21 December 2014

of Darren Wilson, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos, Wenjian Liu, and a 4-year-old in Greene County, Virginia

On my first night as a uniformed cop in The Bronx's 47th Precinct I worked as "Four-Seven-Adam" in a "Radio Car" with long-time veteran Jerry Murphy, a guy who'd survived Vietnam and the 41st Precinct at the height of its "Fort Apache" Apocalypse.

Jerry told me a lot of things that night - the classic old cop passing wisdom to the young - and much of what he told me stays with me still.

"Don't pick fights," he said, "most of the people in this place, in any place, are just trying to get by, they need us to be their friends." The Four-Seven was a dark crazy place in the 1980s, a drug supermarket for rich kids from Westchester and Connecticut, a place whose population included a majority that were illegal immigrants. A place whose police needs overwhelmed the number of officers available, but that was still true.

"Don't try to push anybody else's idea of what a neighborhood should be," he told me. "Fuck Ed Koch, these people can't live in pretty little Greenwich Village [Mayor Koch's home] and they probably don't want to. This is their home, not a place The Mayor needs to be comfortable."

47th Precinct Station House, 1980s
"If you ever work with someone who is afraid of these folks because they don't look like he does, get out of the car and tell the boss you're sick."

And finally, "Never give a ticket to anyone who's got their kids in the car. You've totally embarrassed them by stopping them, if you give them a ticket they'll drive away cursing you and you've made two generations of enemies. If you're nice and tell them you're just worried about their kids they'll drive away saying nice things about you, and you've made two generations of friends - and kid, we need friends."

Jerry Murphy, working with a bullet fragment jammed against a nerve in his leg from an interrupted robbery 12 years before, was a wise man. I thought about him for the rest of my police career. I still think about him. I've thought a lot about him this season of nightmare in police-community relations.

Heartbreaking in every way.
As Jerry often told all of us, "remember kids, you work for these people, not for City Hall," and, "Kids, you want to make damn sure someone looking out their window will call 911 when you need help."

I mourn many this season. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos, Wenjian Liu, and too many others. I mourn the Las Vegas cops shot by right-wing wackos, and African-American kids too numerous to even begin to list. I am one of - I might suggest - the few who never visit Washington, DC without stopping by, and being brought to tears by, the Law Enforcement Memorial. I fully understand the risks taken by police officers every day - by men and women who are never thanked daily "for their service," by men and women who don't get priority boarding at airports when they are active or free doughnuts and dinners when retired, by men and women whose families worry about them every minute. And yet I also fully understand that whether you are grocery cashier or Barack Obama or Bill DeBlasio, if you have African-American sons or nephews, or grandchildren, you will worry about them any time they might be approached by police officers.

National Law Enforcement Memorial. The lions.
 Both things are horrifically true.

At Grand Valley State University I used to discuss police ethics with future officers, and I would ask the students, "If you were a black male, why wouldn't you run from a cop even if totally innocent?" It was a serious question a dozen years ago... and it remains a serious question.

Michael Brown died because Darren Wilson was too afraid of black males to be a police officer. "A demon"? You must be kidding. Former Officer Wilson,  I fought for my life a number of times but never imagined that I was fighting anyone but a human, and never hoping for anything more than that we'd all come out OK. It is hard to do sometimes, but if you can't do it, you cannot be a cop.

Eric Garner died because of two things - first, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly was a disaster who thought enforcing economic rules was more important than human life - and second, because a cop ignored both his training and his humanity. Yikes, in the Police Academy a lifetime ago we were taught about chokeholds - I can still recall the scene - that "we have rules in New York, we're not Philadelphia or Los Angeles - so just don't do it."

Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu died because media inflames everything, and when media inflames everything it especially inflames the insane, and because everyone in America, anyone in America, can go get a gun anytime they want.

May 2, 1992
Cops die because people are assholes, and people are sometimes dangerous criminals, and people are sometimes dangerously mentally ill in a nation where treatment is expensive and beyond reach, and because people do not appreciate cops - I can't think of another way to say it. And black kids die at the hands of cops because, yes, many cops are racists, and yes, many cops are too afraid to have this job, and sorry, yes, our community leaders want black males to be afraid of cops - something I wrote about in The New York Times back in the Rodney King days.

Nightmare of the 1980s - revisited - and it hit me very hard yesterday

But there is something else. There is a fundamental disrespect on one level, and a fundamental lack of understanding - all too often - on another.

