In a democracy, the public’s responsibility is to challenge the police when they see misconduct (Part 2)
[David Gomez is a retired FBI agent and current Homeland Security Consultant. This is part 2 of a 2 part post. You can read part 1 at this link.]
As a young police officer I was taught that the most important thing in police work was to go home to your family every night. That meant learning to use the training, tactics, and command presence that we all learned in the academy to remain safe. It didn’t mean shooting every person we came across that posed a threat. Rather we were required to memorize the 10 Management Principles of the LAPD.
Based on the Nine Principles of Policing developed by Sir Robert Peel in the 1800s, the one I remember most vividly to this day is the one that says:
“Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
Meaning that all police are all inherently part of the community they serve, even though they may live dozens of miles away. New York Police Commissioner and former LAPD Chief-of-Police William Bratton in this New York Times article recounted those management principles, first espoused by Sir Robert Peel in the early 1800s.
Those were the guidelines I followed early in my career until a certain level of cynicism overtook me. That police cynicism was hard to overcome, and didn’t leave until I had spent a significant amount of time in the FBI. Interestingly, the cynicism returned for a time after 9/11, when I saw all terrorists as personifications of evil, rather than merely as criminals to be investigated. The situation in Ferguson, MO., has once again brought that cynicism back to the forefront. But this time it is local police that are the object of my focus.
The images and conduct of police reported out of Ferguson are disheartening at best. First, there was an absence of any semblance of police strategy in dealing with both lawful and violent protestors. The police treated both equally badly, showing up in camouflaged combat gear and automatic weapons more suitable for jungle warfare than an urban environment, and arresting citizens, reporters, politicians, and criminals equally without regards to motive or intent. Tear gas was used indiscriminately to disperse crowds that were not attacking police, but merely protesting the death of one of their own at the hands of police. The right to peacefully assemble took a vacation from Ferguson for a few days last week.
Second, the manner in which the police chief, the mayor, and even the governor fumbled the narrative regarding what was happening in Ferguson was appalling. There were dueling press conferences, leaks of information, conflicting reports, and a total lack of comprehension about the role of the media during a homeland security crisis. As of this writing over two million tweets have been posted about the events in Ferguson, the majority of them negative recitations of police misconduct. Whether about perceived or actual misconduct, these tweets drove the narrative of police conduct in Ferguson. In the 21st century, a comprehensive media strategy is an essential requirement of every homeland security professional’s compendium of tools.
Finally, the actions of a few rogue officers negatively influenced the perceptions of millions of viewers on television. Followers of social media who read and watched St. Louis area police officers posting racist comments on Facebook, or pointing loaded automatic weapons at lawful protesters and threatening to “f*cking kill” them if they didn’t move back was a public relations and policy nightmare.
In discussions about the police response in Ferguson, retired NYPD Lieutenant John Comiskey pointedly reminded me, “Police work is more like a humanitarian or peace keeping mission than a combat mission. It’s not about simply arresting people.” Or as another former police officer, Andrew Priest, put it, “Police work is 97% being a priest, 3% being a warrior.” Police work has also been described as ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent sheer terror.
In the city of Ferguson, however, for a time we saw no priests, no peacekeeping, and no humanitarians, only warriors. Sheer terror among the police officers seemed to have replaced common sense and effective police work.
Working as a rookie cop in Los Angeles, I may have felt closer to the South Central community where I worked than other cops, because I grew up just outside the city line. My sister—a nun—taught school in Watts, and my mother was a cafeteria worker at a public school there as well. I participated in the Basic Car Plan, which was that era’s community-based policing. For all the criminals I dealt with daily, I learned that there were plenty of families just like mine—only African American—living in Watts. Good people, fair, hard working, law–abiding people. People who supported the police, but were always wary of the rogue cop element that exists in every police department. While the LAPD developed in me an “us against them” survival instinct, the people I met in South Central helped me overcome the negative aspects of that instinct.
Ferguson, Missouri is not Mayberry, North Carolina. Neither is it South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s or even today. It is a town obviously polarized by race, politics and poverty. As events unfold over the shooting death of Michael Brown, Ferguson became a lightning rod and protest platform for political and social activists including anarchists, communists, the Ku Klux Klan and others. In a direct affront to Constitutional values, even members of the mainstream media have been harassed and arrested by police under the guise of maintaining civil order.
We can never return to Sheriff Andy Taylor and the Mayberry of television. But we—as law enforcement and homeland security professionals—can aspire to be Andy-like in our approach to lawful citizens protesting the questionable death of a young black man in their own town. That type of emotional-led police training and experience is what differentiates good, community-based policing from oppressive, us against them policing that has permeated the airwaves of late. Empathetic policing and emotional intelligence seem to be what are missing from the police department of Ferguson, Missouri and surrounding communities.
Sunnil Dutta is wrong. In a democracy, it is the public’s responsibility to challenge the police in the face of what they perceive as police misconduct. The police’s responsibility in turn is not to respond in kind. After all, an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind, even as it restores peace. I hope that is a lesson professor Dutta will now convey to his homeland security student’s at Colorado Technical University.