stores and burning cars.

But not all are hidden.  Helicopter cameras show lines of men in black suits, white shirts and black ties trying, gently but forcefully, to curb the flow of criminals in the street and protect the violated stores, presumably Nation of Islam members acting for calm as they so often do.  Brave reporters (for brave, read: white press wading into angry black crowds) to interview masked men who identified themselves as peacekeepers.   And it helps the optics that the mayor, police chief and patrol commander are black, since there is the clear and undeniable racial component in Baltimore that started with the revelations last week that a black male had died in the custody of white police.  An angering event, in light of the recent history of protested and press-highlighted deaths of black men at the hands of police.   That many or most of these have been reviewed and resolved, and that this most recent case in Baltimore has led to every available response  by authorities – suspension of the officers involved, ongoing investigation by the police and the U.S. Department of Justice –  should be reason for the protestors to back down.  There is no step available that protesters can demand, at least logically.  But today Baltimore moved far beyond logic.

Logic.  What is that?  Just now, the local Fox news station reported that a peaceful group of ministers had marched through a violent crowd and up to police, knelt in the street and raised their hands in the recognized “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” anti-police protest. Logic might dictate that this gesture be discredited with the Department of Justice report that such an event, attributed to the late Michael Brown in Ferguson, Illinois, never happened.

And what else didn’t happen?  We still don’t know what happened to Freddie Gray, the beloved son of Baltimore lovingly described in Saturday’s Washington Post as a gentle and friendly sort. The part where he ran from police while illegally armed is somehow forgotten.  We don’t know how his spine was damaged, but could it have been at the skidding, rough tackle at the end of a police foot pursuit?  It is alleged that he was not seat-buckled in the back of a Baltimore PD prisoner van, implying some vehicular movement, deliberate or otherwise might have inflicted injury. But I have seen a prisoner unbuckle his own belt and throw himself face-forward against a police cruiser safety screen, in anger or frustration or because rumors were rampant in Alexandria that the city would pay for such injuries in lawsuits.  So we don’t yet know what happened to Gray.

And it is too early to parse out the mistakes, misstatements and misrepresentations that the news media will feed to us as the night goes on, and tomorrow and the weekend continue.  But there has recently been a reason to hope for better from the press.

Last week television screens and computer monitors lit up with the dramatic and ghastly drama of a police cruiser deliberately ramming a pedestrian in Arizona.  Dash-cam footage showed (till cut by sensitive editors) the man’s body pinwheeling away as the cruiser struck him.  At first glance, it appeared to be a terrible accident and fit well into the nationwide police misconduct story.

At first glance.

But this time, glimmers of understanding shone through early.  But only when the entire video was shown, explaining that this man had that morning allegedly robbed a convenience store, broken into and torched a church, burglarized a house and stolen a car, then stole a rifle and bullets from a Walmart and was at the time of the filmed event marching down a populated street with the loaded gun under his own chin. That the gun was loaded was emphasized by seeing him raise the rifle and fire a shot in the air.

After a Today Show intro that highlighted “a new wave of protests across the country condemning police brutality,” the video from Marana, Arizona was shown in which Officer Michael Rapiejko forcefully ended the deadly threat posed by suspect Mario Valencia and his stolen rifle. Even the police chief admitted it was unorthodox.

But the most unusual thing occurred next.  Today host Matt Lauer, wrapping up the Arizona coverage, admitted that there might be more to the story than the press was seeing, or saying.  “I think if you just see the video and you know nothing about the story, you immediately jump to one conclusion.  But if you hear more of the details of what happened before, it’s much more nuanced.”

Give that man a cigar.

Why dig out the truth when the unexamined imagery keeps viewers enthralled. Or outraged.  Why do your journalism job (which, of course, is only filling a few minutes of airtime between paid advertisements) when the narrowly edited and unexplained visual – of a flying body, a police shooting, a driver beaten by officers with clubs – is so much easier to file.   And of course, don’t question statements made about the event by axe-grinders like, for example, the suspect’s attorney who told CNN:  “Everything in the video seems to point towards an obvious excessive use of force. It is miraculous that my client isn’t dead.”   I won’t hold her strident advocacy against her, she’s just doing what she’s paid to do.

No, I hold it against the reporters who don’t challenge such one-sided statements. Who don’t ask, “What else could  the officers have done against this deadly threat, what tools did they have to end this confrontation safely, what choice did Valencia give them?”  Who don’t give Matt Lauer the details, or wait for them before pronouncements.

