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As America oscillates through the recent civic upheaval in its concepts of policing, it has been hard to miss that the conversation is very uninformed. While it is imperative that the citizens of a democracy set the rules by which the laws are enforced, it is equally imperative that they understand the repercussions.
Just as football fans would ignore the opinions of TV talking heads who’ve never stepped foot in a stadium (never mind never actually played the game), citizens should be extremely wary of politicians and yaktivists who condemn police tactics without understanding their underlying principles.
I’ve written about policing issues for several publications, including the Los Angeles Times. I have attended a complete law enforcement academy and spent hundreds of hours on patrol with cops as both a journalism and concerned citizen.
But, I never pinned on a badge. So, I am equally immersed in the perspective of an average citizen who has had some very disappointing encounters with the police, as recently as last month.
This varied set of experiences informs me that most people really have no understanding of the mindset of a police officer because they lack the foundational knowledge that police training imparts in law enforcement officers.
While police academies have extensive curricula covering many topics – criminal and evidentiary law, weapons handling, first aid, and so many others – the day-to-day emphasis is on creating a mindset of self-preservation that is unlike any other occupation – even more so than my experience as an Army infantryman. Understanding this “officer safety” mindset is integral to influencing the way police work is done.
The fibers of the safety mindset were woven into cops from the first moments of the academy. Most were taught with case studies. The subject of the case was dead. Always dead. And always a specific individual – by name – who lost his life in a way that budding cops need to avoid.
These lessons formed a list of 21 Rules, each directly traceable to the experience of a cop who died exemplifying it. Two decades later the specifics have faded from my mind, but the gist remains:
#1: Always keep your gun hand free. Never have anything in your gun hand (beyond a pen for note taking), because if you suddenly need your gun you’ll have no time to empty your hands. Note pads, flash lights and coffee cups were always to be grasped in the weak hand. You never know when someone will approach you in a parking lot to kill you.
Another: Always watch people’s hands. Eyes can’t punch or pull a concealed gun.
Never stand in front of a door. That’s where an ambushing suspect will shoot through.
And: Talk to people from a “bladed stance.” One shoulder forward, gun side away, weight on your back foot. You never know when someone will throw a punch. This is intimidating, unfriendly and life-saving.
These are not tactics for specific situations. Tactics like building searches are a distinct set of instruction. Rather, these lessons are about developing safe habits for a cop’s life so it can be a long life.
This is unlike any other occupation that interacts with the public. A mechanic may learn specific steps to safely lift a car. A power-line repairman may consider all lines to be live wires. But a police officer works in a world where unseen live wires are omnipresent, and constant vigilance is required to avoid them.
It is this safety-oriented perspective that many people mistake for arrogance or bullying. And, it is true, those negative traits can also be wrongly excused away as “officer safety.” Differentiating “safe” from “bullying” is impossible without understanding the threats.
It is in this knowledge that honest police reform advocates (vice cop haters) fall short. In 2007, Civil rights attorney Connie Rice issued “Rampart Reconsidered,” a report criticizing the LAPD’s “warrior culture” which she blamed on “the myth and lore of urban policing.”
Interestingly, the report was issued hours after LAPD officer was shot and paralyzed. Rice has never said if she considers Officer Kristina Rippati’s injuries to be to be “lore,” merely a “myth” — or perhaps a lesson officers should learn.
Unfortunately, dramatic fiction and the news media have given the general public a concept of policing that is one part Cliff Notes and another a hall of mirrors. Facts like the decisive factors articulated by officers in a shooting are usually buried. Thus, many people can’t understand why police shoot unarmed suspects. But, they might had they had been in my academy class as an instructor tearfully recounted his partner struggling with a man who was trying to disarm him, and then look up and cry “Bob, he’s gonna kill me.” The instructor, instead, killed the “unarmed man.” That sort of detail is rarely gets to the general public.
This situation is partially the fault of police departments who feed the media sanitized accounts for investigative necessity. But rarely does the public know if a cop shoots a suspect from seven feet away (the average distance of an engagement), 50 feet away, or while physically entangled, pinned to the ground using a back-up gun.
Worse, TV drama depictions of well-rehearsed marksmanship lead to statements like “I don’t understand why the cops didn’t just shoot him in the leg,” This prima facie admission of ignorance and demand for ballistic improbabilities make cops who are interested in going home after work dismiss the discussion.
If Americans want (as they should) to dictate the way policing is done, they must understand not just that policing deserves lip service about danger, but that cops die when they give suspects the benefit of the doubt. They can be killed by “unarmed” suspects. They can die when everything seems calm. They can be shot in a fraction of a second. That even a handcuffed suspect is not safe. And that they can be beaten to death.
Because while the yaktivists will parade their signs with names like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and John Crawford, cops carry names in their hearts and in the back of their minds: Ken Wrede. Daniel Fraembs. Bruce K. Lee. Elizabeth Butler. Evan Bell. David Smith. And innumerable more. None of whom did anything to get themselves killed, except try to keep their communities safe.
Without this foundation of understanding, police reformers will be taken no more seriously than an NFL coach perceives a Monday morning quarterback who’s never set foot in a stadium.
And the cop has a lot more to lose than a Super Bowl ring.