Reform the Police

I am heartened by the sustained and powerful protests occurring over the murder of George Floyd. Conversely, I wholeheartedly condemn rioting, looting, and violence — there is no place for such in a constructive path to reform. Likewise, there is no place for violence in a civilian police force.

This piece is not easy to write. It is personal, it is political, and it is my view shaped by my white experiences. My only hope is that my voice becomes a part of the growing chorus of voices telling their stories of abuse by the police and collectively we make reform possible.

Let me start by saying two things: First, not all cops are bad, and second, the systemic problem with policing in America is not about a few bad apples. The problem is that the culture, training, and psychological profile of policing in America usurps the goodwill of most police officers and tips the profile of civilian policing toward a military force.

My Experience with Corrupt Policing Culture

In January of 1987, I was living in Buffalo, NY in what would be my last year there. I worked as an accounting clerk in the offices of the local Tops supermarket. One Saturday evening I worked until 2:30am (Sunday) and had plans to meet some friends when I got off work. My friends had all been drinking when I got off work, so I picked them up with my car before heading off to another destination. They were already drinking and rowdy, whereas I was sober and the designated driver.

My friends were hungry so they asked me to go through the drive-in at Burger King. I told them “sure, but you roll down the back window and order for yourself since I don’t want anything.” College boys being what they are heard a pretty voice on the speaker and started teasing the girl. Ordering was futile. After a few minutes a stern male voice came on the speaker and said “hey, stop the bullshit and drive around to the pickup window.”

As I drove around to the window I shouted to my raucous friends, “roll up the back window and tell me what you want. Just shut up and let me talk.” When I got to the pickup window, a man in plain clothes started yelling at me and saying, “these girls work very hard and they do not need to take your crap. You need to grow up.” I apologized and explained that it was my crazy friends, not me, and could I just place their order. The man said, “no, no one is going to take your order.” From there he continued to beret me with so called life lessons. I realized this was going no where and my friends were getting vociferous again. I wanted to drive away, but could not because the pickup window was open and if I drove forward my sideview mirror would hit the open window. Therefore, I reached out with my left arm and slammed the window closed and drove off.

I went next door to the Tops supermarket where I just got off work. I shouted, “go inside and get something to eat. I will wait out here for you.” After about five minutes of sitting in my car alone, approximately five Buffalo City Police Department vehicles pulled up and surrounded my car. They got out with batons swinging and their hands on their guns. I thought the store was being robbed until they all walked up and surrounded my car!

They were pounding on the car with their batons and shouting “get out of the car now!” I was completely freaked out and scared. Just then I saw the guy from the Burger King drive through. He was not in uniform, but he had a baton and a gun and was clearly a part of the Buffalo City Police posse forming around my car.

I opened my window a small crack and said, “officers, I don’t know what you want. I didn’t do anything.” The guy from Burger King quickly responded with, “yes you do — you assaulted me at Burger King.” I was dumbfounded and did not know how to respond. Five or more officers were pounding on my car and yelling for me to get out. They were also shouting things like, “we are going to take care of this now. Don’t worry, we are not going to arrest you, we just want to talk. Get out so we can settle this matter.”

I was raised to respect authority including the police. My instinct said I should comply, but my fear told me that to do so would result in a severe and brutal beating at the hands of these irrational, enraged officers. The anger and violence were palpable. The hair on the back of my neck was standing up. I felt threatened physically in a way I never had before. I feared for my safety in front of these “protectors”.

I decided in the split of a second that I could not get out of the car. I made a crude mental calculation that they would not break a window and rip me out in the front of a public supermarket that was well lit and had cameras. What happened next is equally terrifying.

After refusing to get out, but not wanting to be completely defiant, I gave the police my driver’s license and car registration by slipping them out my 1” open window. The police said to me, “okay, now we know who you are. Here is what is going to happen. You are going to meet us at [an address I have forgotten] in one hour and we are going to settle this. If you are not there, we will find you.” They made me say I would meet them there. They drove off and I drove off.

There was no way in hell I was going to that address. I knew it was a set up and I was going to have the crap beat out of me. Instead, I hid out at a friend’s place until about noon on Monday. Sometime on Monday, I checked my voicemail and there was a message from a detective. The detective only stated that there was a warrant issued for my arrest for assaulting a Buffalo City police officer and that I should call him back.