No. Just show the video.

We’ll see what they say tomorrow.  But I can’t watch anymore tonight.

It’s Good to Be a Grownup.

There are gray areas everywhere.  Circumstances when it is hard to know exactly what to do or say.  Places where a thing is allowed or encouraged, or taboo. Or illegal.  Times when an opinion on one activity is approved and supported, and an identical opinion on a nearly identical activity is scorned.

Lawyers are good at gray areas. The sharpest lawyer I know (and whom I get to live with!) tells law school stories about rising to argue one side of an argument, and the professor ordering her to then argue the other.  Because there are far more than two sides to every argument.  This particular lawyer pointed out to me that while I don’t agree that a bakery in Indiana can properly refuse to make cakes for a gay wedding, I would probably agree that a Jewish haberdasher would not be judged for turning down a Nazi contract for t-shirts.  Singer  Charlie Daniels had a hit that went: “Be proud you’re a rebel ‘cause the South’s gonna do it again.”  Would you buy it if it went: “Be proud you’re a Nazi ‘cause the Krauts gonna do it again.”

Maybe not.

I think there are some things that go too far, see above.  I would travel to Indiana to buy a simple shirt – for this simple man – from the Jewish haberdasher to support his cause against the Nazis.  But I hear there are folks contributing to a fund to support the anti-gay bakers.  Am I better than they?

Experienced Biblical scholars, or just better readers than I, have knocked me for taking Scripture out of context.  They cite passages that allegedly define marriage as between a man and a woman as the foundation of so-called defense of marriage laws.  Others go so far as to claim that a step down the slippery gay-marriage slope will lead to weddings between men and cars, or women and trees.  I cite back with a few lines out of Levitticus that prohibit consumption of shellfish (I’m going to Hell), trimming beards (Purgatory) and tattooing of skin (I’m good here, if only because my lawyer strongly advised against such body art.)

Some of us (read: me) join a police force in the hope that the gray areas can be distilled to a simple line that we can tell – or force – people not to cross. The Law.  “It’s against the law” seems an easy departure point.  Over there, over the line, you are a bad person and I get to arrest you.  Over here, you are good. Our communities sometimes move that line on us. What was illegal is now legal.  Marijuana laws are changed or dropped. Speed limits are raised.  Parking restrictions change.    Sometimes it appears that regular folks are unaware of just what some laws are.  Protesters, pundits and the press which amplifies their shouts seemed surprised when, in their view, people are thumped for minor crimes.  Let’s ignore for the moment the notion that cops thump people for breaking the law. Cops use force to overcome resistance to what should have been minor, inconsequential arrests.  Cops aren’t the punishing arm of society, society is, in the form of established courts and often elected prosecutors, upholding laws developed, approved and enacted by established and elected government.  Do cops sometimes cross the line and inflict harm?  I wish I could say no, but that would be untrue.  Is that the system?  No, but cops are human and lines are broad, and sometimes gray. But I, again, digress.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is widely considered to confer freedom of speech, religion, assembly and the press to the people. It does, actually, prevent the government from infringing on these things, which is not exactly the same.  You don’t have the right to say or write anything you want at any time, as civil slander and libel laws attest.  You can’t shout, “Fire” in a crowded theatre because that becomes conduct, and conduct can be governed by government.  Cops protect protesters who say bad things about cops, but generally prevent them from saying them in the middle of interstate highways.  Speech vs. conduct.   But we are free to express opinions on almost any topic with support from, and generally without interference from, the government.  The 18th-century French satirical polemicist (read: blogger) Voltaire once wrote “…I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”  (This is commonly misquoted as “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” but these are the words of Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.)

So I get to say anything I want, as long as I am able to back it up, or defend myself against a punch in the nose from those who disagree.  That’s what’s great about being a grown-up.  So here goes…

It is wrong to refuse to sell cake to gays. It is not wrong to refuse to sell hate t-shirts to Nazis.

So there.

PS:   Inquiring minds may want to know, but it’s too early to review the murder charges placed this week against an officer who shot a man after a traffic stop and foot pursuit.  The videotapes released to the New York Times are troubling.  Maybe next week I can write something about it.  But put it this way: I recently proffered my services to a local TV news organization as a law enforcement analyst, hoping they would use me to help the public understand police videos or events about which the news talkers had no clue.  Today, with a South Carolina video that’s hard to look at, I’m glad they turned me down.

