Turning their backs on reality

January 9, 2015

More than a TV show, it’s an educational opportunity.

This should go without saying, but it doesn’t. I feel that I must preface this by saying that some of my favorite friends are cops. I support law enforcement (but not the way Faux News defines that).  I respect law enforcement for doing what the rest of us aren’t brave enough to do.  And I understand that cops are only human.

And fair warning: this is a long post and I’d love for you to read it all and also to give your own honest thoughts in the Comments.  BUT If you’re not up for reading the whole thing, I suggest you scroll down to the image of the woman holding the sign that begins “Skin Color….” and read the rest of it.

I’ll bet we’ve seen more episodes of various cop reality shows at my house than just about anyone in America.Vegas Strip, Jail, Cops, Cops Reloaded, –we’ve seen them all.  Repeatedly. Because they’re always in rerun. We’ve seen so many that, now that we’re older, we find ourselves asking each other, Have we seen this one before?

Why do we watch?  For one, they show us a world we have no access to.  Having worked in business, academia or for M, securities law, means that we have had very little exposure to different socio-economic classes.  And the episodes give us a little of that and teach us a whole lot.

First, they teach us about the desperation some people feel. The hopelessness. The fatalism. You know what? M. and I talk about the social issues raised on this show ALL THE TIME. Our compassion has only gotten greater with exposure through these shows.

They show firsthand why driving under the influence is a bad thing.

And so is lying to police.

We see clearly the dangers police face in even a routine traffic stop. Vividly.

Police officers are some of the most courageous people in our society.

Police officers are some of the most courageous people in our society.

They show us that police must contend with some of the craziest,most laughable excuses we could imagine for having weed on them. Or any drug.  “I just bought these pants at Goodwill, someone must have left the cocaine in the pocket.”  “Someone put the weed in my backpack before I dropped them off.”  Laughable silly excuses.

They teach us that mental illness is a serious social problem.  That addiction is as awful as we think it is. Maybe more awful.

And not to resist arrest.

Not to resist arrest–now that’s a big one. Because along with that, these shows teach us that an officer has a whole lot of influence over whether an interaction goes south or not.

She or he doesn’t own the interaction, of course, but it’s very clear that in many cases–not all, but many–how they react and act seriously influences what goes down.

Which is why I love Mayor DiBlasio of NYC and the actions being taken to retrain the NYPD from scratch. More on that in a minute.

Look, we know they’re reality TV cops, meaning they know they’re on film and they do what they can to come off well. Which is to say that a perp can drive without a license, take cops on a mighty chase through a city followed by a gasp-inducing long run through neighborhoods, and after the suspect is apprehended, instead of slamming the guy’s head into the ground,  the cop calmly asks, “So why did you run?”

That would not be my first comment after that kind of chase. I’d slam his head into the ground. I’m sure some of these cops want to do just that. But they are on TV and so those who want to do that don’t. After all, PDs don’t want anything that’ll reflect badly.   30 years in PR–I get it.

We suspect that interactions by officers who take time to understand are less fear-driven, therefore less violent.

The “correctional” cops we see on the program Jail are often good-humored and many seem to really care about what happens to their repeat offenders, especially those who are homeless and addicted. They are adept at handling difficult people with charm –until that no longer works and they have to get more serious.

But once in a while a regular cop gets through. One that pushes the perp up against a wall. That slams his head into the ground.  And when they do, the comparison is jarring.

Ferguson, Florida, NYC–it’s all about the facts, the facts–but let’s get real–we have no idea what the facts really are in most of these cases. We saw an episode of Jail recently that illustrates how hard it is to get the facts across.  Jail cops were taking someone out of a holding cell. Everyone was black, including the officers. The guy they were removing pulled away from the cops, which is considered an ‘aggressive action’ and the cops responded with force.

A few minutes later, the suspect admitted he had pulled away. But back in the holding cell “inmates” were grousing noisily that the force was unnecessary.  “He didn’t do anything!” argued the other guys in the cell. The lead cop explained that even the suspect admitted he had pulled away, but it was hard to convince the group it was so.  Remember, everyone was African-American, even the officer.

