Thursday, June 11, 2020

What Could Have Been and What Still Can Be

Photograph by James Willamor, CC-BY

by J.J. Hensley

Your first priority is to make it home at the end of your shift

That’s what I was told when I entered my first law enforcement academy for the Chesterfield County Police Department in Virginia. I was reminded of it again when I transitioned from local to federal and journeyed to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. It was beaten into me again, to some extent, at the U.S Secret Service’s academy in Maryland, although the expectation changed if you were working a protective assignment and had to put yourself between a threat and a protectee. In that case, you made sure someone else got to go home, and if you got killed…well, nice job!

The people you work with are your brothers and sisters because nobody else understands

When you start working the streets, you see things most people do not. You see many people at their worst and rarely see people at their best. Two of my years as a patrol officer were on midnight shift, and I assure you I did not encounter the pillars of the community. In fact, many of the people I dealt with were drunk, high, or both and had come to the attention of the police for committing an assault, vandalism, or something much worse. A majority of the people you deal with on a daily basis don’t like you, or aren’t happy to see you because something tragic has happened to them. A vast majority of interactions can be negative, and over time, a strange thing happens. You end up only having cop friends, because who else works those hours and doesn’t get freaked out by your tales from the road? The next thing you know, people…just…people aren’t people anymore. They’re civilians.

Now you are in a subculture, and it is engrained in you to stand by your fellow officers. In extreme cases, officers will stand by each other no matter what. A classic, sad example is what we are witnessing in Buffalo where two officers assaulted a seventy-five-year-old man, and his fellow officers not only stood by them, but then the assaulting officers were cheered by other officers as they left the courthouse after an appearance. This is the blue line that has created a border in this nation, a border between two nations with different rules.

A training problem vs a cultural issue

I don’t know how many hours of defensive tactics and firearms training I went through between my academies and in-service training, but the number has to be incredible—unbelievable really. And it was beneficial, good training. The training wasn’t the issue. In fact, whenever an issue comes to light in an organization or process, the knee-jerk reaction is to always blame training, but it’s almost never the training. More times than not, it’s a communication, organizational, or cultural problem. My training was fantastic. It prepared me for my years in law enforcement, during which I had to draw my weapon, but never had to shoot anyone other than a rabid raccoon (sorry, dude), used my baton once (to break out a window), and never pepper sprayed a person. There were plenty of times I had to use some level of physical force, but many times I did not. In fact, I would guess 99% of my encounters with civilians required no physical use of force whatsoever.

Mopes, Dirtbags, and worse

So, after going through a local police academy, a couple of federal training programs, and gaining a good amount of practical experience, I’d consider myself fairly well-versed in law enforcement use of force issues. I’ve never been through the academy former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin attended, but I can make certain assumptions with confidence. First, you never use more force than absolutely necessary to execute an arrest. Second, the neck contains the carotid artery, windpipe, and a portion of the spinal column. Applying pressure there for a long duration can cause serious injury or death. Third, once a subject is restrained, on the ground, and compliant, there is no need to continue any activity that may restrict breathing. In short, if you mess around with the neck you aren’t just asking for a tragedy to occur, you’re inviting it . It seems the Minneapolis PD did allow for the use of a chokehold (call it a carotid restraint if you would like, but that’s not the point). At the time of this writing, the city banned the tactic in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. I was surprised the department had been using the tactic, as not only had I never been trained to use a chokehold, but had been explicitly trained  NOT to use one due to the risks involved.

Needless to say, I am horrified and furious at what we have all witnessed. Thanks to video evidence being available, I believe Derek Chauvin and his fellow officers will be held accountable for their actions. Not only are the actions caught on video terrifying, but there are also serious questions as to if there was even probable cause for the arrest,  and some reports that the responding officers escalated the situation upon arriving at the store. I’m sure these issues will be brought to light in the weeks to come. What I believe we will find as this case progresses is that George Floyd, like so many others, was not viewed as a person by the responding officers. He may not even have been a civilian. He was just another mope, or scumbag, or degenerate that was something…less. That is where this “us vs them” mentality has taken us. This is where the countless hours of survival training while being submerged in a subculture of isolation has taken us. When combined with poor HR practices that include hiring the wrong people, and the inability to fire poor performers, we find ourselves sitting on a powder keg.

What Could Have Been

This has led us to the demonstrations, disorder, and what could have…should have been said by our leaders in the first days of the protests. Contrary to what some are saying, the demonstrations we have seen are not just about George Floyd. They are about the deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and many others—some caught on video and many which have gone unnoticed. There have been too many racist cops for way too long. If you doubt this, research the number of lawsuits filed by minority officers and agents claiming they have been passed over for promotion due to race or disciplined unfairly. In fact, the Chief of Police in Minneapolis was a party to one of these suits several years ago. The problem exists, and there is no turning away from it anymore.

