Policing, the deterioration is real…

I’ve started and deleted several iterations of this post because I don’t know what I want to say.

I haven’t been following the news, so I don’t have enough facts to make an informed statement on my thoughts about the tragic ending to Stephon Clark’s life in the backyard of his grandmother’s house in Sacramento.

I watched one video (there was no audio) that appeared to be taken from a helicopter, and was a little bit torn and confused by the outrage I was seeing on Facebook.

The video looked as though there was a foot chase that ended with two officers both ducking behind a wall prior to Mr. Clark being shot dead.

Ducking for cover isn’t a natural thing for officers to do, unless they truly believe there is a threat, that threat mostly being a person armed with a firearm.

I pointed out on a friend’s timeline that I saw two officers who were spooked, and this is the response I got from a woman I don’t know:

“Pretty sure officers should be trained to not get spooked so easily.”

I guess I never wanted to talk about his incident specifically, but rather, I’d like to talk about police shootings more generally.

Last month in St. Louis, a woman with two small kids was accosted by a young,  black man with a pistol. He took her car from her, driving off in it with one of her infant sons still inside the car.

The woman didn’t speak English, so getting information from her took a little bit more time than it would have otherwise, but long story short, we got a description of her car and found her baby unattended in an alley.  The suspect had put him out of the car and into the cold.

Soon after, I spotted the car and the chase was on. Without getting into more details about a pending criminal case, there was a moment when the suspect got himself turned around and we found ourselves just a few feet from each other. As he fumbled around inside the car, it did occur to me that he could be reaching for a pistol, and I unstrapped the button that helps secure the gun on my holster, ready to use it, if needed. It turned out that the kid was probably fumbling for the gear shift, as he was able to get the car into reverse and try to escape in another direction.

After a nearly fifteen minute pursuit, this guy was ultimately caught that morning and taken to jail, alive.

This time, it worked out, but the point is that in a split second, this could have had a very different outcome.

Had the guy raised his hand where I could see it, how long would I have had to wait before I could justifiably shoot him?

Would his hand have to clear the door so I could see whether or not he was holding a pistol? I knew he had one at one point, so if he did have a gun, would I have to wait for him to point it at me, or could I shoot the second I saw the gun?

What if he had SOMETHING in his hand, but I couldn’t tell what it was?

Would I have to wait to verify that it wasn’t gun, even though I knew he had a gun in his possession less than an hour earlier?

Those are tough questions that have to be answered in very short periods of time.

I have a folder where I store emails and other electronic documents that have “officer safety” information related to otherwise innocuous, everyday items being converted into weapons.

I have seen pictures and videos of pens, belt buckles, water bottles and yes, even smart phones, converted to be able to fire small rounds, just as effectively as if it were a gun instead of what it was originally designed to be.

I keep them for instances like the Stephon Clark shooting.

Did the officers know he had a cell phone in his hand?

No.

Did they know he had what looked to be a cell phone in his hand?

Maybe.

Or maybe they thought he was armed, I can’t answer that.

Is it ridiculous to assume that a cell phone or belt buckle or pen is really capable of firing a bullet?

It would certainly be the exception rather than the rule, but police officers don’t have the luxury of hoping that they’re not experiencing the exception rather than the rule, when somebody doesn’t drop whatever item a suspect is holding.

A good chunk of our training is learning how to survive on the streets.

“Pretty sure officers should be trained to not get spooked so easily.”

Training.

It’s a good thing, training.

We police officers need more of it than ever before.

We need lots of training, and preferably, that training entails real life scenarios where dangers can be simulated and decisions made in the safety of a training session can be discussed and criticized constructively.

Alas, the truth of the matter is that during a time when we need more and more training, we are getting less and less.

Why?

Training costs money.

Good training costs lots of money.

Assuming that most cities are like St.  Louis City, budgets are tight and training and pay for police officers is no more important than buying accounting software or new tires for a refuse truck.

Two years ago, before the criminal law in Missouri changed drastically, I offered to train all the officers in service, and even had the man who helped draft the new laws onboard with coming to train me and others on how to best present the information to our officers. It would have cost the city the price of a hotel room for a night for the instructor, and it was never approved.

