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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Media Crosshairs and Wars of Words

I made a mistake in affixing a complaint about a journalist to a singular incident. Because of this error, the message was lost in translation and was interpreted as an attack on journalists who file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The latter is not the case, and I believe that my transparency on behalf of my police department as well as my very public views on holding police officers accountable speak to this truth.

Perhaps that mindset is the catalyst for the frustration I feel with any reporter who, rather than reporting, files FOIA requests by the dozen. Some of the requests leave me scratching my head, and I wonder what story will arise out of the seemingly innocuous information being collected. These voluminous requests have left me to deduct that it's a fishing expedition and the reporter is looking for something (anything) to discredit our agency and our officers. My department has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with our local newspaper, and I can honestly say that the reporters I've worked with are some of the most talented and competent I've had the pleasure of working with so the recent distrust is new to me.

The Freedom of Information Act is justly in place, and since its inception, my department has honored the inquiries into the actions of our officers. Both police officers and journalists subscribe to the "trust but verify" philosophy, so I've never felt opposition to the practice until we experienced a reporter who appears to spend more time filing FOIA requests than reporting.

My department lives in the light, and I have no issue facing the residents and stakeholders of my city and telling them that I made a mistake. I have terminated officers for making mistakes, and I stand firm in my decisions because those who tarnish our badge have no place among the honorable officers who get it right day after day.

Let me be succinct in stating that every officer involved shooting warrants FOIA requests. That’s why it was my mistake to assert any linkage to the obsessive FOIA requests as part of the shooting incident. I'm hanging my head.

Wesley Lowery from the Washington Post was the first to attack me on Twitter, so he's my favorite reporter right now. He was correct in placing me in his crosshairs because I know he genuinely believes that I was venting about a reporter who was verifying information from a shooting. That couldn't be further from the truth.

So my purpose of this post is to seek first to understand and then be understood. I have been a cop my entire adult life, and I don't know what it's like to walk around in a reporter's shoes. The shoes I wear are shiny and match my uniform. My point is that I don’t know what I don’t know. 

If reputable and respected journalists respond and tell me that it is perfectly normal to file FOIA requests for the sake of filing, then I will stand corrected. But if I were in the shoes of a reporter, I think I would spend time keeping my readers informed and I would be vehement in my quest for truth. But in doing so, I would not automatically assume everyone is lying or withholding unless they gave me a reason to believe that. If I were suspicious of coverup or corruption, I would be steadfast in my pursuit to uncover the truth. Again, every shooting incident should meet that level of inquiry but those serious incidents aside, is there room to build trust? Ironically, law enforcement officers and journalists overlap in the fact-finding part of the mission.

Some police actions and the organizations to which they belong have justified this level of scrutiny, so that is not lost on me. But do the transgressions of the few translate into the automatic lack of trust for all? I fear the answer to this question.

With that, I will respond to the inquiries from Mr. Lowery on Twitter (@WesleyLowery) in this venue because I simply cannot communicate meaningfully in 140 characters or less (i.e., I talk too much).

1) Given the current environment, do you think a chief's public targeting of this specific reporter could result in threats/violence for him/her?

I hope not. I didn’t provide a name or a publication and the truth is, I never even considered that. I have a philosophical disagreement with the process by which the reporter reports but I would never instigate or purposefully condone violence. I respect the reporter's humanity and wish no harm.

2) While I think reporters can be strategic in what we request, shouldn't use of deadly force always prompt our scrutiny/requests for info?

Yes. I do. If the actions of a police officer result in force, I believe we should be scrutinized to determine if those actions are lawful. If we are charged with upholding the law, we should follow the law.

3)  I file many FOIAs; not all lead directly to articles. Does that mean I am no longer entitled to public information…?

Of course not. But just like you might say to a police officer, "Do you always have to go to force options?" The answer is no. But I do believe FOIA requests should be strategic and not just a fishing expedition. That is where the disconnect seems to be.

Maybe we just keep the dialogue going in an attempt to see each other up close. I'm a cop and that might make you deduct something about me before having met me. Reporters are being villainized for "fake news, " and a faction of society is adopting that narrative. I'm not one of those people. The media is a crucial component of our society and keeping those in power accountable is important and honorable work.

Let us all keep fighting the good fight even in discourse.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Lesson on Reasonable Suspicion

I penned this in response to a recent editorial that appeared in a local newspaper. I’m not naming the newspaper which was the only publication to raise questions concerning the officer’s actions after he was cleared through independent investigations by the Illinois State Police and the Kane County State’s Attorney. Doing so would somehow lend credence to their rather obscure claim that doubts the thoroughness of the investigations by both the ISP and Kane County.

