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The Gift of Uncertainty

Whatever happened in the early hours of September 14th that cost one young man his life and another his career, reputation, and very likely his freedom for many years is still, for most of us, shrouded in mystery.  What those of us watching this case from the outside know about it is very limited – it is still very early and what has been revealed in the media necessarily limited by the nature of the investigation and prosecution of what is truly a sensitive and high-profile case – but the basic facts we do know are these:

At about 2:30 in the morning, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC police received a panicked 911 call from a woman reporting, “There’s a guy breaking into my front door… He’s trying to kick it down.”  Patrol units responded, believing they were going to an apparent burglary-in-progress, and encountered 24 year old Jonathan Ferrell.  Ferrell, a young, black, former Division I football player at Florida A&M University, approached the officers – how he approached them and if his actions were aggressive, or perceived to be in view of the information the arriving officers had at the time, will likely be an important consideration in how this case is ultimately resolved – and was shot and killed by Officer Randall Kerrick.  Kerrick fired 12 rounds, with 10 striking Ferrell from close range, after another of the officers attempted unsuccessfully to deploy a Taser to stop Ferrell’s advance after he allegedly ignored repeated orders to stop and “get down!” from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg cops. 

Ferrell was unarmed.  It was later learned he had run off the road and crashed his car in a ravine a short distance away, kicked out the back window to escape, and walked to the home possibly to get help.  His mindset when he saw the officers – whether he was fearful and acting out, relieved and grateful help finally arrived, or something altogether different – can never be known.  How his actions were perceived by the cops, and if and how much those perceptions were colored by the idea they were looking at a burglar, are questions in search of answers.  Whatever the investigation into the shooting revealed was enough to charge Officer Kerrick with Voluntary Manslaughter.

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The news of the shooting and Kerrick’s arrest quickly went national, and the internet exploded with commentary from all sides.  Most was depressingly predictable; ranting about “trigger happy cops,” that Kerrick’s shooting was racially motivated (Kerrick is white and Ferrell black), the lingering effects of racism in the South, the militarization of law enforcement, and so on.  Even on police websites and from confirmed LEOs, condemnation of Kerrick was rampant.  The commentary on the LE sites was less vitriolic or willing to assume the worst about Kerrick’s motivation than those in the general media, but still rather sharp, and few voices in any forum piped up to even consider maybe there was more to the story

I admit my weakness for perusing the comment boards of controversial articles and have stayed up late typing (what I find to be) witty, unassailable retorts to fools with the audacity to be “wrong on the internet.”  I’m a junkie, I can’t help myself.  And what I’ve noticed in general is a nearly pathological unwillingness to admit ignorance, or to utter (or write) three simple words:  “I don’t know…”

So I offered the following to a Chicago Tribune thread to boldly proclaim my ignorance and admit “I don’t know what happened.”    

A whole lot of comments from people who weren't there, know nothing except what they've read in very limited news releases, have no knowledge of the mindset or perceptions of any of the responding officers, including the shooter, and making assumptive leaps to justify their own biases. 

I am not defending the officer who shot and killed Mr Ferrell, nor do I draw any conclusions as to his guilt. I was not there and have neither more nor less knowledge of what happened than do anyone else here. I DON'T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED, OR WHY. 
See how easy that was for me? I admitted ignorance of what happened on scene, the mindsets of any of the involved parties, why the officer fired his weapon, or whether he was negligent or criminal in doing so. 

I do know, because of what I do for a living and a pretty extensive knowledge of human behavior, there are huge gaps in this story that need to be filled in before I'd ever presume to draw the firm conclusions some of you have. I'd suggest you all withhold judgment, too, but I know that's not nearly as much fun as blind outrage and confirming your own biases. 

What I do know is a terribly tragic event is once again revealing the ugliness of some of you.

One poster responded directly to me, insinuating Kerrick’s decision to shoot was a product of racial profiling and “white privilege” based only on what he knew, which was exactly the same as me.  I answered:

I don't deny incidents of racial profiling occur, or there exists certain "white privilege" in this country, but not every negative encounter between people of color and law enforcement has either as its genesis. In fact, the overwhelming majority do not, although it's the easy answer for those who want to presume to know the hearts and minds of others to verify their own biases and preconceptions.

Was firing on Mr. Ferrell racially motivated? I don't know and neither do you. Did the woman who called 911 fear him because he was black? I don't know and neither do you. Would the outcome have been any different if he were white? I don't know and neither do you. You have no more idea of what went on that night than do I, nor any greater insight into the minds of the caller, the dispatcher, or the officers who responded. And keep in mind I am a police officer and I don't presume to know what they saw, perceived, or thought. I stand by my statement, however, that there had to have been much more to the matter than is indicated by media reports.

The "ugliness" I reference is caused by unwillingness to suspend judgment until all facts are accounted for. It is caused by the very human trait to cling tightly to those notions and conclusions we first make or that support whatever worldview we've adopted, despite any potential evidence to the contrary, no matter what. It comes from closed off thinking that denies there might just be alternative explanations that might upend that very worldview, and from the stubborn insistence that thinking could not possibly be wrong. 

If you want to dialogue on this, you know how to message me. But come to it with an open mind.

Of course, he never contacted me.  I didn’t expect him to.

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Admitting ignorance doesn’t come easy for most of us; we tend to draw the conclusions we do based on a deeply held set of convictions and beliefs about the way people think and act formed in the crucible of our own experience and filtered through a lens of our own design.  Self-assurance is a strong deterrent against alternate theories, competing points-of-view, or even hard facts.  You have all seen and been frustrated by this tendency in others.  Unfortunately, while we in law enforcement know exactly what this obstinate cocksureness looks like we often let the same character flaw infect our judgments.  

Sometimes I wonder if it’s not harder for those of us who wear a badge to set our egos aside and admit that maybe – just maybe – we might be wrong about something.  Even within your own department, how often do you disagree with other cops about policy and procedure, or armchair quarterback the calls of your colleagues?  How often has one of your calls been dissected by others with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight?  Often the armchair quarterbacks and second-guessers merely have perfectly legitimate if completely different ways of doing things – it is, after all, possible you are both right even when you disagree.  But sometimes one of you is simply wrong, or at least less right.  And sometimes we just screw up.

We’re encouraged to be bold, decisive, and to act “with the strength of (our) convictions.”  To hesitate or show indecisiveness is thought weak, and once a course is decided on changing direction is often discouraged.  Admitting ignorance or that e might be wrong is not in the vocabulary of too many of us.  But if you adopt these attitudes are you really doing yourself and those you serve a disservice?

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I opened this article referencing the tragic events in North Caroline not because I want to engage the debate about what happened, or become one of those armchair quarterbacks who “woulda, coulda, shoulda” the actions and decisions of Officer Kerrick that night, but to expose one of the uglier facets of that debate, especially since so many cops who weren’t there willingly piled on. 

Being able to say, “I don’t know…” is very liberating.  It leads to asking more and deeper questions, and the mind to alternatives we wouldn’t otherwise consider.  Embracing uncertainty slows us down and, if we’re wise, encourages reflection and even greater certainty after we take the time to settle doubts.  Striving for humility lends itself to the power of curiosity and openness to the possibility that we don’t know everything, and should seek the help and knowledge that will make us better at what we do than we ever thought we might be. 

And maybe most importantly, humility and deference to the knowledge of how much we don’t know opens our minds to those who view the world through a lens of their own design, and based on a set of convictions and beliefs very different from our own.  This leads to compassion and empathy.  And aren’t those two of the most important weapons in any cops arsenal?