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