One of the things I most despise in this world is rushing to judgement. I spent a lot of years in the public eye and on more than one occasion was the subject of Monday morning quarterbacking for things I felt I'd done correctly. In that light I like to take the let's wait and see attitude. Mostly anyway. But sometimes I see something so egregious that it bears comment without the entire story yet being known. I believe the NYPD shooting outside the Empire State Building is one such instance. I've let some time pass in deference to the victims and my desire to avoid being seen as dancing in their precious blood.
As I've mentioned (ad nauseum) I spent 9 years as a soldier and 24 as a street cop. In both I was a firearms instructor and Field Training Officer (FTO) so I do know a little about this subject. A quick note on word choice and semantics. I tend to talk about cops and civilians. I understand completely that police are drawn from the civilian populace and are simply those chosen and paid to do what is incumbent on every citizen to do. In the words of Sir Robert Peel "the police are the people and the people are the police". It just makes things easier for me to write about cops and civilians rather than civilians who are specifically charged with the enforcement of society's laws and civilians who are not. I also tend toward the masculine in my narrative. Again it's not a slight to women it's just easier not to have to write him/her, his/hers constantly. I'm wordy enough as it is, as you will see if you manage to read this entire post without falling asleep because I'm going to hammer on two themes over and over again; incompetence and negligence.
As a police officer, a public servant, I am responsible for all my actions including, but by no means limited to, each and every bullet that exits the muzzle of my firearm. Each And Every One. If I feel I must shoot I own every bullet I fire. Own Them. If a cop is in a crowd they're supposed to be trained enough and possess common sense enough to know that shooting in such circumstances might be problematic and to plan and act accordingly. We're not supposed to shoot innocents, even when it's not on purpose. In our world there's no such thing as an accidental discharge, only unintended and/or negligent and it really comes down to the same thing, Negligent Incompetence and Hysterical Incompetence.
There are at least two areas of incompetence we are dealing with in an incident like this one, Personal and Departmental. In the first there's an officer who somehow managed to make it past the barriers and requirements and became a street officer without ever showing (or maybe even knowing themselves) that they were a hysteric. The second is an agency, in this case the NYPD, who either knowingly hired and retained a hysteric or completely and totally failed to train him to task and standard such as would have caused a reasonable officer to act in a way that would have avoided wounding 9 innocent people. I don't want to hear DAO trigger either. Either you're absolutely competent to do the job or you're not. Remember kids, in the world of civilian policing there is no such thing as acceptable collateral damage.
Let me answer the first question that comes to mind when you read my ravings. What would you have done? That's easy. I'd have left my gun in my holster, grabbed the shooter and beaten him to within an inch of his life. Taser, baton, pepper spray, hands, feet. Anything but a gun. Why? Because there were at least 9 civilians within the immediate area that were going to be endangered by any shooting, wild or otherwise. Let me try and justify that position.
I've talked about hysterical officers and training/retention issues before, specifically here and here and I have made no secret of my feelings and observations. Car Guy and I have had many discussions about these issues. If you read that first link all the way through I tell the story of the time I put my money where my mouth was and went all in with a man with a gun. I'm not just talking from the comfort and safety of my lounge chair. I've been there, done that and put my life on the line because I decided that I could avoid shooting someone I might not have to kill. It was the right choice both ethically and morally. And this is where we as police officers fail so often these days.
I heard it many times. Maybe you have also. "I'm not here to get killed. I'm going home at the end of my shift." I heard it so much and went off so many times on the utterer that those so inclined learned not to say such nonsense in my hearing. Because it is just that. Nonsense. Here's the bottom line if you're a cop and may Robert A. Heinlein forgive me for ripping him off so shamelessly.
If the situation calls for him to do so, it is absolutely a police officer's job to die in the line of duty. Blanket statement.