When there is no trust, there’s no benefit of the doubt. That lack of trust heavily influenced what the guys in the holding cell saw and didn’t see.  They did not “see” the guy pull away from the cop. They just figured that the cop made it up.  There’s a reason for that belief, too.

I don’t know what the grand jury heard in the Ferguson case, because we will never see the transcript. I don’t know how they would have felt about coming out with an indictment against a law enforcement officer, even if deserved. Or if borderline.  I know what I thought I saw on the Garner tape, which was one of the toughest things I’ve ever watched.

icantbreathemarch82514I hear what other cops in the group that took Garner down are saying, that the guy was being aggressive and resisting arrest. I didn’t see that. It’s possible.

They also said that the fact that he could say “I can’t breathe” meant he could.  Technically, they’re right. At that moment he had enough breath to speak. But those were his last words, because his breath was then cut off completely.  So that defense seems a stretch.

The officers involved said, too, that they feel alone and unsupported.  Click HERE to check out this from a law enforcement website.  This troubles me, because, while officers want the public to have an understanding of the challenges they face, they clearly do not have any understanding of how what went down came across to the rest of us. Or what it feels like to be profiled because you are black.  Click HERE to read this piece I saw on Linked In by the black CEO of Kaiser Permanente. Don’t miss this one.

Which brings me to that ridiculous show of NYPD officers turning their backs on Mayor DiBlasio–even at officer funerals. Few black officers turned their backs, by the way.  But the officers who did were having a knee-jerk response to The Mayor admitting the reality of being black in NYC. That reality was reflected in a white father’s comment that he felt the need to counsel his bi-racial son on how to behave if stopped by an officer.  How that could be interpreted by some officers as lack of support for the NYPD is beyond me.   But that’s how the union positioned it and is the position of officers I can only believe have not thought this through. Or who don’t want to think it through. Here’s reality:

Reuters interviewed 25 African American male officers on the NYPD, 15 of whom are retired and 10 of whom are still serving. All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.

The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them.

Desmond Blaize, who retired two years ago as a sergeant in the 41st Precinct in the Bronx, said he once got stopped while taking a jog through Brooklyn’s upmarket Prospect Park. “I had my ID on me so it didn’t escalate,” said Blaize, who has sued the department alleging he was racially harassed on the job. “But what’s suspicious about a jogger? In jogging clothes?”

The NYPD and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the police officers’ union, declined requests for comment. However, defenders of the NYPD credit its policing methods with transforming New York from the former murder capital of the world into the safest big city in the United States.

Notice that the union declined comment. Uh-huh. This story didn’t fit their world view. But you know what? THIS is reality. Turn your back all you want, but it won’t change a thing.

Are officers now turning their backs on black officers who might say aloud that they’ve been profiled and then been slammed against a car? Or do they only have the “courage of their convictions” when it comes to the Mayor?

racial-profilingOfficers who turn their backs are also turning a blind eye to the facts–and that stands in the way of any positive change. So no, I don’t respect NYPD officers who do that. I think they’re silly and worse than that, harmful to law enforcement, which I believe overall wants to do the right thing.

Click HERE to read an interview with an NYPD cop, anonymous, who blames NYPD’s inordinate number of profiling stops on the training provided under former Police Commissioner Kelly. He says it’s institutionalized.

The many issues in all these cases underscore the complexity of our societal problems. But they all point to the same thing: the need to build bridges, not tear them down. These back-turning officers? They’re tearing them down.

THIS is the atmosphere in which NYPD officers are going to be retrained.  How well do you think that’s going to go for some of these resistant-to-reality guys?

But retraining is the right thing to do.

And if you don’t agree, spend some time–a whole lot of time–with the cop and jail reality shows, which give civilians a tiny taste of what seems to work. Because that’s the closest any of us are going to come to understanding what goes on in the street.

understanding-blame-accountability-amyjalapenoBut don’t take my word for it. Or a TV show’s. The last word belongs to a good friend of mine who retired from a long career in law enforcement–both on the street and in management. Here’s what he says:

 I managed the investigations of (more than a dozen) officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths and probably have as good a handle on the legalities and issues surrounding those events as anyone. I’ve been talking with some cops of late and tell them to cool their heals. Clearly the American public, and much of the media, don’t have a clue about criminal or civil law.