The mass demonstrations that broke out around the nation were an opportunity for our leaders to step up and acknowledge a long-standing problem that has plagued our country. Yes, there have been opportunists who have taken advantage of the moment to loot and cause destruction, but if one is going to use the argument that most cops are good then you must believe in the distinct probability that most demonstrators are good. Now…imagine the President stood at a podium and expressed empathy and a genuine desire to change the system. Here is an example of what could have been said and done:

The death of George Floyd was inexcusable. Any American with a conscience has to be outraged at what we witnessed, and I applaud those in the law enforcement community who have immediately denounced the actions that took place in Minneapolis. Mr. Floyd’s death is a call to action, albeit one that is too late for many. The policing profession is filled with good people doing a tough job, but we can do better. There have been too many instances of racism and abuses of power to ignore. The demonstrations we are seeing are not about one unjustified killing or a handful of bad officers. They are about many voices that have been ignored for far too long. 
Therefore, I am instructing the Attorney General to work with the Governors of each state to explore setting up National Hiring and Training Standards for law enforcement officers. There are major hurdles facing such an endeavor and many questions that will have to be answered. Issues regarding jurisdictions, resources, and budgets will undoubtedly bring about naysayers who will claim such a massive reform effort cannot be done. That we cannot afford this. My response to them is that we cannot afford to keep things the way they are. We need to ensure officers across the nation are meeting acceptable standards and do not have anything in their backgrounds that should exclude them from having the public’s trust. 
Additionally, I’m asking that the AG work with the states to ensure a standard of disciplinary measures is established. If an officer is fired from one department for an egregious act, he or she should not be able to get hired by another department. There have been too many examples of officers jumping from one department to another after being dismissed. I’m also instructing the AG to work with the governors to establish minimum pay standards for law enforcement officers. Police departments have to be able to hire professionals, and in many instances, this has not been the case.  
I want to assure all of you who have taken to the streets to demonstrate that we hear you. Change is coming. The police forces you see today are going to look much different in the near future. The “us vs. them” mentality in policing has not worked and will be driven out. We are all “us” now. As a nation, we are facing many challenges. We must face these challenges together as allies, not enemies. I vow to you,  I will work with you to start that process today.

However, as we know, that isn’t what happened. (Author’s Note: Well after this piece was written, Democratic lawmakers drafted The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 that includes some of these elements, although it is unclear if it will become a law.)  What occurred was the escalation of tensions as rhetoric spewed from Twitter and other outlets. The words “thugs” and “dominate” became favorites, and the pseudo-group ANTIFA became the new immigrant caravan at the gates. The military has been mobilized in some areas, and I fear the next move will be to threaten the “free” election in November, either through intimidation or by discrediting the results. If this sounds far-fetched,  watch the video of Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s church again. It will be no surprise if law enforcement is used as a political tool of intimidation throughout the next few months. The results will be more distrust among the public and damage that will take decades to repair, if it can be fixed at all.

What still can be

Proposals for reform are ongoing. Perhaps the tide is turning, finally, and there will be a major cultural shift in law enforcement. What we need are stubborn voices of reason who present actual evidence-based solutions. Currently, there are calls to “Abolish ICE” and “Defund the Police.” Often, phrases like this come from those who do not have a complete understanding of what that might entail. For instance, ICE has come under fire for their detention and deportation activities, which fall under its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). However, ICE itself is a large organization which encompasses Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). HSI consists of about 8,500 people who deal with a myriad of crimes - human trafficking, child pornography, arms dealing, etc. - that have little or nothing to do with ERO.

Likewise, defunding police departments without thought or explanation as to what vital functions need to remain is a nonstarter. In the days since the defunding movement became popular, people have tried to clarify what this means (it’s actually a reallocation of funding and demilitarization – a.k.a. police reform), but the message is getting lost because it sounds too much like abolition. We need police. We even need police to have a reasonable amount of tactical (some would say ‘military-style’ equipment). What we desperately need is for officers to use it appropriately and have the right policies in place to govern its use. This demands a cultural shift in the profession, which will take time, effort, and persistence. “Abolish” and “Defund” make for nice sound bites, but those phrases are messaging failures, regardless of intent.

It is now essential for the reasonable voices within law enforcement (and some do exist) to speak out and demand reform. That process might be underway. The city council in Minneapolis has voted to disband the police department and create a new Public Safety Model. It’s unclear what this will entail, but opponents to this move have immediately taken to their keyboards and microphones to claim there will be no police force at all. I don’t believe that will be the case. In all likelihood, it will include a law enforcement component, but also civilian units focusing on social services and drug treatment. Will it work? I don’t know. But since the current model isn’t working, let’s find out. To repeat the same actions and expect different results is insanity. For too long, cultural norms and police unions protecting bad officers have stymied any real change. Rather than demand accountability from fellow officers, the law enforcement community has often circled the wagons to stand by those who are not worthy of the badge.