That's not an easy thing to write or say for a man who devoted so much of his life, sweat and blood to his chosen profession but that doesn't make it any less true. If the situation calls for you to spend your life in the performance of your duties then spend it you must or go find something else to do. A cop who is so afraid of death as to shoot wildly in a crowd is morally bankrupt and has no place in the pantheon of heroes who have gone before him. Simple as that. A police officer owes it to the citizens we're sworn to protect and defend and to the very profession that nurtures us and pays us and gives our life noble purpose. Every one else walking and driving and just standing around also wants to go home at the end of your shift and it's your job to ensure that they do so to the limit of your ability. It is not our job to kill people and break things. Sometimes we must do so but it's always the exception and not the rule. If we have to kill we have failed in our primary duty to preserve life.
There are a lot of reasons that incidents like this one and the two I outlined in the above links happen. The first three are negligent hiring, training and retention. Agencies are under financial (and in some cases political) pressure to meet certain hiring marks. Quotas if you will but not limited to race or gender. Many are hired who shouldn't be allowed as mall guards much less police officers. Hiring, training and retention standards have been bastardized to the point that they no longer function as the means to weed out the unfit. FTOs and trainers are routinely ignored where their opinions differ from what the administration and command staff desire. Hope triumphs over reality and the hysterical incompetents are sent out on an unsuspecting public.
And that public has a large measure of blame in this as well. For anyone not familiar with it, violence is ugly. Sometimes very, very ugly. Guess what? Sometimes it's also very, very necessary. Nothing I say here about moral and ethical choices to employ lethal force should take away from the fact that sometimes it's simply unavoidable. Even necessary. In the civilian world we see it virtually every day. Citizens using force, even lethal force to protect themselves or their loved ones. Even complete strangers. All legal, moral and ethical. Cops are no different we're just under a different microscope. But it looks bad. Real bad sometimes. Especially when it's the lead story on the local news, or Heaven forbid, CNN. We as a society need to make a decision. Is the use of force by the police ever justified? If the answer is yes then we also need to understand the whole it's going to look bad what with the yelling and screaming and blood and stuff and back our cops. If not, no problem but please make the choice and convey it to your police officers before they go out on the streets.
Want an example? Ok, here's a doozy and one that will undoubtedly earn me rivers of flame.
Rodney King richly deserved an ass whipping. Oh not the one he got but an ass kicking nonetheless. But the LAPD made one monumental and entirely avoidable mistake. They hired, poorly trained and retained 5 hysterical incompetents who completely fucked up what should have been a very routine arrest.
Ok, explanation time. What do I mean by Hysterical Incompetence? Let me break it down a bit. Fear is a very real and all too human emotion. We all feel fear from time to time. Cops get it every shift, sometimes many, many times. It's not the feeling of fear that marks the hysteric it's what they do when they feel it that does. The hysteric loses control and all training as well as ethical and moral behavior goes flying right out the window. No matter how well they're trained. No matter how experienced they are. When the hysteric is pushed to the wall they revert to pure fight or flight and Katy bar the door. They bully and beat and threaten and sometimes they kill. It's not restricted to the police profession but in my line of work it's the one thing we absolutely and positively cannot tolerate and can so easily identify and correct. That out of control reaction to the natural fight or flight impulse differentiates the hysteric from the calm professional. It's forced incompetence. Hence the term Hysterical Incompetent. Yes, I coined it but I don't get any royalties so feel free to use it yourself. Throw in inadequate, inappropriate or even a fundamental lack of training and you run the risk of inducing a hysterical response in someone who might otherwise function adequately or even well in a given circumstance if properly prepared and inculcated to the realities of the duties upon which they are about to embark.
Back to the LAPD. The officers at the scene were afraid. Ok, pretty normal reaction but when I viewed the scene and read the reports it didn't strike me as a particularly bad situation. High tension with lots of adrenaline from the pursuit absolutely. Dangerous? Meh. Maybe is as far as I'm willing to go. As soon as King refused to comply and it became obvious he was intoxicated or otherwise impaired it was time to go hands on. And now is when we come to the crux of the hysterical incompetent argument and how public perception colors everything cops do.