That said, there is definitely a divide between law enforcement and persons of color. It needs to be bridged. There are ways to try to do that without compromising police standards and the law. It’s going to take a big concerted and sustained outreach by cops throughout the nation. Many won’t want to do it and that’s all the reason for strong, ethics-based police leadership to do just that….. Lead.

I’m sure my opinions would be met by resistance by many cops who can’t see the proverbial trees through the forest. Change is coming. It just depends if the cops want to be part of the change. Get out in front of that which you are already behind, I say.


37 comments on “Turning their backs on reality
  1. Toni McCloe says:

    “But what’s suspicious about a jogger? In jogging clothes?” Absolutely nothing. Unless, of course, he’s black. If we want to change this country, we have to start with economic injustice. These problems will not disappear until everyone has the opportunity to work at a job that will support them and their families. Not everyone can be a CEO, or even a cop, but everyone deserves a job and an honest wage.

  2. Thank you Carol for an excellent, balanced, comprehensive piece. Where do I begin? I lived with a police officer (beat cop) for several years. Although I know that most officers’ days are incident free, I know what it’s like to breathe a sigh of relief hearing the key turn in the door, and how unnerving it was when he was late. I also saw first hand the privilege afforded him and other cops to move and act, without the usual consequences, because he had a shield. With that privilege comes great responsibility. Police are PAID to serve and protect. Everyone. That’s the NYPD motto. When they operate as a unit even when wrong, i.e. turning back on the Mayor, that’s problematic.  What’s next? That the top brass supports such foolishness is even worse. There are so many layers to this, I could write all day. A friend, a retired NYPD inspector, who is black, said the training is good. The key problem is inconsistent enforcement and unwillingness to break the code even when wrong is done. All of those officers at Garners’ death are guilty, including the black female supervisor who was on scene. No one said, “stop”. It’s unfortunate, it’s not the last incident, but hopefully our awareness and activism (of all kinds), will shift things.

    • That unwillingness to look honestly at the way it is will hogtie any efforts toward progress, I fear. It just seems so obvious to me–but so many just want to ignore it. It’s so wrong. Just wrong.

  3. pia says:

    I have been proud of the NYPD for many decades. “Had been” is a better phrase.
    But then in 2005 I was on Grand Jury where for reasons I won’t go into we got the bottom feeder cases.

    People would be indicted for such crimes as standing outside a methadone clinic where they just got their methadone and selling $25 worth of methadone to a cop in a sting. Ha? I sort of understand that methadone is used in making crack–I didn’t then and even with that knowledge I couldn’t vote to indict.

    The cops would laugh about how stupid the people were. Most of the Grand Jury–including a lawyer who headed an org that exposes police brutality would laugh along. I hadn’t heard about what Kelly was doing but I sure saw it.

    There were so many cases like that one. It was one of the many things that made me realize NY wasn’t as perfect as I loved to think. I wasn’t allowed to talk about specifics but I would talk about in general in my blog.

    Would a cop decide you were “suspicious” and begin tailing you? There were more than a few pot arrests because a cop didn’t like “the way the car looked.” They meant the people of course. And probably would have busted as many whites if they decided to follow their cars.

    I was in Atlanta after the Ferguson decision was announced. The friend I was staying with has many Black family members who are close friends of mine. They’re educated, more affluent than most, law abiding. Damn straight they give the talk to their sons.

    DeBlasio was being honest. Every parent of a dark skinned son has to give the talk.
    I don’t get this hate and lack of respect because he was honest.

    I tried talking about it on my Facebook page. I said something about how you can criticize cops and still like them and respect the office. When I said that I was called a cop hater; when I put in a Jon Stewart meme it was OK.

    I don’t get what’s happening in NY. It serves nobody any good but teaches young white police they are above the law.

