“What is a policeman made of? He, of all men, is once the most needed and the most unwanted. He’s a strangely nameless creature who is ‘sir’ to his face and ‘fuzz’ to his back.
But… if the policeman is neat, he’s conceited; if he’s careless, he’s a bum. If he’s pleasant, he’s flirting; if not, he’s a grouch. He must make an instant decision which would require months for a lawyer to make.
He must be able to whip two men twice his size and half his age without damaging his uniform and without being ‘brutal.’ If you hit him, he’s a coward. If he hits you, he’s a bully. The policeman must be a minister, a social worker, a diplomat, a tough guy and a gentleman. And, of course, he’d have to be a genius… for he will have to feed a family on a policeman’s salary.”
-Excerpts from Paul Harvey’s 1970 newspaper article titled, “Policeman.”
Police officers are some unique people. I’m sure many of the people who work in accounting or sales may say the same about their co-workers, but man are we some multi-faceted creatures. I know policemen who are or have been artists, comedians, professional musicians, licensed mechanics, gunsmiths, Special Forces operators, coaches, authors, teachers, pastors, salesmen, and attorneys. I know policemen who grew up dead broke in the worst ghettos and others who grew up with a trust fund, a silver spoon, and a nanny. There are some policemen who are tactical gear junkies who’ll buy everything from a $6,000 infrared optic they’ll never use — because they sit behind a desk all day — to tactical pajamas. Others couldn’t care less about weapons or tactical clothing: when they’re off duty they dress like college kids cruising campus in skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors or like high schoolers rocking sweatpants and oversized hoodies. I am friends with police officers who are both gay and straight, liberal and conservative, Christian and atheist, and of every race under the sun.
In other words, we are you.
We are the society in which we patrol. I’ve never considered myself to be any different than any citizen I run into. I consider myself to be a culmination of what I believe and what I enjoy — in other words, what I’ve chosen. I didn’t choose to be born in the midwest. I didn’t choose my parents or my skin color. I didn’t have one ounce of decision-making in that process. I could’ve been born rich or poor, black, Native American, Hispanic or French (though frankly, I am somewhat happy I’m not French; they’re a bit persnickety…). I – and many of my police officer friends – see other people we serve in a similar light. We look at them as an amalgamation of who they are, what they enjoy, and how they act — not at their skin tone, ethnicity or economic status as many in the media would imply.
From an investigative standpoint, it makes sense that policemen focus on a person’s behavior more than any of their other characteristics. If I know, through experience, how most people act when they see my marked squad car or when I stop them for a traffic violation, then I can quickly tell when something isn’t right. My “Spidey-sense” goes bananas. A person’s eyes, which are not exclusive to their race, tell a far greater story than their skin color ever could. Military friends I know, who have returned from Afghanistan, routinely say, “I knew the Taliban fighters hated me to their core just by looking into their eyes.” There are few absolute truths in combat, in police work, and in life, but one of them are that the eyes never lie, people often do. Skin color is an irrelevant indicator of past or predictor of future behavior.
As much as the local news cycle doesn’t want you to believe, the policemen I know don’t care one bit if you look different than them — regardless of their race. What they do care about is how a person behaves and the content of their character. In Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King says, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That’s all most police officers would like to be judged on as well. Not on the color of our skin or the nature of our career path, but on the content of our character.
Why I Became a Police Officer
I spent the better part of the past decade working as a Police Officer in a St. Louis suburb. I saw a fair bit of carnage during that time. Maybe not as much as the guys who have deployed to Afghanistan 12 times or the guy who has been a cop for 45 years, but much more than the average citizen. I’ve been called everything from “hero” to “the white devil” over these years. I’ve had citizens try to pay for my meal or give me a gift card while thanking me for my service and I’ve left restaurants before eating when the cook — whom I’d previously arrested — seemed overly happy to make me up something “special.”