Instead of dog piling King, taking him down and putting him in handcuffs they decided to stand off and beat him into submission. That arrest would have taken my agency, indeed any competent (there's that word again) department about 30 seconds to resolve. Instead we get an unnecessary sticking, national outrage, a riot that killed innocents, further restrictions on our use of force and a jaundiced eye toward same by a reasonably reticent populace. King deserved to get slammed and arm barred and cuffed none too gently but instead the hysterical incompetents, led by one Sgt. Stacy Koon who damn well should have known better, let their fear overcome their moral and ethical duty to use the least amount of force necessary to effect the arrest and we all lost. They were afraid to go hands on with King for two primary reasons:
1. LAPD was woefully ill equipped for less lethal resolutions. Their primary method of hands on control at the time was the carotid restraint, commonly referred to as the choke hold. The problem was that because of the size and complexity of the department training in the technique was poor at best and negligent at worst. LAPD managed to kill a significant number of would be arrestees, primarily African Americans, and the public perception, not without some cause, was that carotid restraints was simply an excuse to kill minorities without shooting them. The street level officers and supervisors were reluctant to employ the technique for fear of media coverage and public outrage should they kill him. Koon admits as much in his book (yes, I read it as well as the trial transcripts and the FBI file or as much as was released). Again, not an issue where careful, continuous and realistic training are employed. This is a case where incompletely informed and alarmist public perception coupled with grossly negligent training crossed paths and created a monster. I blame the media and LAPD command. The media whipped things up into a firestorm of controversy and the LAPD administration failed to address the issue through better training and better less lethal tools.Oh and retaining five hysterical fools as street cops.
2. Very early on in the encounter it was determined (still not to my satisfaction and almost assuredly by Sgt. Koon) that King was on PCP. Everything that followed flowed from that supposition and fear ruled the night. King was not a small man and as soon as the magic words "He's Dusted" came out the hysteria came to the forefront and incompetence was the result. Koon employed a Taser with no or limited effect and their worst fears were confirmed in their already battle fogged minds. I'm also of the opinion that Koon misused the Taser because I've seen them in use and when done correctly are devastating to even highly intoxicated suspects. I know there are anecdotal cases of ineffectiveness but they are the exception. I'm unwilling to call Koon out on it because of that but I very much doubt his competence in the Taser use. And we go back to training and competency.
That is what Hysterical Incompetence does. It causes a trained (at least to some degree) and experienced officer to shoot into a crowd of people rather that accepting that they may die and charging into the fray regardless of the personal cost. When you add in governmental and departmental incompetence to the mix it's volatile and damn dangerous.
We need to revamp our training, especially officer safety training. This is a very sore spot for me as I've seen officer safety training go from common sense to houses of horror where the officer trainee, usually very young and easily impressionable men and women, are subjected to a wide and wild series of scenarios designed to do nothing more than scare the ever loving crap out of them. I have absolutely no idea what the end result is supposed to be. No, I take that back. I know exactly what the end result is supposed to be. Officers who have been preprogrammed to respond to potentially lethal events in a way that will allow them to survive. That is a very noble and necessary part of officer safety training but it's only a part. There also needs to be training on what to do when it's all dropped in the pot and usual response is going to get others, innocents, killed or injured. It needs to include training in ethical and moral decision making. And that is just not happening. Officers who are never exposed to the idea that they may have to knowingly and voluntarily give up their lives in the course of their duties are officers who are ill prepared for reality when it smacks them across the face. They run the risk of hysterical paralysis or incompetence just when they need to be the most clear headed and decisive. If your only trained response to a shooting call is your gun then you have no other tools to fall back on if the situation is more complex than envisioned and maybe shooting into a crowd is contraindicated. If you never train for and practice (and practice and practice, etc.) hands on techniques then the baton is the automatic reset. If an officer has exhibited signs and symptoms of uncontrolled fear or hysteria in volatile situations and hasn't been either removed or corrected then that is his base line and he will revert to it when it matters most. Fear sets in and with nothing to fall back on and only fractions of a second to make a life and death decision one stands a very good chance of either going into a fatal lock up or hysterical incompetence. That's negligence on the part of the department. Period.
