For the average street cop “hesitation” can be incredibly dangerous. As my husband Dave “JD Buck Savage” Smith discusses in his class The Winning Mind “the last thing we want is an officer thinking to themselves in the immediate aftermath of a deadly force encounter ‘Geez, I hope I was within policy.’”
What we generally call “liability hesitation” is now turning into so much more in the wake of Ferguson, MO’s apparent officer involved shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. So much is now at stake. But this isn’t the first time in recent history that American law enforcement has faced this type of situation.
In the early hours of New Years Day 2009 officers from the Bay Area Rapid Transit police department were called to the Fruitvale BART platform in Oakland, CA for a fight in progress. They detained 22 year old Oscar Grant III and several other passengers. Officer Johannes Mehserle and another officer were trying to restrain Grant, who was face down on the platform but resisting arrest. As was captured on multiple cameras, Mehserle stood up and (according to his lawyer) said “Get back, I’m gonna Tase him.” He then reached not for his TASER but for his pistol and shot the unarmed Grant in the back. Grant, who had a four year old daughter, died then next day.
There were multiple security and cell phone videos of the incident which immediately went out virtually everywhere. Days of protests began, some were peaceful, others were not. Many protests became violent riots; property destruction and looting the norm, and opportunistic politicians and ‘community leaders’ fanned the flames. Films, books, rock and rap songs came out of the ashes.
Even though it is clear in the BART videos that Mehserle seemed as surprised as anyone when his SIG P226 went off (which sparked us to train for “TASER confusion”) he was branded in the media and on the Internet as a rogue, racist cop who executed a man for a minor crime. Police/community relations took a major hit all around the country; we had seen nothing like it since Rodney King.
In reality, Johannes Mehserle was a young man living the American dream. He came to the United States from Germany at age four with his family. After college he entered the police academy and graduated near the top of his class both academically and physically. He had never been the subject of a sustained complaint at BART. His girlfriend gave birth to their first child the day after the Grant shooting.
Mehserle resigned from the police department and after much prosecutorial posturing, he was charged with and tried for multiple felonies. A jury found him not guilty of both the second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter charges but guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Mehserle served his time and is now out of prison and on parole. Both he and his extended family have been forced to move multiple times. He’ll never be able to return to the job that he loved.
And now we have Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, MO Police Department who finds himself in the middle of an international “controversy.” Not only is he being branded as a rogue, racist cop (sound familiar?) who murdered a “gentle giant” of a kid in cold blood, but his entire life is being picked apart and exposed.
People and the press demanded that Wilson be identified and the FPD chief did so. Now every aspect of Wilson’s life is the subject of intense scrutiny. His home (which he’s had to abandon) and his address have been shown on national television. He’s being criticized for how much it cost and where it’s located (like many of us, he chose not to live in the town where he works). His neighbors have news crews knocking on their doors. His family and friends have had to disable their social media sites and go into hiding. Like Michael Brown’s family, their lives will never be the same.
Most disturbingly, the New Black Panther Party has been marching in Ferguson, MO and openly calling for Officer Wilson’s murder.
Makes you wonder why the heck anyone wants to be a cop.
So as all of this plays out, how does the rest of law enforcement move forward and do the job that, yes, the people pay us to do?
As Ben Sherwood says in his groundbreaking book “The Survivor’s Club,” it’s time to “hug the monster.” We’ve got to recognize and acknowledge our fears, and then stare them down.
- As painful as it may be, visualize yourself in Darren Wilson’s position from his initial contact with the suspect. I know we don’t have all the details yet, but cops often deal with “unarmed” people who may want to do us harm. Do you train to protect yourself and retain control of your firearm? How is your fitness level? Can you last in a protracted fight for your life? Are you truly prepared for that split-second “Not Today” moment?
- Successful visualizations and training also involve the immediate aftermath of any deadly force encounter. How will you conduct yourself; how will you document what happened? In these highly emotional, physically taxing situations, we must be prepared to be professional, thorough and accurate.
- Have you prepared your family and close friends for something like this? You’ve got to talk to them about the possibility of something like this happening and prepare for the worst. Have a temporary exit plan, and prepare them to deals with the aftermath. Above all, teach them to protect themselves.
- TAKE ANOTHER, HARDER LOOK AT YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA. Can you be easily found? (most of us can) Can anything on your Facebook page be seen as unprofessional or inflammatory? Imagine that everything you’ve ever posted is now the lead story on Fox News. How will that look? I’m all for everyone exercising their 1st Amendment rights, but these are things we must think about before we become the target of intense media scrutiny.
- If you are in a management position, you must consider how you will react and respond when one of your officers is involved in a high profile incident that could cause major unrest. Leadership mistakes, both intentional and inadvertent, were made in the BART and Ferguson cases; both should be the cause for significant discussion at your next staff meeting. And don’t allow the inevitable hindsight bias to overtake your reactions and your policies.
- Law enforcement organizations, no matter how big or small, must use the Ferguson, MO situation as a “game film” to prepare. How many cops are killed with their own handgun? (too many) Do we train for the inevitable? How will we deal with the media? How will we continue to provide service? How will we take care of our cops? How will we continue to serve our citizens? We’re good at preparing for natural disasters and terror attacks, but how about using a situation like this one as a training scenario, either via tabletop or scenario based? Consider getting the local media involved in the training.
These are just a few suggestions, come up with more of your own specific to your department and your community. Preparation is the key to prevention.
I’m going to conclude with a challenge to my brothers and sisters in this profession: DO NOT allow cynicism to engulf you! We serve mostly good, law abiding citizens who need us. Many of them like and respect us, which is becoming evident in the growing number of “Support the Police” rallies near St. Louis. We need to continue to build on that. In the recent days, I’ve seen the resurrection of calls for more “community policing” efforts. As someone who spent nearly 20 years involved in various community policing efforts, I’m not sure that’s the answer, but that’s another debate for another time.
Instead, consider this: There are over 600,000 law enforcement officers in the United States. If each one of us found one kid, just one, who is underprivileged, disenfranchised, or whatever you want to call it, and spent a few hours each week with that child helping them to get their life on track and perhaps pursue a career in police work, I truly believe we could turn the tide.
One cop, one kid, one community at a time.
In the meantime, stay sane, stay optimistic, and above all, stay safe!