PPS:   I quoted Maya Angelou in my last column, but not until I checked the quote three times, and still found two different interpretations. Does that mean I can get a job at the U.S. Postal Service?  Probably not.

The Age of Umbrage… or… I May Be an Internet Crybaby

My sister challenged me this week.  I had posted on Facebook that I was oddly grateful to the national news media because their coverage of Trevor Noah, the new host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, had quoted him as saying he feared American cops more than those in his home of South Africa. He said he had been in the “hands-up, don’t shoot” pose since he got here.

I wrote that this press coverage was valuable to me, saving me the wasted time of watching this fool.  As you may know, I am fairly pro-police and thus am anti the anti-police.

Her simple, place-putting response:  “Could he be joking?”

Well, du’uh, sis.  Of course he’s joking, but you can’t joke about this.  I mean, you shouldn’t joke about… about something I care about.

And have no sense of humor about.

And take great umbrage about.

And that’s her point.

From Merriam Webster: umbrage – a feeling of being offended by what someone has said or done. Origin:  Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin umbraticum, neuter of umbraticus of shade, from umbratus, past participle of umbrare to shade, from umbra shade, shadow; akin to Lithuanian unksmė shadow.  First Known Use: 15th century.

We word-geeks think stuff like this is cool.

When the “hands-up, don’t shoot” protest chant went nationwide last fall, after the death of Michael Brown in an encounter with a police officer in Ferguson, Illinois, I was concerned that the spreading lie of deliberate, careless police violence against black males was going to take root and affect my former colleagues in law enforcement.  Allegedly, Brown had raised his hands to surrender to Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson, who shot him. A grand jury first, then the U.S. Department of Justice, cleared Officer Wilson of wrongdoing and proved the “hands-up, don’t shoot” claim to be false.  And while it is true that some of my former police colleagues lately report increased resistance and verbal confrontations in their contacts on the street, the anti-police movement and the so-called “Ferguson protests” have largely petered out.  Certain positive effects did occur: dialogue between disenfranchised community groups and police increased in some cities that needed it; government budget minders began considering equipping their officers with body cameras (which I consider a great benefit – some disagree.  Maybe a future column?)   And, oddly enough, in my view the national media has increased its coverage of the good things cops do, which this week included ramming a dangerous wrong-way driver before he hit civilians, and buying baby carseats for a challenged family instead of ticketing them.

But the wave of anti-police sentiment and activism I had feared since Ferguson did not overcome us. And this week I was about ready to put down the sword of pro-police piety – and pomposity- and move on to more interesting topics like having heart attacks, writing novels, or cool things my kids did, when I found myself worked up over Trevor Noah and wrote that I would avoid his show.  No great sacrifice on my part:  I’ve never watched The Daily Show.  But FB Me proclaimed a personal boycott far beyond the worth of the issue, and in so doing I seem to have leaned into the national trend toward self-important umbrage instead of just laughing, or not laughing, at things a comic says.

As Jim Norton of Time Magazine put it, (Trevor Noah) … neglected to take into account that Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand. A comedian is fine unless he crosses their particular line, which, of course, in the mind of a self-centered narcissist, is the only line that matters.

Norton’s article was sent to me by another blogger, my friend Dave Statter of STATer911.com.   If you are not familiar with his site, you may remember Dave as a reporter for WUSA9 a few years ago.  (Funny the incestuous way we bloggers pass each other around, like novelists who review their friends’ novels just to get their own name on the covers. INSERT PLUG HERE – My novel is in the post-editing phase, stay tuned.)

Self-centered narcissists, as Time magazine  put it.   I called myself arrogant when I started this blog, in the certainty that my thoughts and opinions are vital to the national discourse on whatever issue I set my sights on.  Like defending law enforcement against what I feared were fires of criticism stoked by a careless national news media who followed only shouting pundits like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and not the truth.  But the pundits, if not silenced, have been finally recognized as charlatans or for having cried wolf too many times.  It is true that bad cops exist, and good cops make mistakes, but the frenzied claims that all cops are killing all black men have finally receded like they should.  Maybe now we can focus on and strive for, if not harmony, at least a better understanding of the cooperation we need to be a community.  As the late Rodney King said in 1992 after his bloody confrontation with police pushed him into national prominence – and Los Angeles into riot – “Can we all get along?”