Instead that year, officers learned about LBGTQ rights and how to properly address and treat these folks. The trainer herself, unlike many of the officers who had to take this training, was neither L,B,G,T, or Q. She was an academic though, and had read books and gone to seminars on the subject.

While there is absolutely a place for such training, it should never have been a priority over the most extensive change in the criminal law that Missouri has had in thirty-five years.

Soon, officers will receive training on how to administer NARCAN to heroin addicts who have overdosed. NARCAN brings people on the cusp of meeting their maker back to life, so it’s not a terrible thing, especially if it’s an officer who needs it after exposure to fentanyl or some other dangerous substance.

The training will involve trying to convince officers that heroin addiction is a disease, and how we should have sympathy for such folks just as we would somebody with childhood cancer or a severe mental disorder.

Knowing most officers, it is training that won’t be well received, and again, while it’s not unimportant, it is not the most important thing that officers should be learning right now.

I would be curious to know what the public thinks police training entails.

I bet many people would be shocked to find out that it’s not nearly as extensive and constant as we would want it to be in a perfect world.

Training doesn’t magically change a person into a different person.

A person who enters the police academy as a coward or a racist or a jerk will graduate the academy as a coward or a racist or a jerk still.

Our training is lacking and it shows in these tense encounters.

As protests continue and officers find themselves subject to ever increasing scrutiny, departments are finding it harder and harder to both retain and hire good people who want to do this job.

Even I am counting the days until I can retire with a piddly pension (under 340).

As departments lose their senior officers, they are forced to have younger officers step up to be trainers and supervisors, and the results are unsurprisingly terrible.

There is no substitute for experience, but that experience is getting harder and harder to find.

That another young, black man was shot by police should surprise absolutely nobody.

It shouldn’t.

Just like school shootings, nothing gets done about these things outside of yelling and screaming until we lose interest and we wait for the inevitable next one.

Until society decides that it wants to recognize that police officers have important jobs and pay them accordingly, we will continue to struggle to hire good people and take risks on people we never would have before, because we have to.

It’s no secret that departments need bodies.

If I was twenty-one years old today, I would laugh at a police recruiter asking me about my interest in law enforcement.

Not on the streets at least.

I’d be too spooked about the prospects of lasting the twenty years I’ve been able to nearly handle in this lifetime.

They would have to move on to another person, probably somebody with less education and prospects for employment outside of police work.

A person who takes this job because they need a job is a terrible candidate, and no amount of training or lack thereof, can change that.

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24 Responses to Policing, the deterioration is real…

  1. gesbes says:

    Great read, as always. Priorities are a problem. Though I’m certain they always have been to some extent, I believe they’re a bigger issue now than ever before. Too many factions (for lack of a better word) vying for attention and/or validation. Some scary stuff here, particularly for a mom whose son is hoping to enter the academy within a year.

    • Thanks! Where is he going?

      • gesbes says:

        I’m not sure actually. He’s just getting ready to put apps in. He’s talked about both City & County at different times, but works in corrections for a Stlco municipality now. He’s hoping they can give him a leg up, I think, which makes County a stronger possibility. He’s adamant about starting before year end and mom’s not thrilled, I’ll admit. But, he’s passionate so what can I say? 🙂 As long as my kids are happy, I am too (however apprehensive I may be).

  2. LindaGHill says:

    I suspect fewer people would die from having bald tires on a garbage truck. I hope at some point the powers-that-be will see the importance of training. Be well, my friend. ❤

  3. LindaGHill says:

    Reblogged this on Linda G. Hill and commented:
    An inside perspective, and a fascinating read. This certainly gave me a “who knew?” moment. Thanks for sharing what you do, Don.

  4. MARY KAY NOLEN says:

    Thank you for the job you do, for the words you write, and for being spooked enough to be trained and yet rely on your gut. Please continue to try to improve things for the men and women in blue – don’t give up. And, be safe.

