I watched the Rodney King beating on TV at the Park police station. It was 1991, and I’d been a San Francisco cop for 10 years. The video was startling — both the cop beatdown as much as the fact it had hit primetime, “viral” 15 years before there was any social media to share it.
At the time, I echoed the opinion of other officers: “King should have pulled over. He should have just listened to the officers and stopped resisting arrest.” Once the LAPD cops were indicted, any critique gave way to a “us versus them” mentality at the station, the conviction that cops are always getting screwed. Opposing the actions of fellow police officer goes against the grain of what is commonly known as “the code of silence.”
So I stayed mum.
I would spend another 20 years in the San Francisco Police Department, 32 years in all. As a hostage negotiator, I talked jumpers off bridges and roofs, and lost a few troubled souls along the way. I grew a thuggish goatee for undercover drug buys during my three years in the narcotics unit. I found Uzis and sawed-off shotguns while serving search warrants.
I had a front row seat, and often a starring role, in unbelievable episodes of human folly: runaways hugging their mom as they came back home, a worker who severed his arm in a printing press, an elderly woman who had been feeding the pigeons on the fire escape of a seedy Tenderloin hotel, and 500 of the flying rats swooped into her room. I was fortunate because I never had to shoot at anybody, although there were countless tense situations where I pulled out my service weapon.
But now, Rodney King-type scenarios are in the news nearly daily: one smartphone video after another shows cops shooting or beating civilians, or arresting other cops. My conservative cop friends are quick to post videos of thugs kicking cops’ asses to justify the heightened police vigilance and aggression toward civilians.
Yet one thing has changed since the King days: I’m not so falsely principled and I don’t automatically agree with the police officers anymore. In light of the endless stream of viral videos of Cops Gone Wild I feel compelled to speak out about the problems that I see with law enforcement. Here goes breaking the code of silence.
Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York and the shooting of Walter L. Scott, the black man shot in the back by North Charleston police officer after stopped for a broken taillight are made out to be acts of racism. Race is definitely a factor, but I’m equally concerned by what I see as bad policing. There seems to be an epidemic of hiring substandard officers who receive bad training, which results in poor (and dangerous) police tactics.
Trust me, I’m no born-again evangelizer. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve lost my temper, and I’ve had some very bad days at work. But I do know that speaking skills are the best weapon an officer has. Training as a negotiator fine-tuned the art of establishing rapport and connecting with “those people”: the mentally ill, the criminals, the drug and alcohol-addled folks determined to harm themselves or others. I had to be the voice of reason, knowing that, for the most part, time, was on my side and that there was no reason to rush to action. What they most needed was someone to talk to them like a human — I believe that the word is empathy.
At some point, getting physical is an inescapable reality, but only when all else has been exhausted do you pull your weapon. Yet the videos from McKinney, Ferguson, Cleveland, South Carolina, officers appear to be unwilling or even afraid to scrape their knuckles to restrain a suspect before pulling their gun. The officers act more like they’re in a video game than on patrol. A series of tactical mistakes back officers into a corner, until shooting is their only resort. More times than not, the resulting shoot-or-die scenario is a direct result of officer’s mistakes.
Let’s start with the Michael Brown shooting.
Officer Wilson testified he felt his life was in danger that infamous night in Ferguson, Missouri. Yet Wilson played a major role in creating that situation. When all the furor erupted over the Michael Brown shooting, my initial thoughts were not along racial lines but more: “Why was the officer dealing with Brown and Johnson through the window of an open car?”
When I joined the police department, they taught us to never talk to suspects while sitting in your police car. Cops call patrol cars the “steel coffin:” you have no mobility, you can’t reach your weapon, and you’re a sitting duck.
Wilson was in the area searching for Michael Brown and his buddy Dorian Johnson, who had just robbed a convenience store. They purportedly punched the clerk while stealing a couple packs of cigarillos. A minor use of force, but that punch elevated what was a misdemeanor petty theft into a felony robbery. So Officer Wilson, knowing that, should have ramped up his level of caution and officer safety.
Yet everything that Wilson did doesn’t line up with the risk level of encountering and arresting alleged felons. While driving, Wilson didn’t recognize Brown and Johnson, in spite of the fact that that was the exact reason he had been dispatched to the area in first place. Instead, Wilson told Brown and Johnson to get out of the street — orders that he issued while sitting in his car — and drove away.
