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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ferguson: Our Criminal Justice System Failed, Worked, Failed...

Only once in my career has someone attempted to take my gun.  It was in the middle of a street where I was struggling to place a man in handcuffs who was under the influence of cocaine and had just smashed the picture window in the home he shared with his wife and kids.  He was larger than me and during the grapple, I felt my weapon being tugged and realized he was attempting to disarm me.  

Fortunately, I was not alone and my partner and I were able to subdue the offender and place him in handcuffs.  The bad guy wasn’t able to retrieve my pistol but I shudder at the consequences if he had. 

I tell you that story so you understand that an unarmed person can pose just as much of a threat and I’m getting a bit tired of the headlines that are painting the picture of police officers going around killing people who don’t have guns.  In fact, I’ll give you 3 minutes with someone who is beating you with their fists and you tell me if you feel as though your life is threatened.

Last year, 10 police officers were shot and killed in the United States after a suspect managed to get control of an officer’s weapon. Nearly one in five officers killed as part of a crime last year were shot with their own (or a partner’s) weapon, according to the National Center for Law Enforcement Technology - the highest number of such deaths in 18 years.

Because I write this column, I’ve been bombarded with inquiries about the events in Ferguson from people wanting to know what I think.  

The truth is, it keeps me up at night because I have an internal tug of war between what I have experienced on the street and what I know about the men and women who wear a uniform and risk their lives every day in the simple act of going to work.  These police officers have dedicated their existence to putting their lives on the line for people they’ve never even met.  It takes a special kind of person to be spit on, screamed at and even harmed by those people in the community who have made it their mission to prey upon others for their own gratification and without empathy for their victims. 

And yet these officers get up, gear up and do it all over again day in and day out. 

The conflict I feel arises because I know there are police officers who get it wrong.  When a police officer acts with a willful and wanton disregard for the law and life, I will not stand with them as there is no such thing as blind loyalty.  We have fired police officers for excessive force where it wasn’t justified and I don’t lose a shred of sleep over an officer who violates policy and/or law.

Then there are those officers who act with the best of intentions and still err in judgment.  Human beings are fallible and even though they are entrusted with powers to enforce laws, some don’t get it right. 

The difference is that the mistakes made in law enforcement are not the same as in other professions.  I’m not on the street anymore so when I make an error, it’s typically involving policy or decision-making.  I can usually right my wrong after careful contemplation and with little consequence.  When a front line officer makes an extreme mistake and takes a life when it wasn’t justified, this isn’t just an error.  It is a grave aberration that accounts for a human life being erased from existence.  I can think of no greater burden than a well-intending person to have to carry with them nor can I begin to contemplate the unspeakable grief of the family who has suffered the loss.   This is why our training is so intensive and why we are held to a higher standard and why any use of force incident is dissected and scrutinized.  It should be. 

What happened in Ferguson on that fateful day that divided our nation and the public from the police is bigger than police policy.  We know that a police officer confronted a strong-armed robber and the physical evidence is pretty clear about what happened inside the officer’s squad car.  By virtue of the law, the officer acted justly.  The witness accounts are on the spectrum of polarization about the events that unfolded that lead to the fatal shots.  Unlike the proclaimed “experts” that will not hesitate to tell you their opinion, I’m smart enough to say that I’m not sure if something different could have been done.  I wasn’t there to experience it.

A grand jury didn’t indict the officer and some think our justice system worked while others say it failed.  This alone tells you that the answer is not easy.

The only thing I know with vehement confidence is that the police are not the bad guys.  There are bad cops out there who do our profession a disservice (just like any profession) and we must constantly hold them accountable. 

Police officers are the good guys and I boldly proclaim that the aftermath of looting and violence in Ferguson would be far more commonplace but for the police officers who act as guardians of our communities every day.

It is easy to choose between right and wrong when there is a glaring line between the two extremes.  But life doesn’t often provide us with such simplistic scenarios and instead, we are faced with multiple facets of truth sprinkled with perceptions and judgments.