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by Peter Moskos

December 19, 2015

Courage, not fear

I still can't believe this guy got shot down by a cop playing whack-a-mole with his service weapon. The D.A. said:
The evidence in this case shows the shooting to be accidental, and possibly negligent, but not criminally so. "This shooting is not justified, but also not criminal."
I don't know if I buy the stutter-step no-double-tap explanation. But at least the legal concept is sound. Something can be wrong and not criminal.

In fact, the only charges are against the paralyzed victim with the dead wife. [Update: Charges were dropped. He died.] This seems kind of mean. And there are no national politicians weighing in. Just a small local protest. Al Sharpton must be previously engaged. (As is often the case, this unnecessary shooting happened in California.)

Officer Feaster claims he didn't know he shot Thomas:
No, no. ... I don’t think I shot him. I wasn’t even pointing at him but the gun did go off.
"Did go off"? What are you saying? It just blew?

Let's leave aside whether Feaster is the world's best shot or the world's worst cop. Perhaps it doesn't matter. The question I have, the question any reasonable police officer might have, is why the hell did he draw his gun in the place. What made this cop so afraid that he felt the need to approach a crashed presumed drunk driver with his gun drawn and shot the man trying to get out of the wreck? The guy was going to run? What use is your gun in that case? A car just flipped. What exactly was the threat?

In the same vein, a reasonable police officer wonders, as did Levar Jones complying with orders, why he got shot. Why did cops feel that innocent Jonathan Ayers was a lethal threat while driving away? Why is a man not carrying a gun a lethal threat when he drops his hand?

Why did all these police officers see non-existent threats? Why were they so damn afraid? (I'm tempted to add "...these days," but maybe it's always been this way. I don't know.)

In the face of danger you need to act but not overreact. You need courage, not fear. There's a line I always liked in Birds Without Wings:
His courage was not the foolish kind of a young and silly man. It was the courage of a man who looks danger in the face, and forces himself not to flinch.
Hell, a little fear can be a good thing; you don't want to be blasé in the face of danger. It starts in the police academy. "Stay alert, stay alive!" It's a good lesson. Even "make a hole" isn't so bad when it's put in the context of situational awareness. But too much fear becomes paranoia. And that's not conducive to good policing (or a happy life).

Here are some of the videos cops watch in the police academy. Some I saw myself. Others are more recent. They're all on YouTube (which didn't even exist when I was a cop). I guarantee you that every last one one of these has been watched in some police academy somewhere. Every cop I know knows 1) Dinkheller.

And 2) here's that woman cop getting her ass kicked trying to arrest some big guy. His daughter is there. The cop kind of came back, but never recovered.

Go on. Watch them. Watch them all. It won't take but 10 or 15 minutes. I've cued them all up to the key moment. It's a parade of snuff films (though many of the cops do live, somehow). Can you watch all of these and not perceive threats and car stops a bit differently?

3) Here's a man who wouldn't stay in his car.

4) Here's a routine traffic stop.

5) Here's another routine traffic stop.

6) And other routine car stop.

7) This was a routine car stop but the guy drove away.

8) Here's a guy in cuffs and a girl. What could possible go wrong?

9) Three cops. One suspect. Everything under control?

10) This guy isn't wearing a shirt and doesn't seem hostile.

11) This guy is naked and unarmed. There are three cops, two of them with tasers. The guy is still a threat.

12) And sometimes this happens. Things can go from 0 to 100 really quickly.

13) This guy does a little jig. He must be just be an odd character.

14) And everything seems OK here. Except for that shot cop.

15) This is what happens when you don't put suspects on the ground.

16) We all know that when it comes to an armed man, it's easier to act than react.

17) And people who have done time can be especially dangerous.

18) Out-of-shape fathers with their 16-year-old sons? Could always be cop killers.

And to cops these aren't just abstract videos. There are people I know, friends, some taught in the academy, who were shot and lucky to live. Others, the pictures on the walls, weren't so lucky.

Certainly cops need some of this. Some people are willing, even eager, to kill police. You can't go on the job as a pacifist. But at some point fear isn't healthy. It isn't good for the job. It can even make the job less safe.

And I worked in a dangerous post. It made me less afraid. You face danger a few times, and you learn to respect it. Cops in the Eastern don't squeal every time somebody steps on a leaf. But you don't shoot at everything that moves.

But what if your work in some place without much danger? How do you stay awake, much less alert? (In my squad we could be alert and asleep!) And then, during some "routine" traffic stop or domestic -- blam -- something goes off script. Maybe you, the young cop who took the warrior mindset to heart, get a flashback to one of those videos in the academy where the cop got ambushed. And you think: "This is exactly how that cop got killed."

[Cue trippy flashback music and echo]
"This officer hesitated [tated] and it cost him his life [life, ife, f...]"