I called and agreed to turn myself in at Buffalo police headquarters. I did just that and was booked and arraigned.

A few weeks later there was a hearing and I told my story to the Judge. The Judge asked a few questions such as, “did the officer identify himself as a police officer?” I said no. The Judge asked me if I used any profane language before slamming the drive through window and driving to Tops. I said I do not recall, but it was possible since I was frustrated.

The Judge then turned to the officer and asked, “is the defendant’s version of the facts correct?” The officer replied, “yes, correct, but Your Honor, he injured my thumb when he slammed the window and I could not bowl that week.”

The Judge then scolded the officer for bringing such a baseless and frivolous claim. The Judge told the officer that he needed to think long and hard about what he had done and that if he ever brought such a baseless claim into his courtroom again he would fine the officer.

The Culture of Corruption

This story is disturbing on many levels, the least of which is what happened to me. This was 1987, fourteen years before 9/11, but the culture of corruption was clearly alive and well. The officer never identified himself to me as an officer. Moreover, it was clear that injuring his thumb was accidental. The corruption stems from the fact that this officer has a posse of Buffalo City police that within minutes were fully aligned with a mob mentality. There was absolutely no time for the other officers surrounding my car to have asked questions or done any sort of inquiry into the facts — nor did they care about the facts. They came to the defense of a fellow comrade. Facts did not matter to them. My innocence was the last thing on their minds. The truth and veracity of their fellow officer’s allegations were irrelevant to them. This was a lynch mob mentality that was stronger than anything else that could have been said or done in that moment.

Merriam Webster defines vigilante, in part, as: “a self-appointed doer of justice.” Vigilantism has a long and sordid history of angry mobs lynching innocent black people. In many instances, those angry mobs would remove their victims from government jails while the authorities looked the other way or participated! The culture of “self-appointed doer of justice” is alive and well in the police culture of America.

Post 9/11 Militarization

The post 9/11 militarization of America’s police departments was a recipe for disaster. A corrupt, macho, toxic culture of vigilantism was combined with new training that turned every situation into a “battlefield” and every person the police encountered into an “enemy combatant”. The civilian guardian mentality of policing morphed into a battlefield culture of survival. Police were taught that every encounter with a civilian had the possibility to result in the death of the officer. Police were taught that non-compliance or questioning of their authority demonstrated a psychological profile of unpredictable behavior that threatens the officer’s safety. Police were taught that they had to dominate all encounters and remain in control of situations and people. Police were not taught that many are raised to question authority. Police were not taught that people in emotional or psychological distress might not respond to their commands, but that does not make them a threat. Police were not taught that to stiffen up or resist being physically restrained is a reflexive response.

The rules of engagement are lower for civilian police than for the actual military battlefield. Soldiers have strict rules of engagement. Generally, soldiers are not permitted to discharge their firearms unless fired upon first. Our civilian police are permitted to kill regardless of whether they see a weapon or not, but merely because they feel threatened. Problem is that with their training an officer always feels threatened. It is a constant and perpetual state of threat that results in police killing someone about 1,000x per year with an estimated 7,000 annual discharges of a firearm. This is why two Buffalo City police officers violently shoved a 75-year-old peaceful protester to the ground (https://abcnews.go.com/US/buffalo-police-officers-suspended-allegedly-shoving-75-year/story?id=71089424). This is why DC secret police violently assaulted an Australian camera crew (https://wjla.com/news/local/australian-journalists-brutally-attacked-while-covering-dc-protest).

All of the above without even mentioning the barbaric and inhumane impacts of racism. We need to repurpose the police into a non-militarized, peaceful civilian force. We need a culture where black athletes taking a knee in protest is respected while an officer taking a knee on the neck of an innocent, unarmed American is murder.

White Privilege

I cannot experience racism. I cannot truly know how it feels to be treated as second class or subhuman. I cannot know what it is like to fear a routine traffic stop. However, I can and do know racism exists, because I have experienced its abhorrent inverse — white privilege.

