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Police Are Trained to Fear

As a former cop, I know why so many carry out their work with an “us versus them” mentality

Larry Smith
Nov 27, 2018 · 8 min read
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

In 2000, I was a rookie patrol cop in the Baltimore Police Department. Everything I’d learned from six months in the police academy and another month of field training was still fresh in my head. I fancied myself as a squared-away, polished-looking crime fighter at the top of my game when I had my first real-life foot chase.

I remember the call very clearly. It was toward the end of my 4 p.m. to midnight shift on a warm summer night. I was dispatched as a backup unit to a report from a repair shop owner observing a man breaking into cars and rummaging through them. As I parked my car on York Road a few feet north of the shop, I could see the silhouette of a man in the driver’s seat of a Dodge Neon. He had no idea I was behind him. Another marked patrol car pulled up south of the shop, and he did notice that one. He jumped out of the Neon and ran straight at me. He was looking back at the other patrol car as he ran, and when he looked forward, I was almost on top of him.

My adrenaline was in control, and my training had me thinking that this would be where I would get shot.

Jogging toward the man, I shouted, “Stop!” I hadn’t anticipated that someone scared of being caught for breaking into cars would suddenly display the agility of a cheetah. He quickly changed direction and ran down an alley behind the shop. I gave chase, and we found ourselves cornered between a dumpster and a very tall privacy fence.

At that point, my adrenaline was in control, and my training had me thinking that this would be where I would get shot. The man bent slightly and was digging for something from his waistband. I immediately drew my gun and shouted for him to stop moving and show me his hands. When he turned to face me, I saw a flash of silver in his hands. I began to squeeze the trigger of my gun; at the same time, he dropped what he was holding and threw his hands in the air.

I didn’t shoot him, but I came really close. The other officer came chugging to where we were and helped me take the man into custody. I noticed the man had an open fanny pack on his waist, and when I checked the ground, I found the silver object he had been holding. It was a radar detector about the size of a cellphone. I’d almost shot a man for holding a radar detector. After the excitement of the chase passed and I’d calmed down, I told the man I almost shot him. He was older than me and had what I would come to learn was the wear and tear of drug addiction. He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry. I’m glad you didn’t shoot me.” I was dumbfounded: He was unarmed, I’d almost shot him, and he was apologizing to me.

I was dumbfounded: He was unarmed, I’d almost shot him, and he was apologizing to me.

That was the closest I ever came to shooting someone in my 18-year career, and I have thought back to that night over and over. It’s usually when there’s news of another police-involved shooting on the news and especially if the person was unarmed. I have wondered so many things: If I had shot him, would he have died? Would I have cared? Would I have been angry or remorseful? What would have happened to me? Probably I could have told the truth, that for a split second I was scared and thought I would be shot.

I also have wondered why was I scared. Was I scared of him? Of what he was holding? Of the dark corner we’d wound up in? Or had I been trained to be scared?

Police departments find several ways to keep cops afraid, and a lot of this fear is cloaked as self-defense and “remaining alert.” Once a year in my department, we were required to qualify with our duty weapons at the gun range, and when I went, the range staff showed a plethora of YouTube videos of police-involved shootings. I left the police field before body cameras became the norm, so most of the videos I saw at those times were from dash cams for stopped cars. (Which, to note, the BPD didn’t have at the time because cops would pull out the wiring to disable the cameras.) Think about it: a bunch of cops sitting in a small, windowless room in the basement of the Northeast Police District watching video after video of cops getting into shootouts during traffic stops. It reminded me of the highway accident movies in driver’s education class 20 years earlier—basically hours of worst-case-scenario training. There was very little emphasis on any sort of de-escalation; it was all “point and shoot.”

Now, obviously, for us to qualify with our handguns, shooting is necessary, but there’s so much more to it than that. You have to wonder how that training affects a cop when they pull over a car. With a head full of shootout videos, an officer might be going into the stop already convinced they could be shot.\

Had I been trained to be scared?

Police officers aren’t trained to shoot to kill; we’re trained to incapacitate. I must have heard “shoot to incapacitate” about 5,000 times in my career. It’s the substitution of a technical term for a literal one. However, when a police officer is killed in the line of duty, you never hear it referred to as “incapacitated in the line of duty.” We are taught to shoot at “center mass”—the area of the body above the waist to below the neck—because it’s the largest and easiest to aim for. But it’s no coincidence that center mass is where vital organs reside.