Some of this is budget related and if there's one idea I'd like to get across to city and county administrators and police chiefs across the country it's this. Spend your money wisely and effectively. Forget the SWAT teams and armored cars. Forget the UAVs and whiz bang. Concentrate on the basics, the things that make up your core competency. Hiring, Training and Retention. Invest your money in improving just those three simple areas and watch the effectiveness and competency of your agency grow all out of proportion to your costs. Get rid of the hysterics and make good, common sense hiring decisions. Hire good trainers and stop being afraid to go outside your own training environment. Not Invented Here isn't going to cut the mustard any more. We're generalists and we need the specialists to teach us all the myriad skills we must have to be competent. There's a wealth of knowledge and experience out there that can help you immensely and a lot of those doing the training and teaching are more than willing to work for relative peanuts if you approach them reasonably and ask nicely. I know some who will work for free. Money spent here, hiring good cops, training and equipping them well and dumping the unfit, no matter how expensive, beats the hell out of the alternative. Add in an investment in the exploding less lethal technology arena and you're on the track to creating an agency you and the public can trust absolutely and be proud of.
I have always maintained that I'd much rather work alone than with an officer who's competence and temperament I doubted. An officer who cannot maintain control in a violent and chaotic situation or one who simply doesn't have a clue is a danger to everyone around him, including himself and me. Work short instead of hiring or retaining the borderline just for the sake of adding a body. Nothing good ever came from incompetence.
Look, I've always had great affection for the profession of policing and police officers. Ever since I was a small boy and saw my first motor cop I have wanted to count myself among them. Simply put I love them, admire them and wish all of them long lives and happy, fulfilling careers. I want them all to be safe and go home at the end of their shifts. I've been to far too many police funerals, including that of a friend and co-worker, not to understand viscerally what it means to police the streets of America. In my admittedly biased opinion policing is the most difficult job in the country. It is filled with dangers and pitfalls and most of the time you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. It's difficult, dangerous and usually frustrating. It's filled with violence and death and horror topped off with byzantine laws that even lawyers and judges often do not clearly understand. There are reports to write and Heaven help you if you misspell something or leave something out because you may be required to testify to the incident many years after the fact and a good lawyer will beat you to death if there's anything that you can't remember. It is a profession filled with some of the finest men and women it has ever been my honor to know and be associated with. It is thankless and lonely and our life spans post retirement are measured in a bare hand full of years, not decades. Alcoholism, divorce and suicide are often the rewards for a job well done. It is also immensely satisfying to do well and competently.Don't believe everything you hear and read. There are an awful lot of fine officers out there doing some great work. Mostly unseen and unheard and that's exactly the way the truly competent like it.
So be it. It is what it is and anyone who pursues such a career had better have a firm grasp on the realities of the job. I am not blind to the shortcomings of some and the further problems I see coming because of the way modern police departments do business. We need to get away from the way we do officer safety training. Oh, we still need to train for worst case scenarios but we need to de-emphasize that and give our officers better threat and potential collateral recognition training and tools. It's better for everyone involved. It is in fact vital because if we lose our ability to police ourselves what comes next will be orders of magnitude worse.
I saw just this morning a video out of Maryland where a cop rushed a kid and bashed him over the head with his handgun. A handgun with one of his Hysterically Incompetent digits wrapped around the trigger which subsequently discharged. Then he lied about it because he's still in Hysterical Incompetent mode even after the encounter is over. Instead of an arrest it's national news, another black eye for my brothers and sisters in uniform and a 10 million dollar lawsuit. Nice.
We don't get the law enforcement we deserve, we get the law enforcement we allow. Be active in your community politically. Get to know your leaders and your cops. Be involved and be informed.And please remind your police administration that the vilest word in the law enforcement lexicon is Incompetent.
Don't let the Hysterical Incompetents win.