Watching and Wondering…

“Many people ask today, ‘Aren’t there other ways in which a trained police officer can respond to an emotionally disturbed person, de-escalate, de-fuze, the situation, and resolve it without taking the person’s life?'”

It was the Occupy Movement in 2011 that first caused me to be concerned about the direction policing was headed in America. I had been retired now for a number of years. I mistakenly thought that what police had learned in the 1960s through the 1990s would have carried them forward into the 21st century. I assumed what we had learned were now “best practices” among most police agencies. (See this independent report from this ear on community policing in Madison.)

During the 1970s and into the 1990s, we became diversified, were deeply involved in community-oriented and problem-oriented policing, and learned how to legally and effectively respond to constitutionally guaranteed public protest.

The folks in the Occupy Movement spurred me to think about my own life as a police officer and leader. I became disturbed at what I saw because it did not seem that policing was continuously improving which was one of my primary goals; to lead an organization which was learning and improving at all times! For me, policing was never just a job, but a calling — an extremely vital function in a free and diverse democracy such as ours.

When you are “called,” everything changes. It changes who you are and in how you see your job and its function. In policing, it is to deeply believe, to internalize, you exist to protect lives and serve for the good of the community; to be its guardian.

About two years before I was scheduled to retire I received another call. This one was a surprise. It was a call to religious faith. I say “surprise” because I had not been a churchgoer for many years before this event. But I knew what I had to do. When I retired, I went off to seminary, was ordained in the Episcopal Church, and have served as a pastor all these years up to the present day.

But as I watched police respond to those Occupy protesters. I realized police seemed to have forgotten what had been learned in the past.

So, I wrote a book about how police should respond to protest, to be anti-racists, and control their use of deadly force. In it, I provided seven steps on how to lead major change. After the book was published in 2012, I went on to write this blog.

Then came 2014. Along with most of America, I saw Michael Brown lying in his own blood for four hours on a street in Ferguson. Watched as the St Louis County SWAT team rolled in with rifles aimed at the people who came to protest. Could this have been done better? Something was missing. What even happened to the Madison Method

The expected protests didn’t end with Ferguson. Young Black men were dying at the hands of police across the country, often in questionable situations, and outraged citizens were taking to the streets.

During this period, my hometown experienced three police shootings; a young white man, a woman military veteran, and a Black youth. The investigatory results were the same as happens in most other cities which had experienced a police shooting. First, the department states the officers involved “did no wrong,” acted according to policy. Then the District Attorney finds no reason to charge the officers with a crime because of the 1989 US Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Connor. However, a jury of citizens, hearing these three cases thought differently. The city was ordered to pay a total of $12.6 million dollars.

Graham really didn’t address the use of deadly force by police, but it did protect them from criminal liability under a fuzzy legal concept the court called “objective reasonableness.” Some some people saw the decision as enabling a police officer to take a suspect’s life if that officer feels could articulate feeling endangered.

Interestingly, while the police officers in Madison were absolved of any criminal liability in all three of these incidents, a jury of twelve fellow citizens felt there was wrongful behavior here and awarded the families millions of dollars.

I have struggled with former colleagues over these shootings and using Graham as a defense. I did not think these shootings should have occurred and department leaders needed to take action to make sure these type of shootings did not occur again. They needed to fix the problem or suffer the consequences if they wanted to build community trust and support; the two necessary ingredients police to have in order to effectively carry out their duties in a free and democratic society.

Now all this matter of police use of deadly force has again come to a head with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year. Stunningly, what happened in Minneapolis affected Madison.

Who was not be stunned, even outraged, by the behavior of the Minneapolis police officer nonchalantly kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, hand in his pocket? Not only did disorder and property damage erupt from this in Minneapolis, it happened in Madison as well.

In response to years of repressed anger at police, citizens in scores of cities throughout the county rose up — even in Madison! Windows were smashed. Police vehicles burned. Downtown businesses torched. Protesters throughout America called to penalize their police by “de-funding” them. In some cities, they called to eliminate their police departments! This is a deep warning sign for us and for our nation.

What is happening? What is the message from the street? The shooting of young Black men is no longer to be tolerated? Police must stop killing Black youth? To remember that Black lives matter? Have we reached the tipping point where racism and racist acts will no longer be tolerated and police must change their present ways as to how they treat poor people and people of color?

Instead of proposing a responsive action plan to fix the problem, police tended to “hunker in;” denied a problem exists. It is a long-used police tactic to wait out public outrage. It is a tactic that police have historically used to avoid accountability. When the people protest, the police often overreact in response, deny culpability, lay low, and wait for the public’s anger to go away. 