"Better to be judged by 12 [elve] than carried by six [six, ix, x...]."
So you misidentify a threat, overact, and pull the trigger. You've screwed up because you've gone through life in a constant state of "Condition Yellow" because you didn't want to slip into unaware "Condition White" in which:
You may very well die — unless you are lucky. I prefer to not depend on luck.
Some insist you cannot go through life using this system without becoming a hair-trigger paranoid person who is dangerous to ones self and others. I believe well-adjusted police officers can run through the color code dozens of times every day and be no worse for wear. Most experienced police officers who learn the color code realize they have been taking these steps on their own all along.
Maybe. For some. For me even. (This is why cops don't sit with their back toward the door.) But even if constant hypervigilance doesn't make you paranoid, it is very tiring. Exhausting, even. I don't miss it. And stress affects some people more than others. NYPD officers are much more likely to commit suicide with their service weapon than be killed by a criminal. Why?

I don't know the answer. I don't like the "warrior" or "guardian" dichotomy. I would certainly put the emphasis on the latter, but you need a bit of both. You can't let the warrior mindset take your soul.

Seth Stoughton writes in the Harvard Law Review:
Officers learn to be afraid. That isn’t the word used in law enforcement circles, of course. Vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, or observant are the terms that appear most often in police publications. But make no mistake, officers don’t learn to be vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, and observant just because it’s fun. They do so because they are afraid. Fear is ubiquitous in law enforcement.
And to those who say police need to abandon this warrior mindset for guardian mindset. Well, they've got an answer for that, too. And it's not crazy. What do you do when it's time to fight?

At some basic level policing does involve confronting and fighting criminals intent on hurting you or others. I always notice that when people talk about police reform or improving community relations, the word "criminal" will never come up. It's as if the entire job of policing is nothing more than dancing with kids and smiling at church-going ladies in fancy hats.

See, just as the public needs to have a more realistic perspective about the "epidemic" of police killing innocent people (happens, but not too much), police need to get a realistic grip about being shot on the job (happens, including to friends of mine, but still less than cops think). Nationwide police get shot and killed about 3 times every month. That's an annual homicide rate (cops getting killed per 100,000 officers) of under 5, which just happens to be almost identical to the national homicide rate. Of course keep in mind cops are on-duty only a fraction of the time, so cops on the job have a homicide rate 5 times higher than the national average. But hell, it's still safer to be a cop than to live in Baltimore.

Stay alert. Stay alive. But for God's sake stop being so damn afraid all the time.

[In memory of the police officers killed in the above videos: Kyle Wayne Dinkheller, Jonathan Richard Schmidt, Edward Scott Richardson, Billy Colón-Crespo, Ramón Manuel Ramirez-Castro, Darrell Edward Lunsford, Sr., Thomas William Evans, and Robert Brandon Paudert. They gave their all.]


john mosby said...

Strangely, control, established early and maintained throuout the interaction, keeps both the subject and officer safe. However, it does mean that you may start the interaction off on a less than fully cordial basis. Do you think some of these overreaction shootings are caused by the PO not establishing control early, then freaking?

Addressing another part of your post, if cops shouldn't radically restructure their worldview based on a rather small death risk, can't the same logic apply to society as a whole: Why can't the public, via their proxy in the court system, accept the very small number of killings by police as the transaction cost of having police?


Adam said...

This is the best and most important post I've read on this blog to date. Great job. If the whole country read and understood this, we'd be on the road to meaningful reform. Cops would understand the importance of changing their training and mindsets in order to avoid needless killings, and the general public would understand that cops aren't a bunch of bloodthirsty wackos who have no regard for the value of human life. You should consider turning this into a proper op-ed and getting it published.

Moskos said...

Thanks, Adam. The problem is once I write something here, it's hard to repackage as an op-ed. And I really wanted to do something with those links.

John, I think there are a few issues. If somebody wants to ambush a cop, there's almost nothing the cop can do but be lucky. You can't go about the job assuming that everybody is about to kill you. At some fatalistic level, if it's going to happen, it's going to happen. But then again there are signs: "Let me see your hands" is no joke.

But the problem with "control" is you know people won't always give it to you. Sometimes you have to earn it. Sometimes you have to order. But other times barking commands loses control. Sometimes you just have to make eye contact and talk to a person like he's a human being to get compliance.

But I do think there is some freaking out involved. It often seems to me that a misused Taser is involved and then cops freak. But that could be confirmation bias on my part. It's also been proposed that kids don't fight as much these days. Some cops have literally never been in a fight. And then they get hit.

Overall, I think most of the public accepts the idea that we have police and "oops, mistakes happen." But that said, the regional differences in bad shootings are too great to say every department is doing the best they can.

Concerned citizen said...

Professor Moskos,
Compliments on an extraordinary post.

bacchys said...