Officers are also trained to assume an interview stance when speaking to someone. Your body should be angled so the gun side is not facing the person in case they grab for it. We must keep physical distance between us and civilians—again planning for the worst-case scenario that someone will try to take your gun. I usually kept my right forearm pressed down on top of my gun any time I was talking to someone. It wasn’t because I was afraid of any individual person; it just became an unconscious habit from the training I received—the fear-based training that there was always someone plotting to take my gun away from me.

Cops are supposed to be heroes and first responders and run toward danger, but it sure seemed like our training was teaching us to be afraid of everyone.

On July 7, 2016, a protest was held in Dallas in response to the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police. During the protest, a man named Micah Johnson opened fire on police officers with an assault rifle. Five officers were killed, and nine other officers and two civilians were injured. After those events, fear swept through our department. The new scare tactic became the ambush. Academy instructors’ trainings were soon rife with surprise attack scenarios warning how “It could happen on any call!” There were new shooting videos, too, that were less about traffic stops and more about ambush scenes. The following November, I attended a yearly refresher course required by the Maryland Police Training Commission, and a considerable amount of time was dedicated to reviewing as much footage as was available of the Dallas shootings.

Coincidently, that year was also the first year I can remember since being in the academy that any first aid training was given to officers. Before, there had been little emphasis on providing even basic care to citizens; first aid in my career at the BPD was using your radio to call for an ambulance. But 2016 marked the first time since 1999 that I was certified in CPR, and fellow officers and I were trained to use tourniquet kits on ourselves in case we were wounded so that we could “stay in the fight.” The narrative in all this was saving ourselves and other cops—but not citizens.

After those events, fear swept through our department. The new scare tactic became the ambush. The narrative in all this was saving ourselves and other cops — but not citizens.

Granted, even outside the ambush situations, line-of-duty deaths happen to officers. Websites like Officer Down Memorial Page and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund even track them. Cops tweet, retweet, post on Facebook, text each other, and talk about line of duty deaths whenever they happen. I had a partner who began every shift by checking the Officer Down Memorial Page website that maintains an updated list of law enforcement and prison officers killed in the line of duty. He did this every shift. That’s what he was absorbing immediately before going out on the street to interact with civilians.

According to data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, there were 128 line-of-duty deaths in 2017. Of those, 44 were a result of being shot. The leading cause of death was traffic-related incidents, with 47. While in my department, I went to the range every year for firearms training, but we never received any additional driving training after graduating from the academy.

In contrast, data collected by Mapping Police Violence shows 1,147 civilians were killed by police in 2017. Of those, 149 were unarmed. The report identified at least 48 officers who had previously killed someone.

In all the training I had, officers were trained to fear even the average citizen—to beware that someone will take your gun and use it on you, to be on alert for ambushes, to be ready to fix yourself up if shot so you can keep going. But the flip side of this over-defensiveness is that citizens are afraid of the police, and their fear is what gets them killed in many cases. I chased plenty of people who, when caught, said they were scared of us. During the federal criminal trial of two Gun Trace Task Force members, there was sworn testimony that members of the unit would drive their car quickly up to a group of males, slam on the brakes, and pop the car doors open. If someone ran, the cops would give chase, presuming some kind of guilt. And in the police narrative of the murder of Freddie Gray, he ran after “making eye contact” with police Lt. Brian Rice—although we will never know exactly why Gray decided to run because we only have BPD’s version of events.

When I was a cop, I always felt an “us versus them” mentality. That doesn’t do anybody any good.

I can’t speak for every single police officer. I can only speak for myself and what I witnessed and thought during my career. I worked in patrol, and I worked in operations and specialized units. I chased people on foot and by vehicle. I went on search and seizure warrants. I responded to countless calls for service. There were plenty of times I was scared. I was always alert. I arrested hundreds of people in my career for everything from petty misdemeanors to open murder warrants. In all of it, I never had to discharge my weapon outside the range.

When I was a cop, I always felt an “us versus them” mentality. That doesn’t do anybody any good. Since leaving law enforcement in 2017, I’ve had more of an opportunity to reflect on my experience. I can’t imagine that worst-case-scenario deadly shootout videos and fearmongering range and academy instructors like the ones I experienced are helping cops make actual lifesaving decisions. Perhaps with more of an emphasis on communication, de-escalation, and more civilian input, things could get better.

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