Thoughts From Inside the Police Department

First, let me apologize – this isn’t the usual kind of post you expect to see on my music site. It was just easier to post it here than create a whole other vehicle to share this kind of commentary. So pardon the interruption and we will get you back to your regularly scheduled programming shortly…

Another police shooting hit the news yesterday. Captured on video by an onlooker, this particular shooting appears to be completely criminal and unjustified, as the suspect turns and runs from the officer moments before the officer opens fire, killing him. It seems that so far the correct steps have been taken and the officer has been charged with murder for his crime. Unfortunately, that will not bring back the deceased and this is only the latest chapter in a series of high profile officer-involved shootings involving a white officer and an African-American decedent.

Public outcry is completely understandable. The easy conclusion to draw is that police are generally corrupt racist thugs that shoot first and ask questions later; quick to abuse their power and jump to conclusions that are often wrong simply based on race. And so police everywhere are painted with the same broad strokes as the worst of their profession. Because there is a corrupt officer, all officers are therefore under suspicion. Ironically, this is the same kind of gross generalization that lies at the heart of the racism problem that exists today.

I cannot and will not condone the murderous actions of the officer from this most recent shooting. But the conclusion that an officer only shoots an unarmed black person because of his racism overlooks all of the deeper social ills that lead to these types of situations and the fallout from them. The problems in Ferguson went way deeper than an ill-managed police department to a city government who didn’t care about a segment of its constituency, to the historical culture that had led to a great divide between different groups of people in that town. Likewise, the focus on racist cops ignores the fact that the violent crime in this country is overwhelmingly committed by African-Americans against African-Americans. While some blame the African-American community for those problems; that in itself is an easily drawn and incorrect conclusion that overlooks or fails to see the societal problems that has created and developed that culture for 300 years. No – we all share a piece of the problem, but until we stop simply scratching the surface of the problem by arguing about whether police officers are racist, we will never ever get to a real solution.

In my work as a criminal prosecutor and now as the attorney for a local police department, I can tell you from first-hand experience that there are very few officers that do not share the disgust that anyone feels when they watch the video from the Charleston shooting. In fact, most of them are even more disgusted than your ordinary citizen because on top of the horrific nature of the shooting, they understand that this horrible act reflects on them, makes them look bad, and makes their job exponentially more difficult. As the public anti-police sentiment grows in this country, more and more people are intentionally creating and staging confrontations with police officers so that they can videotape them and get their fifteen minutes of fame. Creating these confrontations (for example, getting pulled over by police in your car, arguing with them, refusing to give them your license, yelling at them) only serves to make the encounter much more dangerous for the officer as well as the citizen.

By and large, police officers are some of the nicest, most public service oriented people you will ever meet. We had a guilty verdict here in High Point today in a case where a very young baby was abused and killed by his father. When that crime occurred, it was members of the police department who took it upon themselves to provide necessities and Christmas gifts to this family to try and ease their pain. This wasn’t part of their job, but they saw a need and rushed to meet it. Stories like this abound nationwide.

Instead of making generalized statements about corrupt police officers, I urge you to get to know YOUR LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY. The two most important factors in having good police officers on the street are (1) recruiting/selection and (2) training. Agencies can differ vastly in their approach to these two items. Many agencies require the applicant to pass a polygraph test and a psychological test prior to employment in addition to a thorough background check and other requirements. If your local agency doesn’t do that, ask them why and advocate for change. Training is another area that agencies stress in differing amounts. The officers that I know are trained several times a year and that training includes scenarios that they might find themselves in on the street where they may have to protect themselves. After watching the video from this last shooting, one questions whether that officer has had any training at all in when deadly force may be used. Again, find out what your agency does and advocate for change if they can do better.

There is one final way you can get to know your local agency that I highly recommend. Call your local law enforcement agency and ask if they allow citizens to ride-along with officers for a shift. Many agencies do allow and encourage this. Riding along with a police officer on a Friday night for several hours will not only be fun (ever seen an episode of “Cops?”) but it will teach you how your agency operates and conducts business. What better way to have community oversight of the police than to ride next to them in their patrol car? If your local agency doesn’t do this, they should, and in the meantime you should find a nearby agency that will allow you to do this.

Again – it’s easy to sit back and rant about corrupt cops. I challenge you to get to know the ones in your area.

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