  4. This is such an issue that needs so many different things. I don’t have the answers I watch those same shows and I have seen many things in my lifetime that I think have been “unfair” and just as many that was the right thing to do then when seeing in hindsight was deemed “unfair” I agree with your first commenter people are angry. When you go to work and you work your butt off and can’t afford to buy groceries there is a anger that gets bigger and bigger. We watch our Congress act like idiots but nothing ever seems to change. It is depressing. One time my husband and I were driving down the road with our children. Nothing exciting going on we had come from a picnic. When we came to a side road that was suppose to stop an officer with his radio blaring rock music never even looked our way and pulled directly in front of us. We went into a ditch to keep from hitting him. He never stopped. I was very angry, he wasn’t on a call no lights, no sirens, nothing. I called this particular county and complained about what had happened. I gave them my name, my address I was taught to not be afraid of the police my father was a fireman after all, with many police officers as friends. The nightmare started about a month after that phone call. We would be pulled over almost every time we left our house. If this officer, in this small town, was on duty he made our lives miserable. I remember one particular morning my son was going on a vacation with his father for a week and he needed new shoes. I got up put him in the car drove to the store to get his shoes. On the way home this same officer pulled me over and this is no exaggeration. He tore my car apart “looking for drugs” while my son and stood crying on the side of the rode. This went on for many, many months. It was a horrifying time that was not called for, but it caused me to have a fear that shouldn’t have been there. It terrified my son who at the time was only 4 years old. All because I had dared to file a complaint against him. Things have to change I just don’t know where to start.

    • I am shocked and horrified to hear your story, all the more surprising because I know a bit about you. Payback, pure and simple. That adds another layer of complexity to the race issue, doesn’t it?And makes it seem even more systemic. I am saddened by your story.

  5. Laura Kennedy says:

    I agree with most of what you say completely, and I’m totally behind deBlasio. But re: the Ferguson grand jury…we know more from that grand jury than we usually ever hear. We know some of what they were told & what they weren’t told & how the prosecution misrepresented the case. One of the jurors is even suing the prosecutor!

  6. Kimba says:

    “But once in a while a regular cop gets through. One that pushes the perp up against a wall. That slams his head into the ground. And when they do, the comparison is jarring.”

    Carol, I don’t think your description above is a ‘regular cop.’ Yes, law enforcement needs to be trained, re-trained, and trained again throughout their careers regarding the use of non-violent, non-deadly force. However, The majority of the men and women who become law enforcement officers do so out of a true calling to serve and protect. I’m not turning my back on the issue of police abuse of power, I work as a criminal justice policy consultant. We should ALWAYS be working to improve police/community relations. But I don’t think the issues are as cut and dry as often portrayed in the media.

    • By “regular” I meant a cop that was not a “TV cop.” I completely get what the majority of officers are like and respect that. I also agree that the media exaggerate. I also know what my black male friends tell me about their own experience, what my police officer friends tell me.

  7. Boy Carol you sure did a lot of work on this one. Lots of food for thought.

  8. I have so much to say on this subject, I should write a post too. I live in the ‘hood.’ I see so much more than I want to see and within the past year I started to feel really afraid. We have always been good neighbors but suddenly we are the enemy.
    I have witnessed many stops, in real life and the truth is when you are respectful to the officer (black or white) the stop goes well. When you are not respectful it does not go so well.
    As far as the mayor counseling his mixed son on how to act, I taught my kids (who are white) to never, ever show a cop anything but respect even if they are disrespecting you. There was a lot more that I said to them but you get the idea. My mixed grandsons are being taught the same thing. It sucks that black teens/men are profiled and sadly there are numbers to support that they should be. All kids need to be taught that just because you are angry that they stopped you does not ever give you the right to be aggressive towards an officer, ever.
    That said I believe there are cops that use excessive force when they don’t need to and also cops that should use excessive force and don’t both with deadly results. If I was a cop (my daughter was a cop) I would want to always be on the living end of those results.
    As far as the officers turning their backs, the funerals were not the right place and time for them to do that.

  9. There’s no question that change needs to come. My hope is that there are no more of these heartbreaking stories needed to precipitate real change. I want my kids to inherit a better world. Yes, it’s cliche, but it’s true.