Based on what we now know of police practices in Ferguson and of the overall tenor of the Ferguson justice system, the order to clear the street issued by Wilson could be construed as a case of police harassment. Wilson’s testified he encountered two jaywalkers, the lowest level of traffic infraction. Why was jaywalking a priority if Wilson was truly searching for two robbers?
Michael Brown may have been thinking about the same thing. He told Wilson, “Fuck you,” what law enforcement would call “contempt of cop” or “failing the attitude test.” According to witness statements, Wilson loses all composure, pulling up next to Brown and attempting to jam his car door into the pair. (I don’t hold myself out to be the supreme police officer, but I’ve never been that cavalier. Or that reckless.) Yet before Wilson could get out of his patrol car, Michael Brown started beating him through the open window of the car. They call it the steel coffin for a reason.
So should Wilson have done instead? For one, it would have helped if he recognized them as the suspects. Beyond that, policing 101: stop his car a safe distance away from the pair and radio other officers in the area that he was going to detain two suspects. Then get out of the car, and ask Brown and Johnson to walk to the curb in a much less confrontational manner. Or, if Wilson recognized them as the robbery suspects he could have drawn his weapon and given clear orders from a safe distance from behind cover, like behind his driver door. By the time Wilson engaged Brown and Johnson, his backup would have been there. Arrest them: game, set, match.
At the very least, don’t open a patrol car door a foot from two felons. Officer Wilson put needlessly put himself in a vulnerable position. Michael Brown reaped the consequences.
Another irksome case is the case of James Bushey, the suspect shot dead by two police after he held up a BB gun outside of an Applebee’s restaurant in Palestine, Texas.
The officers’ body cameras captured the entire encounter, which makes it clear Bushey pointed a gun at the officers. Several pro police factions and individual officers have passed the video around on the internet as a reminder that police officers are always one heartbeat away from a lethal threat.
Yet Bushey’s death could have been avoided, or at least the probability of Bushey pulling out his gun squelched. Here’s how.
Sergeant Gabriel Green and Officer Kaylynn Griffin were in Applebee’s searching for Bushey, who had allegedly stolen a case of beer from a nearby Walmart. They locate the suspect in the restaurant’s bathroom, and Sgt. Green flippantly tells Bushey, “Don’t act dumb for me. You’re on video.” Not the most offensive thing a police officer has ever told a suspect, but it’s flip and condescending, more thug than cop.
But it gets worse and more serious from there. As a training sergeant, my edict to fledgling officers was to be safe. The first rule of officer safety is to pat-search every suspect every time you make a lawful detention. It’s a practice that has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio.
Instead, Green feels cocky enough to forego a pat search that would have turned up the BB gun, and skips the handcuffing that would have made it impossible for him to reach it. Instead, Green turns his back on a wanted suspect and walks ahead of him during a long stroll out to the parking lot. Turning your back on a suspect is like turning your back on a lion.
During the walk, Green sees some silverware wrapped in a napkin on a table and slides it away from the table edge. Police apologists have been touting this as a sound officer safety tactic, but I find it perplexing. If Green felt that Bushey was a threat to stab him with a butter knife, he should have picked it up.
Once outside of the Applebee’s, Green finally attempts to pat search Bushey, who pulls out the BB gun and points it at the officers. If a suspect pulls a gun, yes, it is completely justified for the officers to shoot Bushey. In law enforcement circles, Bushey’s actions and resulting death are what is commonly referred to “blue suicide” or suicide by cop, when an individual is too cowardly to take their own lives, so make cops do it for him by making moves that are sure to get them killed, like pulling a gun. More often than not, blue suicide victims use toy guns, as did Bushey.
Yet that doesn’t negate the actions of Sgt. Green and Officer Griffin that could have prevented Bushey from the opportunity to draw the gun in the first place. During that long walk outside Bushey had more than enough time to plan his suicide by cop.
Another life could have been saved.
I watched the Rodney King video again today, on Youtube. At one point, the officers are beating King like a dog; even after King is finally handcuffed, he is left lying in the middle of the street manacled like a rodeo calf. In hindsight, there had to be a different course of action. Freed from peer pressure and group think, I see that now. The police actions were very barbaric and over the top.
Cops are supposed to be better and smarter than your average citizen. The smarts are what we have to bring back. Along with compassion, empathy, sound tactics. Maybe the trust of the public that we are there to serve, now dwindling, will follow.