While on the job, I’ve been punched, head-butted, heel-kicked, spit on, tased (a couple of times), had my lungs filled with smoke during a fire, ingested about half a cup of pepper spray (courtesy of overspray), and had three suspects try to pull their gun on me on traffic stops. I’ve given CPR to a young husband while his wife screamed “save him” in my ear (I wasn’t able), responded to dozens of drug overdoses, heart attacks, and other medical emergencies, and to numerous terrible car crashes and suicides. I’ve had friends and co-workers who have been shot (or otherwise seriously injured) in the line of duty and I nearly died in a car crash when an intoxicated driver going at 60 mph hit my parked patrol car while I was on a traffic stop at 0230 on one otherwise quiet Sunday morning.
But honestly, that’s why I got into police work. When I told my wife I was going to leave my teaching job and become a police officer she unsurprisingly was hit with the “what-if” worry cycle. I remember telling her that I’d rather die as a policeman than live the next 20 years as a teacher. I am saying absolutely nothing negative about teachers; they are awesome and they serve an incredibly important purpose. I just knew that I had something different to offer.
I always felt like something was missing after I left the Marine Corps. I had good friends in the teaching profession, but as many of you know, friendships in and out of the military are different. I missed the camaraderie. I missed actively doing something to make my community safer. Honestly, I think I kind of missed the high stakes nature of the job, too.
My dad is a retired Police Officer so I had a basic idea of what I was getting into when I started. What you never get to know in advance is what atmosphere you’ll be working in once you begin.
Riots, Media and Flat Out Lies
Since 2014 especially, I’ve seen a number of riots, media manipulation, and flat-out lies — by the way, this article is going to touch on some of the items the mainstream press won’t. Let’s saddle up and actually have a discussion that can shed some light on this powder keg. I’m going to briefly touch on one Officer-Involved Shooting (OIS) that has been highlighted by the news over the past few years and give some thoughts you may or may not have considered when seeing the stories.
In 2014, Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. I followed this case closely because Ferguson is only a handful of miles away from the area where I worked. Almost everyone knows the gist of this story, but to sum it up: Brown robbed a convenience store (yes robbed: he stole with either violence or the threat of violence) and was “ped-checked” by PO Wilson. Shortly after their initial contact, a struggle ensued and Brown was shot and killed by PO Wilson. Police work in St. Louis changed with those six shots.
Then came the riots, the hate, and the Monday-morning quarterbacking.
You know, the people who get to sit in their air-conditioned offices and consider every possible thing the officer might have done wrong and all the other ways that he or she could have done something differently. Or, another type of Monday morning quarterback, who in reality, calls the police because his neighbor’s dog is barking or who is too cowardly to ever join the military or the police force. He is the consummate keyboard warrior and has an undefeated fighting record because he has never stood up for anything in real-life. These people are killers in Call of Duty and they have every answer and proper response for what police should’ve done instead of shooting someone, or how the Navy SEALs should’ve killed Bin Laden differently or done something else with his body. He is the one who thinks police should have just “shot him in the leg” or should’ve just “billy-clubbed” the suspect to make him stop. You all know the type.
These people have no concept of firearms, tactics, bullet ballistics, or what often happens when someone is shot: they don’t die. Nor do they stop trying to kill you. It isn’t like the movies where people get shot once with a .38 caliber revolver, fly through the air, and land on their backs motionless. People who want to do you harm are rarely dissuaded by a bullet. Even a bullet that hits the center of mass is unlikely to immediately kill a threat. The body is a super-computer and it will continue to run until it is shut down completely. If the threat has a knife, it can usually keep advancing; if it has a firearm it can almost always still shoot back.
Finally, there are the politicians who seek political gain from factions of society by demeaning those whose vote they know they likely won’t get anyway. These people stoke the flame of doubt and intentionally promote racism and general hate through their language… all for a vote. These people say one thing on leaked recordings behind the scenes and something totally different when addressing their “fans.” These politicians love making statements like, “Police reform is much needed in our country” without having any background in the profession or clue as to how that should actually look. And they never say, “Reform in a suspect’s behavior — if that suspect’s violent behavior directly led to a violent or deadly police encounter — is much-needed.” They’re weak and they’re double-minded.
To sum it up, a police officer can’t do the right thing in everyone’s eyes, regardless of the scenario.
This is part I of a three-part series on Law Enforcement in America. Part II will publish tomorrow.