What I Learned In Police School

My class and instructors. In the spirit of the school, picture from Jennifer Cowan.
Used without permission.

OK, maybe I am the only one who calls it police school. The Statesville Police Department and others call it the Citizen’s Academy. We met for ten Tuesday nights (or rather nine Tuesdays and one Thursday makeup) and were taught by some of the top officers in the Statesville Police Department. We also spent four hours in dispatch (some of us a couple of hours longer, because we are people who need closure…and we enjoyed it), and another four hours riding around with a police officer (most of us with young officers.) We spent a lot of time talking about the different areas of police work and why they do what they do. It was fun and it was interesting and we had some good conversation.

This was going to be a very different blog before the Ferguson decision. As I have been watching news coverage, it is through the eyes of what I recently learned and it crystallized some of what I have been thinking about. Justice is complicated. And as those who know me personally can guess, what I learned is not necessarily what was taught.
Our Statesville police officers don’t all believe the same thing. They often have similar views overall, but their opinions can vary on some things. I loved that some would discuss it openly, not in a way that was disrespectful to the department, but as family who discuss these things amongst themselves often and can agree to disagree. And learn from each other in the process. All seemed to be respectful…of each other, of citizens, and of authority. Healthy debate….good food for thought.
I was impressed with the way they described how police work has changed over the years. The goal is for safety….how do they best keep our citizens safe? It is not always going after everyone breaking the law, heading out on a high speed chase. It is not always writing a ticket, not always about making an arrest. It’s not about being the biggest and baddest and the one who has the power to throw their weight around the most. It is being a presence, being alert to what it going on, paying attention to the safety of the city. Their best police weapons are their communication skills and their judgment. There are supposedly no ticket quotas…in fact, there seemed to be a bit of disdain for the cop who writes tickets whenever possible (though support of the right to do so.) Some officers enjoy writing them more than others. Some probably have personal quotas. Tickets and arrests are a reality of the system and sometimes necessary to get to a point of justice. Just a hint., though…tickets and arrests happen more often when you are belligerent and disrespectful, or challenge their authority. I shouldn’t have to tell you that, but some have not learned that lesson.
We had a whole session about the use of force, when it was appropriate, when it wasn’t. All in all, you can’t get around the fact that it is all based on human judgment. The instructor said something like this “You have to feel that you are in danger, but how do you judge this?” He did an exercise when he was approaching me….and told me to tell him when it started to feel intimidated. That point of intimidation varies for all. And we talked about someone holding a gun….at what point does it become a threat? When you see the gun? When their arm starts to rise? When they shoot you dead?
He talked about situations where he as a veteran cop may view the danger very differently than a rookie. He talked about teaching young cops how to make good judgments in those situations, but also admitted that it is almost impossible to teach judgment. Some never learn this well….and so the decisions of how even a veteran can handle a particular situation will vary greatly.
We experienced those judgment calls ourselves when we went through a simulation during our last class. They are full size videos, and you are in the midst of them, your laser gun in hand and ready to go. (I understand the officers have their guns holstered when they do theirs.) The officer running the simulation can change things based on your actions and reactions, or even at his will. The first situation I faced was a lady angry after I stopped her in a traffic stop. She got out of the car and was belligerent. She reached back into her car and I paused. Surely she was just reaching for her license (though I had asked her to get on the ground and had not asked for her license.) She pulled out a gun, and at the same time a guy in the passenger seat also got out of the car and started shooting at me. I hesitated with her until I saw her gun, and didn’t even notice her companion. Yep, I would have been dead. It does make a person think!
The officers told us about a real life situation in SC that was similar. It was a routine traffic stop where the guy reached into his car. The officer shot him, as his raised arm came out of the car, holding his wallet. The officer had asked for his license, but evidently got skittish when the man reached into his car. The whole thing was captured on the police cam video. The officer did not follow proper procedure, but something had scared him and made him react. Your license should be in your pants pocket, right? The officer asked for the license and the guy was just getting it, right? Assumptions on either, or both, sides can be wrong. My guess is that the officer’s mind will play that mental tape over and over in his mind for the rest of his life. Why did he shoot him? Was his fear justified? We can look at it and say no justification indeed, but if that was us…what would we do? (This just happened in September, so is still unresolved. The good news is the guy that was shot several times lived.)