  10. I think the good news is that none of us want to be racists. But, alas, that’s also the problem. It’s why perfectly well-intentioned people can still believe that race wasn’t behind what happened to Messrs. Garner and Brown. Because if we do, then we are rascists and we don’t want to be racists. But somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to face that these things happen, that while most cops are good cops, they are still influenced by negative attitudes toward people of color in our media and among themselves. Unfortunately, since poverty affects a much larger proportion of Black people in our country, they are more heavily represented among the criminal element. Same with Hispanics.

    It is a complex problem. We in the larger culture have a duty to be open to the realities faced by our brothers and sisters of color. But even more, I think we need to look at the gifts of the African American and Hispanic cultures beyond the music, etc. There is grace in African American spirituality that we White folk could really learn from. There is a spirit of forgiveness, but beyond that a spirit of facing that which is ugly and hopeless, but finding joy and blessing either beyond or within it. If we in the larger culture can learn to see value in that which is different from us and learn to embrace those differences, then maybe we’ll get past the sin of racism. But we also have to confess that sin and maybe consider an appropriate penance. Terribly Roman Catholic, I know, but that’s the gift of my culture.

  11. As a former Sociology professor who taught classes on white privilege and the treatment of blacks in our society, I will say that the sight of a black male causes not only police to tense up. Young black males have been open season since the first young black male stepped on the continent. I won’t say that the officer in Ferguson killed Michael Brown because he felt threatened…but I will say he felt threatened by a big black male. If Michael Brown had been white, he’d be alive right now. Racism isn’t just overt, it is institutionalized and socialized within us.

  12. Yes, change is coming… but how many people have to die before it gets here?

    I’ve never lived in NYC, but I’ve lived in big cities for most of my adult life. Where I live, we’ve also had a number of black eyes on the local PD. There’s so much deep-set, ingrained hatred and fear felt by those on both sides of the blue line. How do we overcome? (Yes, forgiveness… in the finest and most unselfish sense of the word… but could I forgive a cop who killed my son, whether it was warranted or not?)

  13. Laurel Regan says:

    Much food for thought. It’s a complicated issue, and I sure wish I had some answers or solutions to the obvious problems. Thanks for taking the time to write this post.

  14. Carol,

    This was about the best post I have ever seen on that fine line that the police walk between humane enforcement of the law and fear of loss of control. Bigotry is a hard thing to overcome. In my experience as an educator, fear that an enforcer has that he/she is not in control makes for a bully attitude. When you add a skewed image by everyone involvedk of who people are…the suspect AND the person enforcing the law… it becomes even worse.

    Retraining is so important in a lot of ways. Not only do a lot of human interaction issues need to be reviewed but also the ways to make simple discipline workable on the streets. It has to be very tricky! And dangerous.

    Thank you again.

    Mother of an Oregon State Police-woman
    Mother-in-Law of a retired Deputy Sheriff

    • Thank you for being someone close to law enforcement who understands how I feel. It does seem sometimes that we don’t see what’s on a screen the way it is intended as much as we see it the way WE are. But I feel you understand what I was trying to say. thanks so much. Blessings to your daughter and may she stay safe.

  15. There’s so much to think about here and so much that has to change. I feel like the world has gone mad, and I’m not sure what the answer is. I don’t know why there’s so much hatred and violence or why anyone cares about a person’s skin color, religion or sexual preference. I do know we have to keep talking about these issues and I appreciate you writing this and keeping the conversation alive.