Example 1

During my college years, I liked to drive fast. My license was suspended for getting three speeding tickets within eighteen months. Nonetheless, one rainy day I drove home to Long Island from Buffalo. Of course, I got pulled over for speeding. The officer asked for my license, registration, and insurance card and then proceeded back to his vehicle to run a check. After a few minutes, he knocked on my driver’s door so I rolled down the window. With the rain coming in and the officer getting wet he said “why didn’t you tell me your license is suspended?” I did not have an intelligible answer. He then said to me unlock the passenger door, I want to talk to you. I thought this was strange, but he did not have a scary posture or tone to his voice so I let him in the car. The officer proceeded to lecture me in a parental way for twenty minutes. He told me that because “I look like a nice college kid from a nice home” he was going to let me off with a verbal warning, but that I needed to think long and hard about what I was doing. After his twenty-minute lecture, I drove off amazed that I got off without a ticket. It wasn’t until years later that I recognized some of the dog whistles and code words in the officer’s lecture to me. “Nice college kid; come from a good home,” and other statements he made were clearly racist in the form of white privilege. I doubt that if all circumstances were the same, but I was black, I would not have gotten off scot-free from that encounter.

White privilege is real and there is no other way to explain it other than the disgusting, unfair inverse of racism. Sadly, the above is not my only experience of white privilege.

Example 2

Again, while in college, a friend and I decided at about 1:00am that it was a good idea to go to Niagara Falls to hang out and watch the sunrise. We had a few drinks, but were not drunk. However, we bought a case of beer and threw it on the backseat. Once again, I was driving too fast and got pulled over. The officer asked us what we were doing and why we had a case of beer in the back seat. The officer asked if we had been drinking. We said we had a couple but that was a while ago and we were fine. Certainly, we should not have been going to Niagara Falls with a case of beer in our car. Again, the officer said, “you look like nice college kids, so I’m going to have you follow me to the next exit and when you get off the highway you are going straight home.” That’s exactly what happened, but really? Would that have happened to two black college kids?

Just in case the above two examples of white privilege are not enough, I have another one that I will share.

Example 3

In about 1991, I bought a used car from a local dealer. I bought the car from a place I did not know because I loved the car when I saw it parked on the side of the road. I did a little haggling over price, but nothing else. I came in with the purchase price in cash and drove off with the car. About two weeks after buying the car, I got pulled over for speeding (yes, again). The officer asked for the usual documents and proceeded back to his car. A few minutes later he came to me and said, “do you know you are driving a stolen vehicle?” I said, “what — cannot be — I just bought this car two weeks ago.” The officer went on to tell me that it is a stolen car and that he is supposed to arrest me and impound the vehicle. However, he went on to say, “you do not look like a car thief to me, so I am going to trust you when you say you legitimately purchased this vehicle, but you better get to DMV and get this straightened out right away.” I drove off without a ticket. Turns out, the vehicle was stolen and the lot I bought it from was a pop up that was gone when I tried to go back there. “You don’t look like a car thief.” Really, and what does a car thief look like?

Why George Floyd Was Different

What the murder of George Floyd did that all prior cases of murder by police did not do is remove the shadow of a doubt about what happened. We watched George Floyd cooperate with police — not resist arrest. We watched as Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds snuffing the life out of him. We watched as Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao “stood guard” to protect their comrade. These four officers acting as judge, jury, and executioner for what? Allegedly passing off a counterfeit $20 bill? An allegation of a petty crime turned into a vigilante murder of a black man when no threat of force was present or even reasonably perceptible. There was a time before the militarization of the police that the use of lethal force could only be used when lethal force was presented. No longer — the new civilian rules of engagement permit police to kill because they subjectively feel threatened by a situation.

The vigilante mob mentality shown by the four Minneapolis police officers was disgusting, depraved, and criminal. In past cases there was at least a colorable argument that police could make about the individual resisting arrest, reaching for a waistband, or disobeying a reasonable command that made them feel threatened. In this instance, the cold-blooded murder was presented free of any doubt about its brutality. The collaboration by four officers is the systemic problem. Whether the root of that systemic problem is racism, training, obeying the chain of command, or some other lame excuse, it is systemic and must change. Laws and training need to change so that failing to stop fellow officers from violating procedure is elevated to the same level crime that is being committed by the offending officer.

Conclusion

There is a systemic culture within the ranks of America’s police departments that unjustly, brutally, and disproportionately impacts black Americans. The systemic culture is the aggregation of several factors, including racism, military style chain of command, military weapons, warfare psychology, and a spirit of vigilantism. As a white man, I experienced a mere fragment of this first hand. I cannot even begin to imagine the experiences of my fellow black Americans. As a society and a culture, we need to reform the police.

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Gary O'Brien

Gary O'Brien

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