Like my sister, Dave Statter challenged me to reconsider my personal suppression of  Trevor Noah in this Age of Umbrage.  He informed me of a protest by pro-police groups against the appearance of rapper Common at New Jersey’s Kean University. As reported by the Associated Press this week, Common, who won a Grammy Award for composing the theme song for the movie Selma, was disinvited from speaking at the Kean commencement because he wrote a song about a cop-killer named Joanne Chesimard, who goes by the name Assata Shakur, and was convicted in 1977 of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. She escaped from prison and has been living in Cuba as a fugitive.  “A Song for Assata” was written 15 years ago.

Statter wrote:   While I think of myself as pro-police and totally understand the group’s concerns I don’t think we are better off as a society when we silence voices, I would much rather see the university keep the speaker and give this group or any other group an area to protest. We are in era where art, political views and even scientific findings are being silenced by claims that something is offensive. While, for many, this one may have more merit than others, it’s still the same concept.

Statter is not just pro-police, he is as pro-First Amendment as I am. We are both former reporters (I reject the high-falutin’ moniker of journalist) and believe in the right of free speech, free expression and a free press.  But I am learning to recognize the unfortunate power of internet expression to overcome the voices, views and sometimes rights of others.  However pro-police I am, I have to support Common on this one. And as sick as it makes me feel to write it, I also must support the right of Goddard College in Vermont to recently host a commencement speech (via audiotape from prison) by convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, who shot Philadelphia Police Officer Danny Faulkner to death in 1982.  I wouldn’t send my kids there, or pour piss on the fire if the school burned down, but I support – we have to support – their right to free speech.

Years ago when I was the public information officer of the Alexandria Police Department, fellow cops got riled over Ice T’s song Cop Killer. I pointed out to my colleagues that every Irish bar singer covers The Wild Colonial Boy, about a robber who shoots the posse capturing him. There’s a sign commemorating his life outside his hometown of Castlemaine, Co. Kerry, Ireland. And Eric Clapton made a few bucks singing Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff.

Umbrage is given greater authority and power by the internet, by the implication of propriety and support a Facebook message, or a meme, or a blog gain by appearing in the visual though ephemeral print of the computer screen.  I see that now.  Whether I am smart enough to do better remains to be seen, but like Maya Angelou once said:

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

We’ll see.

“I Go to UVa, You F—king Racists!”

I’m like a dog.  Every time my wife goes out the door, she is dead to me. Until she comes home and I see her again and I’m happy.  I’m told this is how dogs perceive our absence, and my dog bears this out.   My wife, no more emotional than I but far more intelligent, doesn’t see it this way. She trusts I will come back. She has seen such worry and coped.

What she saw, though, for more than 23 years of marriage, was me going off to a job that might kill or injure me.  Married to a police officer, she understood the risks my partners and I faced and worried silently.  Too many bad guys trying to kill cops, too many trying, and sometimes succeeding, to hurt me.

Often, injury and assault began without a plan.  A drunk or disorderly didn’t understand that we weren’t going away, that the little infraction we were there for required him to submit, to go along.   Anger escalated into resistance and lawful commands  –  “put your hands behind your back, you’re under arrest, stop resisting” – were ignored.  Often the suspect would be taken to the ground, per common police training.  At that point, it was far too late for pleas like, “Wait a minute, hear me out, I didn’t mean it, lemme just go home.”

Or, my new personal favorite, “I go to UVa you fucking, you fucking racists!”

One Saturday night on King Street in Alexandria, decades ago, a fellow officer whom I will call Barry (because that’s his name) and I were flagged down by a cabdriver with a sleeping drunk in his backseat.  Unable to rouse the drunk or determine his true destination, the cabbie sought out the police who always walked the bar district.  We awakened the man, persuaded him to pay his cabfare and began to take him into custody for being drunk in public. Yes, that is illegal in Alexandria, as in many places.  We had the option of taking him to a city detox facility where he could sleep it off and walk free in the morning instead of jail but he would have none of it. He began to resist us, “without force” in the legal vernacular that means he didn’t try to hit us. But he did swing his arms, stamp his feet and try to break free.  As we struggled between the bumpers of two parked cars, Barry’s and my choices were: let him go (certainly not, for his safety and our jobs); use pepper spray, an effective immobilizer and aggression-ender, but which would have required us to let go first, and close car traffic on King Street endangered him and precluded that; or take him to the ground where we could wrestle his arms into handcuffs without having to hit him or letting him hit us.  Not getting hit?  Always a preferred option.  Senior officer that I was, I told Barry my intention and swung the drunk over my propped leg.  He chose that moment to go fully limp and let his head fall before his chest, so he smashed face-first to the ground.

