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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lost Warrior

Law enforcers lost another warrior last month.  A Chicago police officer was fatally shot in the head after a struggle with a bus passenger who was causing a disturbance.  Somehow the belligerent woman was able to disarm the 27-year veteran and use his own service weapon to end his tour of duty - Permanently.

            When a brother or sister in blue gives the ultimate sacrifice, there is quiet mourning among police officers.  The sergeant’s read a synopsis of the incident during roll call and we all pay homage somberly in our own thoughts.  Even in our silence, we try to learn the lesson from the fallen officer.  Many times we gain meaning from suffering by systematically dissecting the scenario from a tactical perspective so we can learn from the tragedy.  When tragedy strikes, we are reminded once again that going home every night is not an absolute guarantee.           

            The woman who shot that police officer was wounded as well.  When back-up police officers arrived at the scene, they ordered the woman to drop the weapon and she threatened them.  They fired at her, striking her several times.  She survived the multiple gun shot wounds and is still recovering from her injuries.  The media swarmed the friends and family of the hospitalized woman and there was one statement from a family member that caught my attention.  With the microphone in his face, he stated, “I don’t know why those police officers couldn’t have just shot the gun out of her hand - - there was no reason to shoot her like they did.”  I laughed out loud right there in my living room.  Not at the circumstances but because I was astounded at the notion that the man didn’t feel as though her pointing a weapon at the officers and threatening to shoot them didn’t give them reason to fire upon her (especially given the fact that she had just shot a police officer moments before).  More intriguing to me was his idea that the officers should have shot the gun out of her hand.  And just as officers can learn from these circumstances, so can the public.

            When confronted with a resisting subject, police officers apply the force continuum.  It is a standard that provides law enforcement officers with guidelines as to how much force may be used against a subject in a given situation.  The continuum model is depicted in an escalating visual and the concept is that a police officer may use the level of force matched by a subject’s resistance.  The officer need not move through each level of force before applying deadly force – the final level - but instead they must choose the appropriate level of force in response to the subject’s actions. 

            If that conceptualization is too textbook, think of a ladder.  At the bottom rung, there is police officer presence.  When you see a uniformed police officer simply present, that is normally enough to keep the peace.  The next step up on the ladder is verbalization.  For the most part, a police officer’s verbal commands satisfy a reasonable, law abiding citizen to comply with the law.  Verbalization also applies to arrest situations in that the directive to place your hands behind your back usually gains compliance by the subject being arrested.  Contrary to popular belief, this is how most encounters go in the course of a police officer’s tour of duty.             

            Now consider that the subject does not comply with verbal commands.  Suppose a police officer’s command to comply with a lawful arrest is ignored by the offender and when the officer attempts to handcuff them, they resist by attempting to get away or striking the officer.  We now move up the ladder on the force continuum and can apply physical means necessary to subdue the individual.  Usually this level requires physical contact to control the subject’s movement.             

            Escalated threats require that we move up the ladder to control the threat.  A subject that is combative and violent against a police officer or other member of the public thereby placing them in danger of harm requires that we use an impact weapon, TASER or OC spray.  The subject’s actions must be assessed by the police officer and considered a necessity for gaining compliance.  Deadly force is the final rung as we move up the ladder and is justified only under conditions of extreme necessity as a last resort.  Simply put, when the person is believed to be an immediate danger to others around them, officer’s need not begin at the bottom of the force continuum.  Rather, officers must meet and exceed the threat level.  Officers are not trained to shoot weapons out of people’s hands or shoot to injure.  Television depicts a very unrealistic view of police work in that sense.  If an officer discharges their weapon, there is an imminent threat of death and they must eliminate the threat in order to save their own life or someone else’s.  This may give you an insight into the minds of those police officers who used deadly force against the Chicago woman. 

            Police officer’s receive much scrutiny after utilizing deadly force and rightly so.  Because police officers are given the power to take away freedom and life if necessary, their actions should be assessed and justified.  The average police officer spends much their career using the appropriate judgment and applying force reasonably and responsibly to de-escalate situations.  We never want to resort to deadly force but we are mentally and physically ready to do so if it means protecting you or your loved one from harm.

*This column appeared in the Beacon News in August

Police Give Up the Right to be Unfit

“When you choose law enforcement as a career, you give up the right to be unfit.”  These words are boldly displayed in the gym of the Illinois State Police Academy.   I thought of this quote at precisely the same moment the employee at McDonald’s asked me if I wanted fries with my grilled chicken sandwich (hold the mayo thank you very much).  Of-course I politely declined and wondered why this familiar quote would find its way into my conscious thought. 

            An Aurora Fire Department paramedic recently took a poll of police officers for a college paper that asked us to provide our weight when we were hired and our current weight.  For the rookies, the numbers were still in tact and most were still practicing their fitness regimen from the academy.  For the rest of us who have a few scuffs on our belt from years of wear, the numbers were greatly increased.  The survey generated quite a bit of conversation among the officers and many wondered how they had unconsciously expanded their belt-loop over the years.  Some officers were forced to take an honest look at their current state of health a few joked that the main food group in their diet was grease. 

