The Washington Metropolitan Police Department, a superb organization defending our nation's capital, patrols a unique landscape. The White House, The Capitol, and the dozens of monuments that populate the area, make for an attractive backdrop. During business hours, thousands of government workers swarm the buildings and streets, barely requiring any policing. Yet when the mass exodus of those employees occurs at five o'clock in the afternoon, and they all head home to the suburbs, the District takes on an entirely different complexion.
Last year in a city with a population of just over half a million, there were 143 homicides; in 2008, 186 murders, this, in a city that formerly prohibited gun ownership. Since lifting the ban, there have been 43 fewer homicides. Coincidence? You decide, but I think whenever citizens are denied the right to bear arms, only the bad guys have guns. In Washington when the sun goes down, the thugs come out to play. Those ambassadors of DC who ensured the city ran smoothly for the temporary day-residents, must now steel themselves to do battle with the knuckle-draggers who come out to prey on the law-abiding residents of the District.
No big deal, that's what we do as cops. We train and prepare ourselves for those scenarios and confrontations that will likely present themselves. Crime prevention means not only structured programs to inform and educate, but it also means having aggressive, street-smart cops on the beat, who by their very appearance and demeanor demonstrate to the cretins on the street that cops run it. Just as the bad guys intimidate and frighten their victims to capitulate, so also do the well-trained, experienced, aggressive cops present that same image to the thugocracy who think the streets belong to them.
Why do I feel the need to write about this obvious fact of police life? Because today (as I write this) it was reported that a DC cop is facing a ten day suspension for drawing his weapon at a snowball fight. On February 4th, the MPD's internal affairs said the officer acted "confrontational" as he approached a large crowd. Well, I guess any one of us might pull our gun if, as the report states, the group had clubs and shields. In fact, a couple of minutes later a marked unit arrived and a uniformed officer wisely approached the group, also with his weapon drawn at his side.
The back-story is that the officer was off-duty (which I've always found to be a conundrum since we’re expected to take police action 24/7, meaning we're always on-duty) when a man threw a snowball at him. The cop got out of his car and moved toward a large crowd gathered at the intersection. As he approached, he unholstered his weapon - good police work in my estimation - let 'em know who you are and that you mean business.
Here's where the incident takes the inevitable IAD twist. Officials now want to suspend him, not so much for having his weapon out, but for not reporting the man he thought had thrown the snowball at him. Because popular sentiment no longer favors disciplining a cop for pulling his gun, the department decided to obfuscate the issue by turning into a technical issue... a policy violation. I've always said, follow any good street cop during his tour and you're bound to find a policy violation somewhere. Apply that same scrutiny to the bosses - bigger fish - bigger violations. The bottom line: if they want to get you, they can and will.
This backtracking, this convoluted way of getting their pound of flesh, is what's most disconcerting to me. By all accounts, the cop is an experienced, street-smart detective. He knows how to handle thugs and incidents likely to get out of hand. He knows that a show of force will often times de-escalate a situation. His backup unit was on the same page.
As is the case in our technological society, several people had cameras and phones on that day. Some videoed the incident and it appeared on the internet. It clearly shows one man against a hostile group of idiots, a mob that was probably about to quench its thirst for trouble by continuing their inappropriate behavior. The cops would probably been called, eventually. The incident garnered national attention, sensationalized by those who have no clue about what happens in the real world, by characterizing it as a cop threatening innocent people throwing snowballs.
However, here is the bigger question: What if they had confronted an innocent citizen who had neither the means nor vigor to defend himself? What then? I contend that tough cops, when the appropriate situation is at hand, are the best defense. Most thugs are cowards when confronted individually, but when they congregate and form into a gang that dynamic changes. The only thing that works on those types is force, or at least the threat of it. It's the law of the jungle, and all of the rhetoric about the poor, disadvantaged punks who relish challenging authority is bunk.
I hate seeing this incident mushrooming into what it has now become. With so much publicity, neither side is likely to acquiesce. My fear is that good cops will look at the outcome and be reticent to pull their guns at times when it is imperative they do so. We train our officers to be ready, to be proactive, to stay ahead of the power curve. If we discipline our cops for simply pulling their weapon and having it at the ready when they feel threatened, we send the wrong message. We cause our guys and gals to become timid, while emboldening the cretins on the street.
My recommendation is this: don't change the way you're operating because of one bad call. You owe it to all of us to be the best cops you can be - that means being aggressive and tough when need be. I have no clue as to how this gun versus snowball issue will be resolved. However, if we begin to see officers and departments sanctioning "guns out of holsters," we are most certainly heading down the wrong road.
Stay safe, brothers and sisters!