Dear Newspaper Editorial Team,

You recently penned an editorial asking for more information about the 2016 traffic stop that led to an exchange of gunfire between the passenger in the vehicle and one of our Aurora police officers. Because the relationship our police department has with the residents of this community is built on trust and transparency, and we recognize that we are accountable to our citizens first and foremost, I am more than happy to oblige with the information you seek. Any opportunity to educate is an opportunity to be seized.

In your editorial, you correctly outlined the actions that Mr. Martell took against the officer. The vehicle he was riding in was pulled over. When the officer approached the vehicle, Mr. Martell fled on foot and began firing at the officer. The officer fired back. Fortunately the bullets from both weapons did not strike their intended target. I say “fortunately” because just below keeping our citizens safe from harm is ensuring that our officers charged with this great responsibility go home to their families after their shift.  After the exchange of gunfire, Mr. Martell attempted to overtake a family by committing a home invasion. I’m sure he was looking for refuge and was likely surprised when a female from inside the residence physically forced him out of the home. It was at that time that Mr. Martell made the decision to place his gun to his own head and pull the trigger. That was a terrible tragedy because I cannot begin to understand even for a moment the loss his family must still be feeling. I am also devastated for the innocent and undeserving family who still has to endure the trauma of what occurred before their eyes.

The facts of this case are agreed upon but the lingering question for your team is the reason for the traffic stop. In your editorial, you suggest that the answer to this question would “heighten our confidence in the thoroughness of the investigation.” You have requested a clearer explanation of what “reasonable suspicion” is. Allow me to restore confidence in your Aurora Police Department by edifying you on the concept of reasonable suspicion as defined by the supreme law of our land.

Reasonable suspicion is a standard established by the Supreme Court in a 1968 case in which it ruled that police officers should be allowed to stop and briefly detain a person if, based upon the officer’s training and experience, there is reason to believe that the individual is engaging in criminal activity. The officer is given the opportunity to freeze the action by stepping in to investigate. Unlike probable cause that uses a reasonable person standard, reasonable suspicion is based upon the standard of a reasonable police officer.

Mr. Martell happened to be riding in a vehicle that passed a residence that was struck by gunfire not once but several times in the recent past. The vehicle circled the location several times. In our profession, we call that a clue. Snarkyness aside, when you place the totality of these incidents together, a reasonable police officer would make a decision to stop the vehicle and check it out in an attempt to thwart criminal activity. That’s our job.

I hate to point out the obvious but I feel the need to do so: the officer was right.

Mr. Martell had a gun. We don’t have the luxury to know what Mr. Martell was going to do with that loaded weapon had the officer not pulled him over. But we do know that he was brazen enough to fire that weapon at a police officer in an attempt to kill him.

I stand with my officer and I applaud his skill and vigilance that led him to be suspicious and to take action against an individual who may have meant to cause harm. An independent police agency and the Kane County States Attorney applied the law and determined that the officer acted appropriately. Sitting behind a computer and questioning these legal entities is interesting -- but it is your right. Fortunately, we have 289 sworn police officers in the City of Aurora who, despite your criticism and skepticism, suit up every day and put themselves in harm’s way to keep you and yours safe from harm.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Create a Team of Truth Tellers

It makes me absolutely insane when people come to me for advice or my opinion and when I provide it, they spend the rest of the conversation trying to convince me I’m wrong. I often find myself uttering in frustration, “Why did you ask for my opinion if you don’t like my answer?”

Maybe they don’t realize the answer they are seeking until after they’ve asked for advice and received it. Perhaps when the answer comes and it feels wrong, you suddenly know the right answer! It’s like settling a decision with a coin toss. If it’s “heads” you do one thing — if it’s “tails” you do another. There is a brief moment when that coin is flipping in the air and you instantly know how you want it to land.

I suppose advice works in the same way. We usually seek out people who will give us the answers we want so we can find validation. It’s a terrible form of rationalization to seek out like-minded individuals to tell you precisely what you want to hear.

I’m onto this whole scheme and I am able to recognize it so I’ve formulated a nearly perfect solution. When someone comes to me for my opinion, I ask a simple question:

“Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear or do you want me to tell you the truth?”

This one sentence is so powerful that it literally causes people to pause in contemplation. They almost always shift their eyes upward into their brain as if they are engaged in a genuine conversation with themselves pondering the answer to the question.

I have had people look at me with an honest epiphany and advise that they aren’t ready to hear the truth and instead opt for what they want to hear. This is always the path of least resistance because telling people what they want to hear is easy. Just parrot what they say and they walk away feeling as though you’re the smartest person in the world. Of-course it’s a fallacy because you aren’t really smart — you’re just appealing to the ego that is fueled by someone validating our beliefs and opinions.