            Police officers are frequently running calls with little time for a dinner break (especially on the afternoon shift).  As a result, we have to resort to those foods that are delivered quickly and can be eaten while simultaneously completing a report in the squad car.  Unfortunately, most of the food that fits this criterion is prepared in a deep fryer.  The poor diet coupled with the sedentary act of sitting in a squad car is what causes the expansion of many belt loops.  It may sound as though I’m making excuses for the police and in a way I am.  It takes monumental effort and extreme dedication to fight the donut phenomenon and there are many officers who do so successfully.  I see the same handful of officers in the gym on a daily basis and know of those who religiously stop for a protein shake rather than a gut bomb and a cup of coffee.   Others painstakingly prepare their meals before leaving home and keep a cooler of healthy foods in their squad car so they don’t succumb to the temptation of fast food.

            Unlike other professions, our physical prowess is a direct correlation to our job competency.  If my dentist has a few extra pounds it would hardly be a concern to me unless it somehow affected the way he cleaned my teeth.  However, if I called the police to report a hoodlum breaking into my car, I would expect that the police officer responding would be able to engage in a foot pursuit if the situation called for such action.  Our valor in combat is a necessity and it should be expected of us.  We do give up the right to be unfit in this profession.

            The term “unfit” has a deeper meaning as well.  To be unfit means to be incapable or unsuitable.  It applies to state of mind along with the physical state.  A police officer gives up the right to be immoral and unjust and the responsibility that befalls an officer wearing that badge is one that requires mental aptitude and superior skill in problem solving.  Being “fit” means acting within the scope of our authority and with fundamental fairness in mind.  It means putting our personal views aside and acting within the parameters of the law without prejudice and bias.

            There are few occupations that bring with it the power to take freedoms away from another human being.  With that, there is a great responsibility to do so within the parameters of the law and with justice being the ultimate goal.  When we enter the profession of law enforcement, we give up the right to be unfit in both body and mind.


Finding Purpose

During a recent visit to a police department for training, the training officer who was responsible for acclimating me to the facility met me at the entrance.  As I walked through the lobby door, I was abruptly given the command to “Stop”.  The Lieutenant directed my attention to the floor where I saw a beautiful inlaid tile replica of their police badge that took up a majority of the otherwise empty room.   He said, “We walk around it.”  I was absolutely intrigued at the notion that each police officer finds the 10% of free floor space to walk around the badge so as to not step on it.             

I haven’t stopped thinking about the profound level of symbolic awareness since my visit to that police department.  The police officers that serve the City of Aurora have the same pride but there are few reminders that force us to pay daily homage to our chosen profession. Our training is elite and concentrates on the tactical skills necessary to perform our duties but, admittedly, we don’t stop to think about our purpose as often as we should.  Most of us entered this profession because we were drawn to public service but somewhere along the way, a few have lost their vision.  Many enter this profession with wide eyes and possibility only to find that the observance of human suffering day after day takes a toll on their outlook.  Many didn’t mind the idea of working nights, weekends and holidays until they began to learn how it would negatively affect their families.  Many have become jaded after watching criminals set free by our court system because of a savvy defense attorney or a technicality in the case.  Over time, some police officers stop believing that they can make a difference.

Even with such strife, we all believe that law enforcement is one of the noblest professions.  We don’t take lightly that one action by a police officer has the ability to affect a life either positively or negatively.  Our hope is that the influence is positive but there are times when a citizen is left with a negative perception of the police.  To borrow a line from the movie Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  It is our responsibility as police officers to use the powers afforded us by the United States Constitution for good.  With this in mind, each action by a police officer should be committed with the intent to uphold the law and keep the peace.  Every arrest should be made with the intent to uphold the constitution and promote justice.  Each interaction with a victim of a crime should remind us to use empathy rather than the “just the facts” method of gaining information.  Those who do their jobs well leave a victim feeling understood and confident that their police are doing the best they can to help. Because we are often inundated with information (whether accurate or not) coming at us from several directions when we respond to a call, an officer may forget what it feels like to be a victim because we are so focused on learning the truth— and then moving on to the next person experiencing a crisis in their lives. Unfortunately, when this happens, what once was a noble profession is reduced to a job.

People in other professions are not immune to the phenomenon of losing the purpose and drive they once had.  A recent Harris poll revealed that over half of all Americans are unsatisfied with their jobs.  Could this be because they lost their sense of professional purpose?  The same polls suggest that many people want to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves and would sacrifice salary for such satisfaction— in other words— a sense of purpose.

In his book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Steven Covey offers an example of a postal worker who views her job in a very unique way.  Rather than taking the perception that sorting the mail and placing it in the appropriate mailboxes is mundane, she believes herself to be a catalyst for bringing people together.  She believes that she is bridge that connects one person to another. For every piece of mail she places in each mailbox, she is serving a purpose. Imagine if we all applied the same thinking to our respective professions.  The key is to find meaning in all that we do.

Once we attach meaning, we begin to feel as though we are making a contribution. When we, the police, lose sight of our purpose and our flame goes out, we must look within ourselves to rekindle our fire.  Sometimes all it takes is the realization that we’ve just given a domestic violence victim a night of safety or we’ve taken another gun off of our streets.

While a massive inlaid tile patch in the lobby of the police department is a unique reminder of a police officer’s calling, the symbolic gesture of pinning the badge over our hearts each day should be enough to conger up the feeling of the first time we affixed the badge to our uniform and set out to change the world.  The key is reminding ourselves everyday of our own contribution.