  5. Always, always love reading your point of view, that is always, always so well written.

  6. kingmidget says:

    A friend directed me to this post after reading my post about the Clark shooting. I agree with your main point here — the problem is with training and the resultant quality, or lack of quality, of the men and women we have patrolling our streets. I know you don’t necessarily want to talk specifically about the Clark shooting, but the things that bother me about this is that the officers who were on foot searching for a suspect who was believed to have been breaking car windows had their guns drawn already. This, after the department had adopted a policy of utilizing non-lethal means first before resorting to deadly force. The officers on foot never identified themselves as police officers. And then when they rounded the corner of the house and saw him they shouted for him to show them his hands and when he did, they shot him. I get that the situation is fraught with danger and fright for the officers involved and I also have absolutely no idea what it is like to be a officer in America today and what it must be like to have to make these kinds of life or death split second decisions, but there are some very troubling facts here.

    • I’ve only seen the one video and it didn’t have audio, so anything I say is speculation. I agree with you that it’s potentially troubling to have one’s gun in hand when looking for a person who we think was breaking into cars. On the other hand, firearms are stolen from cars everyday. It’s one of the prime places where people who can’t get a gun legally get one. Still, a common thief generally isn’t violent, so the gun shouldn’t be front and center in one’s response. It puts the officer (by his own doing) in a spot where he almost has to use deadly force because he can’t easily get to his mace or taser or whatever now. Tactically, it seems off to me. I don’t know what the crime is like in Sacramento, but here in St. Louis, we always have to be on high alert, and I think that helps our younger officers to become more confident in their instincts and able to not overreact to a potentially violent encounter. This, like so many other police shootings, was avoidable, but I don’t know that it will rise to criminal. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know.

      • kingmidget says:

        Thank you for your response … you stated the concern much better than I could. That the officers put themselves into a position where they had no choice but to use deadly force. The neighborhood they were patrolling is not the best neighborhood in town and is one of the more crime-infested areas of town. My concern is that, rather than leading to what you describe — more confidence in their ability to respond to a difficult situation — it led to assumptions being made.

        I don’t expect there to be criminal charges filed in this case. Sacramento has seen its share of these situations over the last few years and no police officer has been charged with anything. It may be that there was nothing to charge in all of these situations, but we have a tendency to elect district attorneys who are very law and order and pro-police, almost to a fault, while in all other areas, the area is very liberal.

  7. julie says:

    Interesting as always Don! I think it’s increasingly difficult to find quality people to work in many fields. I wonder why that is? It’s also very difficult to find a decent job for some reason. Thank you for the job you do kind sir, hopefully some of you will rub off on those younger officers. Stay safe!

  8. Love you. That’s all I have right now. It’s all so fucking broken and fucked up. But, not you. And I so appreciate you writing, and telling and telling. It matters.

  9. markbialczak says:

    Thanks for always attempting to remind somebody, anybody, that the seconds – hell, minutes, hours – that uncoil to these life-and-death decisions are fraught with on-the-spot recognition that we can’t even imagine unless we’re put into that spot. You still live this toughest job with pride, Don, and make our world a better place because of it. Thank you.

  10. When you do retire, I hope you’ll write more, cause that’s something you should be doing.

    • Thanks, buddy. I appreciate that. When I retire, I’ll have to go work another job because the pension $ won’t pay for my extravagant lifestyle. Lol. Hope you guys are well.

  11. I went to the Writers’ Police Academy a few years ago, a conference for writers where they are taught by the same instructors who train police officers. Among the many excellent workshops I attended was one that involved a simulation training experience. That workshop leader taught us many things (such as the fact that the person having the gun in their hand pointed in the air is not the same as “dropping the gun” as they’ve been instructed to do, since they can lower it and shoot it in a second).

    But one of the scariest things he told us was that even police departments that use simulation training often do it wrong, letting the officers make mistakes, then telling them what the mistake was and then sending them back to their seat. He pointed out that the MISTAKE is now embedded in their muscle memory and they will probably make it again in a tense moment on the street. Instead the correct response needs to be practiced at least a dozen times until it becomes muscle memory. But this almost never happens in police training programs.

    We so need to adjust our priorities in our society!

    • I agree with ending on a positive note always. Muscle memory is so huge in law enforcement for sure. I still do things that I was taught in the academy without even thinking twice about it. We were better trained then though. We used to have to qualify 4 times a year at the range, and now it’s once. Ammo is expensive, but damn. There are just so many people who shouldn’t be doing this job now but are, and it’s bound to bite everyone in the ass eventually.

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