Unnecessary?  In the grand scheme of things, yes. Had anyone asked this guy at the beginning of his evening, “Hey, Bubba, after your night on the town, you want to fight some cops and get face-planted?  Betcha he’d say, no.  But at the moment it occurred, with the choices Barry and I had, and the choices Mr. Drunk-guy had made?  No, not unnecessary or unreasonable.  And more than reasonable for us cops.  We don’t like to hit people, but most of all we don’t like to get hit. And my wife hated when I came home injured, had to go to the basement to remove a bloody uniform before the kids saw it.  We know injury, and God forbid, death, are not unlikely On The Job (my former job) but that doesn’t mean we won’t take steps to protect ourselves, for ourselves and our families. Those steps include using force.

So police point guns at men in dark cars who refuse to show their hands.  Shots are fired at deranged men who throw rocks at cops and citizens on city streets, or foolish men who walk through departmentt stores waving weapons.  And as we have all seen in news video by now, 20-year-old UVA  student Martese Johnson got taken to the ground in a  confrontation with uniformed agents of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on St. Patrick’s Day.  No justification for this action has yet been offered by the ABC, but the ubiquitous video shows Johnson struggling to resist control and cursing the cops over him.  There has been no claim of police brutality, other than that implied by the national media inferring from Johnson’s bloody face that some impropriety must have occurred.  Savannah Guthrie, for example, NBC’s Today Show talker, wrapped up their next-day coverage with, “Those pictures say a lot.”

What exactly do they say to you, Savannah?  That a privileged kid waved his college colors as a shield against responsibility?  That an easily-played race card could be dealt – and bet on – before any facts are released or testimony presented?  Surely not, Savannah.  In your eyes, it is more “if it bleeds, it leads “ journalism to fill news hole, more perpetuation of a popular but dangerously false media theme of police misconduct toward blacks.   Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak decried “sensation and scandal” in Charlottesville for “a bloody arrest for an alcohol infraction,” and “gang rapes/not gang rapes,” a reference to another media failure, Rolling Stone magazine’s false 2014 article on an rumored student rape that local police say never occurred. (To be fair, the Post did come up with the earliest comprehensive debunking of the Rolling Stone piece, but for Dvorak to cite the non-event as a Charlottesville failure is a cheap shot.) The press insertion of a racial dynamic continued Wednesday with Post columnist Courtland Milloy, who drew on his years of police experience (zero) to opine: “A cop who thinks a suspect is uppity is also likely to feel threatened. And that’s all it takes to justify hurting you.”   Uppity?  Wow, that’s a weighty word, Courtland.

How can this be?  How can an honors student end up bloody under the knee of a cop?  A student who the bar bouncer now says was “cordial and respectful” and not belligerent at the time his identification was questioned and he was denied entry into Trinity Irish Pub by bar staff?

Hmmm.  Why would someone act sweet to sneak into a bar, and act up when cops call him on it? How could this be? And could a bar try to distance itself from the mayhem it caused by refusing Johnson’s entry in the first place?

Here is what little we actually know:  The Associated Press reports that the ABC issued a statement saying that “uniformed ABC Agents observed and approached” an unidentified individual “after he was refused entry to a licensed establishment” about 12:45 a.m. at an area of bars and restaurants near the UVa campus known as “the Corner.”  The man who recorded the video, Bryan Beaubrun, told AP that Johnson was trying to get into the Trinity Irish Pub when he was stopped by a bouncer. According to Beaubrun, an ABC officer then grabbed Johnson by the arm and pulled him away from the bar to speak with a group of police officers.  After about a minute, Johnson asked the ABC officer to let go of his arm and tried pulling away from the officer. At that point, another ABC officer grabbed Johnson from behind and the two ABC officers wrestled Johnson to the ground.  Beaubrun said Johnson hit his head on the ground.