  16. Alana says:

    I am white, and I grew up in a NYC housing project. By the time I was in my late teens most of the whites had fled; only the ones who couldn’t afford to move (like my Dad, a single Dad) were left. Let’s just say the police protection of my housing project, which had become quite the dangerous place to live, went way downhill once whites were in the minority. I did not consider the police as my friend. But, at the same time, our neighborhood was taken over by street gangs, and the police did try to fight and control the gangs. Later on, after I grew up and left (my Dad was able to leave, too), I worked with someone whose son was a Texas Ranger. I’ve seen police/civilian relations from several angles – not all the angles, granted. It’s a complex situation. I do think that the police turning their back on DiBlasio was disgraceful. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  17. I remember a meeting my husband went to a very long time ago with his boss and a Metro Police captain. He had no idea he was going to be ambushed by the officer, but ambushed he was. Drugs on Fremont street were rampant and he ran a hotel and casino right in the middle of that. The police were weary of the calls and having to come down there so they began blaming my husband for the crime and drugs. They started with demanding he move a drinking fountain from the front of his casino, they said it was attracting the drug dealers. He said his customers were hot and needed it, he refused to move it. Never mind he built a stable for Metros horses…or that he always fed the police, they were convinced that Raymond was “Mr. Big”. In this laughable meeting they insisted my husband “was dirty and going down”. They were messing with his livelihood, this meeting was with the owner of the casino, in fact he owned 5 casinos, Raymond just ran the one. The meeting went on for awhile and after it was over you can imagine how rattled he was. He contacted a friend who was the deputy district attorney, you know what he said? “there is nothing I can do, let them investigate you, find out you are really a boring father of four and they will stop.” So I am not sold that it is a black/white thing….in my opinion it is “do the job at all costs, no matter who gets hurt, no matter what I say or do to get it done” They really never stopped harassing him, eventually giving him a misdemeanor ticket for drug trafficking. When I wrote to the captain complaining about the treatment (he had to be arraigned) I was investigated. Most of the crime is committed by black people in black neighborhoods…so that is why they treat every black person like a criminal. Most black people who are murdered, are murdered by black people. Raymond helped every down in the luck person he encountered. Drug dealers are the meanest people ever. He watched one shoot another man point blank, while he was on the ground! So my husband isn’t warm and fuzzy about the PD, at least at that time…but criminals are lethal…and remember the biggest problem in Viet Nam? They could never tell who was going to kill them and who was on their side. I can’t give you an opinion that would matter because I didn’t see the evidence the grand jury did….but no one has and it doesn’t stop anyone from weighing in. What sticks in my mind is that stupid cigarette tax in NYC, the mayor has been very vocal in making sure all cigarettes are properly taxed…he was selling untaxed cigarettes…you know how it is when your boss gets nuts about one thing, I can see that as a reason they went after him so aggressively. And I did read the police were very unhappy that the two policemen who were beaten up on video by blacks was referred to by the mayor as “allegedly attacked” They don’t like him…for whatever reason, they have not liked him at all. And he is a terrible communicator, but it will work out. The mayor will make some changes, the police will make some changes and both sides will claim victory. Sorry for the length..

  18. Ina says:

    Hi Carol,
    I generally shy away from commenting on these issues. But your post is very well balanced. Personally, I feel that we have to take one thing into consideration – crops are humans too. At that point of time what they have actually faced or whether they felt threatened in life – we would never know. Yes training and retraining and retraining is a must. The problem in such a situation is that even though the TV serials and media might romanticize either parties – end of the day- it is that one moment of fear that triggers a decision. Who is more scared at that point? If it is the cop- is he capable of overcoming his fear. I suppose to answer this we have to be in his shoes.

  19. Joy says:

    This is a very well thought-out essay, Carol. I loved that quote you shared saying that where there’s no trust, there’s no benefit of the doubt. But as you clearly pointed out, it’s unfortunate that in this world we live in, skin color / outward appearances seem enough to cause distrust. I really can’t help but keep thinking of the movie “Crash” (2004 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0375679/)…so powerful. And I can’t help but be saddened by the plain reality that our society has been overtaken by too much fear that causes so much divide. I wish there were more solutions and answers than questions, but sadly, I don’t think that is the case for me at this moment. However, questions are good, especially if they lead to more dialogue. Hope springs eternal. Thank you for your voice.

  20. While I read this, my son was wearing a bullet-proof vest and working as a police officer. Last week, he rescued a battered baby from an abusive parent, he counseled a stoned teenager to step out of the driver’s seat, he cleaned up vomit from the back of his patrol car, he taught a course on negotiation, and he assisted with a gruesome crime scene. He also rocked his baby to sleep. No other profession receives such blanket criticism.

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