Training our officers to survive is crucial and should not go by the wayside. Let me be clear about this—the use of force, including deadly force, will always be present in the world of law enforcement. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows out there, and there are situations one simply cannot deescalate. There are hard, terrible people out there, and sometimes they have to be dealt with in a harsh, but legal, manner. However, the culture within law enforcement needs to be such that one not only knows how to survive, but also remembers how people are supposed to live. I have spent nearly my entire adult life in and around law enforcement, and officers and agents are vocal in their complaints about their agencies and departments, yet no other profession, to include the rank and file, fights change as much as law enforcement. That time has to come to an end.

J.J. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service. He’s the award-winning author of the crime novels RESOLVE, MEASURE TWICE, CHALK'S OUTLINE, BOLT ACTION REMEDY, RECORD SCRATCH, FORGIVENESS DIES as well as several short stories and resides near Savannah, Georgia.


Tina said...

Thank you, JJ, for sharing not only what is wrong right now, but also what should have been done differently and what we can do moving forward. All three are necessary things to talk about.

J.J. Hensley said...

Thank you, Tina.

Frank Zafiro said...

Incredibly well stated, JJ.

There are so many threads that tie into this problem that it is impossible to include them all in an essay/blog post - it would take a book, at least. Despite that difficulty, I think you nailed the core of it perfectly.

You identified culture as the lynchpin, and I think you're 100% correct. As a member of law enforcement for twenty years, serving in line positions for the first half and leadership in the second half of that career, I resisted the idea of a cultural shift from the "warrior" model to the "guardian" model. Why? I was part of that subculture, and as a group, being a warrior was one of our core values. Of course we resisted when it was "attacked."

I've since come around to the realization that I wasn't listening close enough (and perhaps the message wasn't being conveyed very well). Being a guardian? That's what police need to be. It seems like a small shift in perspective, but it is seismic. If you're a guardian, you approach the world different than if you're a warrior. Now, that doesn't mean there won't be times when a guardian must be a warrior - as you rightly mention, there are bad people out there and bad situations that arise which require it. But it speaks to the default setting or the core mission that an officer would be focused on.

Who knows? With a model like that in place, maybe community policing could succeed more widely, because that's another model that works...when given ample opportunity and the right mindset.

Like you, I spend my entire adult life in and around law enforcement. It is filled with incredible, dedicated, caring people. They deserve a culture that allows them to thrive as part of their community, and that's what the community deserves, too.

Anyway, fantastic article, and thanks for writing it. It needs to be heard.

Matt Botset said...

Nicely said J.J. There are reforms that are needed and we can't continue to "do as we've always done." Bullies and abusive officers have no place in a civilized society and we have to do all we can to keep them out, or get rid of the ones who slip in.

Bob Mueller said...

JJ, when did you attend your first academy? I was a college cop attending a regional private academy in 92 when I was hearing the same attitude, and I've kind of curious when it might have started bein/g taught.

J.J. Hensley said...


My first academy was in 1997, although I'm still currently employed in the federal training field.

Kathleen said...

Nicely done. You make excellent points about the culture of the badge and what the response to the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests should have been. However, your plan for change, directed by the AG, is flawed. Substantive change to an organization never comes from within. The cultural biases of police departments will not be rooted out by current management and overseers. The point of the defund movement is to look at the structure and training of the police from the OUTSIDE. This is necessary for true change. "Defund" is the wrong term for what needs to happen, but it's the right sentiment. I believe policing, from training to supervision to culture and union protections, needs to change radically for these murders (yes murders) and violent escalations to be eradicated across the country.
Kathleen (daughter of a career police officer)

Unknown said...

JJ, as impossible as it would be to address each and every aspect of the challenges, problems and reforms needed in law enforcement, your detailed, in depth account was an excellent effort. I deeply appreciated your thoughtful insights twenty years again during our time at FLETC and SATC, and I value them even more today.
Mike Monegain

ABorth said...

I attended the Wisconsin police Academy in 2007. The academies in Wisconsin have been teaching an idea for how to keep an officer from starting to have an us vs them and thug etc mentality. They stress the importance of having friends that aren't in the profession. Sure, you might not be able to talk shop with them, but we shouldn't be stuck in work all the time. Having law abiding non cop friends slightly counteracts the thought of everyone out there being thugs and criminals. In terms of the choke hold, Wisconsin has a state wide academy with state wide requirements. For at least the past 20 years chokes and strangles have been taught as something you don't do. For taking someone down and putting your knee on their back, we were taught to always stay away from the neck.