There is no racial component here other than the insults shouted by an angry arrestee.  But that still doesn’t stop the press from inserting one. Today’s Post reports that Governor McAuliffe, “spurred by the violent arrest of a black college student by white Alcoholic Beverage Control officers,” ordered the ABC to undergo retraining. I hope the training includes avoiding hard suspension parts of the bus they’ve been thrown under.

The jury is still out on this incident (far too early to even think about a jury.)  Johnson, a member of the UVa Honor Committee and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, was charged with misdemeanor obstruction of justice without force and public swearing/intoxication.  The Governor has asked the State Police to investigate the arrest, a showy overreaction but politically pretty.  For some reason, UVa Vice President Marcus Martin told CNN that he knew an alcohol test performed on Johnson post-arrest was negative, though he also said he had no test results, according to the Chicago Sun Times.

I wrote in an earlier column that after reading the Department of Justice report on misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri, I can no longer simply defend police, blindly and prematurely guess at justification for questioned conduct based on my hope that the cops acted properly.  So I await an investigation, a court appearance with testimony from sworn, actual witnesses.  Too bad the media and the angry public it incites cannot do the same.

And what a hero, the guy who filmed the aftermath of the arrest, heard screaming, “Yo, he’s bleeding,” at least four times while filming instead of calling an ambulance with, um, the phone he was filming with.

Oh, that’s right.  Calling the ambulance, that’s the cops’ job.

Choosing to Believe, and What

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.

Out.

Prejudice or Racism? And the Difference Between

Did the furor die down about the police shooting on Skid Row in Los Angeles or did I just stop watching the news?  Or did a more recent death in Madison, Wisconsin steal the spotlight in the current news cycle?

Another young black man was killed by police Friday night, and people were interviewed to say how impossible it was that unarmed Tony Robinson could have done anything bad enough to get shot.  And again the press on the scene didn’t ask these character witnesses about Robinson’s confession and conviction for a home invasion armed robbery, nor about the multiple calls to 911 reporting him running in front of traffic and hitting passersby before he  attacked a responding officer. (Future columns will return to the falsehood that only armed persons can be lawfully shot by police.)

A protest group called Young, Gifted and Black has called on the police in Madison to cease patrol in the black community. Again, no media questioning of how this departure from safety, law and logic will work but the local police chief has already renounced this unreasonable request.   Cops need to be in the black community, as in any neighborhood, among both the lawbreakers and the good, kind and lawful majority of residents there.

These “killing of an unarmed black man” stories are easy for the national press to present, requiring little effort at the shallow depth of current coverage.  Video shows shouting protesters, crying family, skirmish lines with angry crowds on one side and beefy cops on the other.  No need to prove or document anything – someone on camera however distant or disassociated with the events at hand attacking the police with accusations of racism, terror or murder is enough to guarantee about two minutes of newshole filled at the beginning of the broadcast.

If it pleads, it leads.

A novelist I know wrote about relations between patrol officers and the black community, and why it appears that inordinate police attention is paid to blacks instead of whites. Here, from the book, is a conversation between a Field Training Officer (FTO), a senior cop, and his trainee, a recruit fresh out of the Police Academy, as they drive around discussing the requirements of a patrol officer’s job and the routine and constant demands on his or her attention.  They’re rolling now as the FTO speaks:

“How about the pedestrians you passed. Look at them?  Recognize them?  Do they belong here?  How can you tell?  We have blacks, whites, browns, yellows, everybody is here.  And everybody walks here, so a few black kids in a white neighborhood, while rare, doesn’t mean what you might think it means.  They could be just passing through.  Or they could be looking in cars for stuff to steal, so maybe you should go around the block and give them another look.  White guys in a black neighborhood?  More  rare. Are they buying drugs?”

          The Recruit snapped him a look.  “So all black neighborhoods have drugs? They the only ones with drugs?”

          “The only ones where drugs are sold openly on the street.  Sure, there’s powder cocaine in the bars, and probably in lots of the nice houses we drive past.  But we can’t see it.  We can see the dealers on the corners.  And there’s more of them in the projects, ‘cause that’s where they’ve always been so the buyers know to go there to buy.” 