When doing my ride-along, I watched a gentleman get arrested for assault on his fiancee’s son. He was 28, the son 17. He was black, the son white. The man allegedly threw the son out of their apartment, after the kid got in an argument with his brother and then with his mother (when she tried to take his cell phone away as punishment.) He left a mark around the area of the kid’s neck. The man arrested was unfailingly polite to the officer. The officer was the same to him. I felt sympathy for both. And I also felt sympathy for the child, who I had seen looking weepy and defeated when he told the officer about it in the parking lot when we arrived. Not sure whose side I was on, to be honest. Teenaged boys can be horrid. Disciplining teenagers can get out of hand. Disciplining other people’s kids is even harder. You can go “too far”, but what is too far? Marks on the neck did seem like a justification for arrest. Truthfully, though, I felt like telling the guy arrested “Get out….you’re only 28. You’re not ready to be dealing with this drama.” But that drama is the everyday life of many relationships and the subject of many of the calls the police answer.
The looters and arsonists and those perpetuating violence in Ferguson were caught up in the drama of life, too. For those who have no understanding, and wonder why innocent business owners were seemingly targeted, I will say that rage is blind. And anger is fear disguised. And testosterone and hormones can get the best of us when our emotions are thrown into the mix. And people live different lives. And when you think the world is against you, sometimes you react against the world. You don’t notice, or at the moment care, who you are striking out towards. Not to say there should not be consequences to those who commit crimes, because I do believe in that, but there are usually reasons for what people do. They said on the news that most out on the street were young. Everything seems more vivid and critical when you’re young and it is easy to get caught up in the feelings of the moment. A young man was killed. He had allegedly committed a crime. It appears there could have been a struggle between him and the officer. “You shouldn’t have done it!” Easy to say to both of them in retrospect and when you were not in their shoes. I am sure both would have done things differently if life gave us the opportunity for instant replays. That is the tragedy.
When it gets down to it, police officers are human. The “criminals” and “victims” they deal with are also human. Our communities, they are made up of people who are human. Humans do unbelievably heroic things. We also do unbelievably stupid things.  We think we would do something a certain way, but when in midst of a tense situation we react differently than we ever would have believed. Still, we need to try to be prepared to deal with these things as best we can. What do we learn from Ferguson? There are layers, and all of us need to examine ourselves and our fears and our systems and learn from them all. What if your son was the one shot? What if the officer that shot him was your best friend? What if your 19-year old was in a rage after hearing this verdict about the one who killed their friend, and you couldn’t stop them from leaving your home and heading to the streets? What if you were a business owner whose property was destroyed, over a cause that you were never publicly involved in? What if you were a policeman in the area, knowing what could happen in your town once that verdict was announced and your job required you be in the middle of whatever happened….wearing your uniform, part of the system being judged.

Tragedies happen, but we can’t just close our eyes and think they don’t impact us. Ferguson affects us all. We’re not where we need to be yet. Law enforcement personnel are not respected. Racism still exists. People on all sides of the spectrum are battered and bruised and scarred and often have lost the art of good communication. We are frustrated and we stuff it…until we can’t any more. We explode and implode. We get to the place where there only seem to be victims….or where everyone seems to be guilty. Or we feel we grasp it all and understand exactly how it should be. But you probably don’t.

Like I said before, justice is complicated. With human beings so prominent in the equation, we can’t have a perfect system. Where do we draw lines? When do we err on the side of justice and when do we err on the side of mercy? One thing I believe….we need to care about the system all the time, not just when the system is under media glare. We should keep it on our radar, not only being its watchdogs, but as those who require the system do its job, keep us safe and respect our property. We should report crime, testify when we see it, press charges when they are needed, serve on jury duty when called. We have responsibility as citizens to know what’s going on with our law enforcement system, our justice system,  and in our community. The police can’t do it without us. Together we are a powerful force to be reckoned with. We can make this world safer. That’s what I learned in police school.

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