This tactic has been effective in the past. It buys time and enables the department to eventually go back to business with little or no change in how the business of policing is conducted in the community.

Here’s my take on this; the result of my “watching and wondering.” The law in Graham has permitted police to use deadly force in situations which many people feel is immoral; it may be legal, but it’s wrong. Many people ask today, “Aren’t there other ways in which a trained police officer can respond to an emotionally disturbed person, de-escalate, de-fuze, the situation, and resolve it without taking the person’s life?”

What America, especially Black America, has experienced is a series of moral injuries in witnessing these deaths. These collective injuries have, of course, existed for years and years before Ferguson and Minneapolis. Only during the present time have these incidents been seen by millions of viewers as witnesses posted then within minutes on social media platforms. What once happened with only two narratives existing; one from police, the other from bystanders. Now citizens can make their own decisions about whether what they saw was right; whether it was a moral action.

What is missing from these tragic events is for police to openly discuss them, to analyze and learn from them, correct their mistakes and let the community know how they will respond in the future so that these tragedies no longer occur.

For many years, until 2014, no one in America knew how many persons were killed by police each year. Our government did not collect these data. But thanks to some bold and hardworking investigative journalists, we now know the number, gender, age, and race, and situation in which citizens are killed by police. We now know that, since 2014, about 1,000 persons are killed by police each year. These victims are predominately young males and disproportionally Black.

Now with the amount of protests, property damage, and unrest generated from these shootings by police would we not expect that these numbers would have been slowly decreasing? They have not.

What about other countries? In countries which restrict the possession and carrying of firearms, knives are often used as weapons. Yet when we look at how their police deal with knife-wielders, they do not usually kill them. Police in western democracies, even when armed, tend not to use deadly force at the rate we do. A good reason for this is that every country which is a member of the European Union must agree that their police will use deadly force only when it is an “absolute necessity;” a much higher standard than “reasonable objectivity” in Graham.

As a recent example, Laquan McDonald, a Chicago Black man with a knife in hand, ends up dead having been shot multiple times. Police withheld the video showing McDonald’s death for months. Why? Because they knew it was wrong and they knew their community would take to the streets when they saw it. In the video, McDonald did not threatened police, he was, in fact, walking away from them when he was gunned down.

To a great extent, we all are guilty of these tragedies and these moral injuries. As a nation, we should never have permitted the trust gap which occurs today between police and these whom they guard. Even when taking a life can be legally justified, should it?

Higher standards than those permitted by law can be implemented through departmental rules; that is policies. A good example is what states permitted their police to do in the years before 1984 when Tennessee v. Garner was ruled by the US Supreme Court and what progressive cities did.

Garner ruled that police could use deadly force only when the person fleeing was a danger to others. Before this decision, many states (including Wisconsin) permitted police to use deadly force to stop the flight of anyone who had committed a felony — the fleeing felon rule. This led to many teenage burglars and car thieves being shot and killed by police.

However, we in Madison, thought this was wrong. We did not want our police to shoot non-dangerous felons. Through rule-making, policy, we prohibited our police from using deadly force except to stop a fleeing, dangerous felon. This was eleven years before the Supreme Court ruled along the same lines in Garner.

Why can’t this be done with the Graham decision? By policy, a police department can require its officers to follow a higher standard than the law permits. They cannot, however, lower the standards of a law. Under Graham, police would not be criminally liable for a shoot, but they could be disciplined, even fired, for not following the department’s policy on use of force; that is, a higher community standard.

Just because governmental officials can do something, should they? Is it right? Is it fair? But most of all, is it moral?

We, the people, now have a rough and difficult road ahead of us. Politically, I would say that about one-half of Americans would agree with what I have just written, but the other half would not. Rather than putting a “Black Lives Matter” sign on their front lawn they would prefer one that read “Back the Blue.”

Much of our arguments today seem to be political, one’s party identification, rather than moral. But should there be a difference?

A nation which has a large segment of its population not willing to wear a face mask during in a deadly pandemic may not wish to restrain the behavior of their police (with whom they most likely have little contact).

What I struggle with as a retired police officer, a person of faith, and concerned citizen, is that I believe we need to move to a common understanding that ALL lives matter in America and that will involve significant changes in how police are selected, trained, missioned, and led.

In order to do this, we must end our romance with firearms, require our police to respect all people, treat them fairly and decently, and to use physical force only as a last resort because they have a strong belief in the sanctity of life.

My fear is that unless we directly address the disproportionate deaths of people of color by police in this nation, we will never be able to realize the dream of our Founders had for us; that we, all of us, are able to receive the blessings of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

Is this too much to ask?

I wonder as I continue along my journey of watching and wondering…