Question: if someone watches a bunch of videos of police wrongly shooting or abusing people, would that justify them acting quickly "in fear of their life" in attacking or using deadly force on an armed officer who is approaching him?

Moskos said...

Leaving aside the obvious answer of "it depends," the answer is yes. It normalizes fear among reasonable police officers (the legal standard).

Moskos said...

Wait, I didn't read your question correctly. If they watched videos of *bad* police-involved shootings, no.

But all the videos above involve good shootings (or potentially good, had the officer been able to shoot). And watching video of cops getting killed does change the behavior (as is the intent of showing the videos) of reasonable police officers.

bacchys said...

Well, you still misread it, I think. What constitutes what a "reasonable officer" thinks changes as a consequence of watching videos where cops get the bad end of a shooting because they didn't shoot quickly enough, and this is an excuse for instances such as the one where the old man with a can was gunned down because the cop thought it was a long gun, correct?

So why isn't a reasonable change to what a "reasonable person" thinks if, after watching videos of police wrongfully employing deadly force, and thus an excuse for using deadly force?

After all, the "First Rule" is **I** get home for dinner and fuck you, right?

Anonymous said...

Bacchys, at this point do you really expect anyone to engage you in good faith? (I'm kind of amazed our host continues to do so) Every comment you make is a snipe at the profession with no appearance of actually being interested in the topic at all. What are you hoping to accomplish here?

Moskos said...

I still see Bacchys as engaging in good faith. He makes some good points. Besides, most cops would say the first rule is I go home and, if it comes to that, fuck you.

I'm mean, a point I've been harping on is the difference between a legally good shooting and a morally good shooting. There are lots of unnecessarily shootings (morally bad) that do not rise to the standard of criminally bad (Tamir Rice comes to mind). But Rice still shouldn't have been shot. The officer should never have been put into a situation in which he's feet from a guy with a gun.

The focus on criminal conviction for moral justice is doomed, by and large.

But we need to lesson the number of shootings are not morally justifiable; where the person shouldn't have died.

So then we do turn to the reasonableness standard, which needs to be rooted in the idea that what a reasonable police officer believes is, in fact, reasonable. Some cops need a more accurate threat perception. And these videos shift the standard of reasonable belief too far to the paranoid.

I think the focus on race is a red herring, in terms of lethal shootings. We need to focus on police training and accurate threat perception. So yes, I think academies should focus more on showing bad shootings. No cop wants to kill a person who turns out to be unarmed non-threat. Cops in some departments (mostly medium-sized cities out west) are way too trigger happy. So yeah, maybe by showing more videos of bad shootings we can get a reasonable cop to stop seeing threats where they don't exist.

bacchys said...

Campbell, I disagree with your assessment of what I've written. I'm very interested in the topic.

We have a problem with policing in this country. The problem is corruption of the institutions we've established to do that job. Either there's a lack of accountability, a lack of transparency, or both.

We don't know how many people the police kill every year. It's ridiculous in a republic that the people don't have even the option of knowing what their servants are doing. It's ridiculous that people actually make the argument that- in a republic- people have no right to make a judgement on what cops do. There are a lot of people who don't seem to understand who works for who. If the people don't like what police are doing, they have to stop doing it. Not throw a tantrum. Unfortunately, there's a lot of idiocy and immaturity going on. It's not limited to cops. Black Lives Matter may be the most stupid political movement in the history of political movements, and in a country with the Know Nothings and the Tea Party in its history, that's saying something.

I disagree with Peter about the Rice killing. The cop who shot Rice never saw a gun. He was already in the act of shooting Rice as he came out of his car. Rice's pistol was still under his shirt in his belt. Had he been some other kid at the playground after the gun-waver had left, he still would have been shot. Now, perhaps that doesn't rise to criminal, but it seems to me it should. Just as the Jon Crawford killing in Beavercreek, OH should have led to charges. The cops who shot Crawford *at most* saw a man openly carrying a long rifle. Which is *legal* in Ohio. He wasn't waving it around, he didn't point it at them, and they shot him before he was even aware they were there. That some jackass made an asinine call to 911 should excuse them from actually seeing a threat before pulling the trigger, but if the act of behaving lawfully is enough to justify the use of deadly force there are a lot of people in prison for murder who shouldn't be.

I don't want more cops getting shot. I do want cops to obey the law. I don't think it's too much to ask. I also think those that don't obey the law should face consequences. I don't think that's too much to ask, either. It's not as if I'm expecting people who aren't cops who break the law to not face consequences. No one should be above the law, but the reality in the country right now is far too often police (and not just police) are treated as if they are.

It's even worse when it comes to prosecutors and judges.

bacchys said...

In the above "should excuse them" should have been "shouldn't excuse them."

My apologies for the error and the for the delay in responding.