The ones who opt for the truth after honest contemplation are the ones ready to receive it. Those are the people who listen with an open mind and prepare themselves to be challenged. This is where it gets real. We all have the ability to see everyone else’s problems and solutions so clearly. When I worked as a domestic violence detective, it was easy for me to look at a victim of abuse and tell them the relationship was harmful. When emotion is removed from a scenario, the answer is usually pretty clear. But rarely is emotion absent in our relationships and our life decisions.

That’s why we can sit in our own mess while being simultaneously capable of pointing out everything that is wrong in someone else's life. Our own lives are blurry with emotion and we have to create and surround ourselves with a team of truth-tellers who will lovingly and gently sift through the grain and the chaff to expose the truth to us. It’s not easy but it’s necessary.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Pants on Fire

I was recently made aware of a review posted on the Paramount Arts Center website by a man who attended a show over the weekend. In his post, he gave the Paramount a 1-star review with an editorial about how the theater is in a “really bad neighborhood”. He went on to say that he was mugged walking from the parking lot to the theater. As if that weren’t traumatic enough, he reported that on the way back to his car he was approached by several “blacks” asking for money and harassing him and his companion. He then warns theater-goers to “bring your gun” and gives some sage advice to us: “Clean up your shit, AURORA.”

This gentlemen then took to his personal Facebook page and reiterated what he wrote on the Paramount website.

When I received a phone call from the Mayor’s office inquiring about the mugging that occurred downtown, I scratched my head. Robberies (aka: muggings) are serious incidents and I hadn’t been provided information about this occurrence.

I quickly did a cursory check of serious incidents that were logged and found nothing of the sort. I reached out to the Lieutenant of our Investigations Bureau and oddly enough, he found no report of a robbery that occurred in downtown Aurora. He expanded the grid search beyond the downtown boundaries and still came up empty. He then did a city-wide search and expanded the date-range and found nothing. You get the idea.

It’s been my experience that those who are victims of a robbery call 9-1-1. It is extremely rare that a person will simply shrug their shoulders and decide not to notify the police — especially given that a robbery is a very serious crime. My spidey senses started tingling but I still tried to give the victim the benefit of the doubt.

I asked the Lieutenant to assign this case to a detective. This was met with polite but quiet opposition and I could almost hear the streaming thoughts running through his head:

“You want me to assign a detective to chase down a victim of crime for a report that doesn’t exist?”

Yes. Yes I do. Pull video from cameras in the downtown area. Search for the victim in records. If there was a robbery, we need to know about it so we can formulate an operational response.

The detective went to work and determined the “victim’s” identity through his social media presence and located his residence (which happened to be in a town directly east of us). The detective made contact with a female from that residence who advised that Mr. R____ was not at home but identified herself as his wife.

The detective asked if they enjoyed a show at the Paramount over the weekend. The woman advised that she and her husband did, in fact, attend a Saturday evening show where a Queen cover band was performing (it got excellent reviews by the way!). When the detective pressed about any unusual incidents that occurred while going to and from the show, the woman seemed befuddled. The detective asked point blank if she and her husband were mugged. I’m going to let you take a guess at her answer.

That’s correct. Nope. Nada. The detective shared with her the content of her husband’s posts on social media claiming to be the victim of a robbery and she couldn’t understand why he would say such a thing. The only thing that occurred in her explanation was a car of people who drove down the street and yelled something from within the car that sounded like, “where’s my money”. The woman said the car never stopped or slowed. That does not translate into a robbery.

He made it all up. Why? What is the motivation of someone who fakes being the victim of a robbery. Was it to garner sympathy? Based on his harsh words, I would say it was more likely to bash Aurora.

We have morphed into a reality where being politically correct is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Despite this, I have difficulty straying from the manners instilled in me so I won’t say precisely what I’m thinking. However, I think it’s appropriate to say that Mr. R’s pants are on fire.

He is a fabricator, a fabulist, a fibber, a prevaricator. A spewer of alternate facts.

This incites me because we used resources and manpower to make sure there wasn’t an actual victim of a robbery.

The downtown area is one of the safest places in our city. People enjoy attending shows at RiverEdge Park and the Paramount Theater and we are pretty proud that our once “rough and tumble” reputation has polished up nicely.

We are the 2nd largest city in the State of Illinois with a booming population of over 200,000 people and yet we are still below the national average for crime. We are certainly not without crime issues but neither is any city our size.

We take crime very seriously and we prefer devoting our resources to the thugs out there committing crimes without having to waste time on storytellers who grandstand to amass attention.

Mr. Pants on Fire, I very much appreciate your suggestion that we “clean up our s&*#”. We will continue to fight against those who do harm in our city and I stand with the men and women of the Aurora Police Department who come to work every day to confront those evil-doers.

I also speak on behalf of the fine people who call Aurora home and don't take kindly to bashing our city with fabrications of grandeur.

So might I politely suggest turning your attention to your own poopie that is in need of disinfecting.