And maybe there is a place to begin, despite everything...

We need to stop the fear. And we need to insist that our leaders, all of our leaders, stop encouraging the fear.

One of the reasons my partner and I rarely ate lunch out in a restaurant while in uniform was that, at some point, some mother with a misbehaving child would say to the kid, "if you don't sit down I'll have those cops arrest you." Really!? We'd often get up and walk over and explain, clearly, that "no we won't."

Why would anyone want to make their children that afraid of police?

Police: Stop letting Politicos portray you as scary
On the other hand, police need to stop making themselves scary. This begins with the "rules" Jerry Murphy shared so long ago, and it goes all the way to hoping that New York City's cops will quickly fire their union president, Patrick Lynch, who last night, in a moment of irresponsibility qualifying him to lead North Korea, said, "That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor. When these funerals are over, those responsible will be called on the carpet and held accountable." He added that the blame also goes to "those who incited violence on the street under the guise of protest that tried to tear down what NYC police officers did every day."

When I was in the New York City Police Academy I took 12 university credit hours of constitutional law, so I know that Americans have a right to protest, but I'm guessing Lynch was absent during that part of his training. Oh well.

Dressing this way doesn't help you talk to the community
And cops need to stop letting elected officials making them look scary too. From stupid threatening billboards to using police to suppress political discontent. From being too quick to put on riot gear to being too happy to carry heavy weapons. Police need to demand better from their superiors. Not by being disrespectful to someone like Mayor DeBlasio who is trying to bring them together with their community, but by engaging in open conversation about who police need to truly work for.

Cops also need to stop alienating the middle class with traffic citations for stuff a warning would almost always suffice.

And police need better training, everywhere, to work better with everyone. Its not easy. Especially as police hirings continue to grow further and further away from the kind of people who live in policed neighborhoods. Back in my day we said that suburban kids who became inner city cops suffered from "Starsky and Hutch Syndrome." Today, pushes for requiring college before police work might actually make this worse, not better.

On the other side, people need to give cops a bit of credit, even a bit of love. This is a dangerous job, a tough job. A job which wrecks marriages. A job which leaves PTSD scars. It has awful hours and bad pay. Might one tenth of at least the language and tiny perks offered to active duty military and military veterans - even non-combat veterans - be offered to cops and retired cops? Maybe? Appreciation always needs a two way street.

Finally, well, my last police-community nightmare rolled out last week in the rural community of Greene County, Virginia. It illustrates everything that can go wrong - even in the hands of only "responsible adults."

Alrighty, then...
"...a [4-year-old] child at Nathanael Greene Primary School allegedly threw blocks, climbed over desks, hit, scratched, and kicked the principal and the director of special education. A sheriff’s deputy assigned to the schools was summoned, and his boss -- County Sheriff Steven Smith – says the student was handcuffed.
'"The boy was out of control, basically, throwing his arms around and kicking-- trying to kick the deputy, trying to run away, and the deputy felt that putting the handcuffs on him was for his safety as well as everybody else's.
"The child's mother, Tracy Wood, was notified, arriving at school soon after she got the call.
"When you call a parent to get their child, when they get to the school, you expect the child to be there-- especially when you arrive in a timely manner." Instead, she was met by the principal who said the boy had been transported to the sheriff’s office.  Wood went right over and found her son’s legs in shackles."
Well, here's a school and a police department conspiring to make just about everyone hate and fear police, in a sleepy little place where cops should be everyone's best friend... and doing it in a way which builds fears of cops everywhere.

I won't even get into the question of the shock at a four-year-old throwing a really bad tantrum. Wow, we're all surprised. Or the stunning inability of a school knowing what to do in this case. But my problem here is, (a) the school's willingness to expect the police to solve a 4-year-old's behavior issue, and (b) the willingness of the police to play along, damaging their reputation permanently and hurting every cop's relationship with their communities.

Having held completely out of control high school and middle school students while calming them, I know that this is, sadly, part of the job of an educator (or parent). It is what we have to do because we care for children. Having done it as a cop as well... I know things I would never have done... including anything involving handcuffs or shackles.  Again, we just have to better than this - everyone of us.

I guess it is our misfortune that we need police in our communities. That we aren't just all good and skilled neighbors all of the time. But if we need police, we need the police to be fully part of us, with us, and we need police who feel that they are part of us, and with us.

Long ago...
Can we work on that?

- Ira Socol