          The FTO slowed, choosing his words more carefully here.  “Drugs like crack and PCP are more popular among the poor than the rich. Not that the rich don’t do drugs, just not street drugs.  Poor people are likely to be in project housing.  So drugs are likely to be in project housing.   And in this town, poor people are more likely to be black. Does that mean that black people are always gonna be poor, or drug dealers?  No.  But there is more crime in high-density, poor neighborhoods.  And in this city, that means black neighborhoods, ARHA neighborhoods.  The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority owns and runs project housing in three of the six major drug areas in town.  ARHA does what they can, even hires cops themselves to run patrols on detail.  But fill an area with poor people, drugs appear.  Go to the southwest, poor areas might be Hispanic.   Maybe the projects in Quebec are full of poor jobless French folks.  We’re getting a growing Hispanic population now.  They’re poor.  Hard to get good jobs when you don’t speak English, harder still when you might be illegal.  Still hard for blacks to get jobs, because of racism, lower educational offerings.”

          “Isn’t what you’re saying racism?” the Recruit asked.  “You’re saying black people are poor and drug dealers.”

          “No, not what I said.  Listen close.  We find drugs, street drug use and sales, in areas with poorer populations, and in areas where drugs have traditionally been sold for years.  Here in Alexandria, those areas are highly black.  And those are the areas we patrol, mostly.  You’re not gonna spend much time in Beverley Hills or the south side of Old Town, just driving through.  Nobody’s on the street, nobody’s speeding or running lights, nobody’s walking around to rob or get robbed. No, you’re gonna come down to the projects or the edges of them, where the people are.   So, it’s not racism to patrol black areas. It’s prejudice. You pre-judge.  In your judgement, you know you will do more good patrolling where people are, and where crime is, than where it’s not. That’s logic.  And it better be what you learn now.

          “Now, here’s where it looks like racism.” The FTO was spun up now, developing and explaining a defense of what was often cited as unfair police practices.  “We make dozens of marijuana arrests every month in Alexandria.  You figure, you’re a smart kid, figure blacks and whites smoke pot the same.  Reasonable?  Sure.  But we arrest five or six black people for every white person with pot.  That’s racist, right?  Sure has a racist effect.  But we don’t go looking for black people instead of white people.  They come to us.  They’re standing around where we can see them, and they get busted.  Sucks, but that’s how it is.  Tell me how we get around it?”

          “What if we patrolled high-visibility, lots of marked cars and uniforms, made it clear we’re out here so they’d go away so we wouldn’t have to arrest them,” the Recruit offered, his voice dropping at the end as he realized how weak that sounded..

          “Two things. We’ve tried that, but two things. One, they don’t stop doing stupid stuff, they just go around the block where we aren’t and do it there. And two, is it right not to enforce a law just because somebody might say it’s not fair?

          “It’s not racist, but it looks racist and feels racist, so they think we’re racist. And here’s where it can get really bad.  Sometimes we are racist, or we get that way. Spend your career arresting mostly black people, you can start to think, it’s ‘cause they’re black.  You gotta fight that.”

          The FTO tried to spin back down. Race relations was a touchy subject for most police. There were no simple answers to why more blacks than whites were arrested, were incarcerated. And the things that might affect this imbalance – jobs, education, bigotry – were outside the reach of a patrol officer’s arms.  Back to the job he could reach: training this kid to patrol safety and fairly.

          “So, you drive by and see a white pedestrian or a black pedestrian. Male or female.  You’ll make a judgement about whether they need your attention.  Ok, maybe a prejudgement, but still, you gotta decide do I stop and talk with him, check him out? Yes or no. Drive right by or get out.  If yes you’re gonna stop him, do you need backup?  Does he look like he might be armed, or have a knife, or just be big enough to knock you out and take your gun?  If he takes your gun, he’s not just gonna keep it or sell it.  Guy takes a cop’s gun, he’s gonna shoot him.  So if a guy’s about to beat you up, can you shoot him? Ever think about it?  You better.  You should be thinking all the time about what happens if.  If…whatever. And have a plan for it.  And by the way, the answer is yes. If a guy’s gonna beat you up, you can shoot him.  You are authorized to use deadly force in defense of your own life or the lives of others. 

          “But you’re also still following that car. Is it speeding?  What’s your speed now?”

(From Apprehension, copyright 2015 by JohnMarkBergin Enterprises Inc. Used by permission of the author.  Me, in case you haven’t guessed.)

One unusual note in this tragedy. The family of Tony Robinson is insisting that he be considered biracial.  Unsure how that figures into the national narrative. I bet it is ignored.

Out.