When the Michael Brown-Officer Wilson incident in Ferguson, MO first broke, I was not surprised by the public’s demand for an investigation and explanation. An armed police officer shooting an unarmed citizen requires an independent and fair inquiry. The public deserves to know the truth. However, I was surprised by how quickly the public and the media were to demonize Officer Wilson before any facts were disclosed.
The narrative that an experienced police officer shot a young man with his hands up, in cold blood, in front of witnesses was possible, but did not seem likely. As more information was disclosed, I developed a strong belief that Officer Wilson acted appropriately in self -defense. I publicly expressed that belief when interviewed by a local news Station.
“But the witnesses!” people exclaimed. His hands were up, they said. How could you ignore that? I was continually asked. Perhaps it was through my 27 of experience that I knew eye witnesses were often incorrect and sometimes lied. Friends on social media, with no law enforcement experience “knew” that the officer was wrong. Media talking heads spewed out incorrect information to demonize Officer Wilson. Talk show hosts never challenged unsupported allegations and statements clearly erroneous regarding law and police procedures.
After 9/11, our support of government and law enforcement was unshakeable. We felt deeply for their losses while trying to help others. We bestowed upon them many powers, both formally and informally. Torture found its way into the debate. Whether you believe in torture or not, you must recognize the deviation from our sense of justice that torture represents. Things had changed.
As with most major shifts, the pendulum tends to shift back, often crossing over the middle quickly, even imperceptibly. Without recognizing it, our love of law enforcement was losing its luster. Yet, recent incidents of police use of force have ignited protests and riots. While not every instance was an excessive use of force, there appears to be no willingness to give police the benefit of any doubt.
In my final years in the FBI, as a Special Agent in Charge, I did what I could within my limited domain, to curb the ever expanding and unimpeded growth of FBI power. Investigations were opened and maintained based on little predication. Names were placed on lists also with little or no predication. That had consequences for innocent people. And little could be done to challenge that. The NYPD engaged in a program of stop and frisk. I never understood how stop and frisk could be a program. Stop and frisk was a lawful police procedure, but only under certain circumstances which were defined by the landmark case Terry v Ohio.
In the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, the militarization of police, was one of several issues of concern that arose. While I am not troubled with police having such equipment, we must wonder if police develop a military mindset from osmosis. The military mindset is perfect for soldiers on the battlefield; not for officers on city streets.
Several years ago, I took some photos of police in action that I used for the cover of my novel, Midnight Sin. That almost resulted in my arrest. Two officers stopped me and demanded my identification. They could not cite any law I had broken. The younger, more aggressive officer demanded to know why I took pictures. I knew better than to tell him it was for the cover of a book. The older, more reserved officer explained to me that he was required to get my identification based on the Homeland Security Act. I knew better than to challenge what I knew was more fiction than my novel. I did not play the retired law enforcement card and I did not argue. Better to cooperate and not spend the night in jail. But, I did not appreciate being accosted, having done nothing illegal. The issue of police arresting people for legally taking pictures has not been resolved. Though a minor matter, it was a personal one and struck me as another example of over-aggressive police flexing too much muscle. This was a trend that I could not help but notice and did not like.
In my first book, Waking the Corporate Beat: Police School for Business People, I discuss my culture shock as a native New Yorker becoming a police officer with the Fairfax County VA Police Department. This department had strict rules of conduct. Officers were to treat citizens with the utmost respect and professionalism; we were service oriented and were expected to be “nice.” This was antithetical to those of us who grew up in NYC with gruff and surly police officers who were not service oriented. While first finding humor in my department’s approach, I soon learned its value when citizens jumped in to help us when we needed it.
History reveals the dangers of excessive power. Recent studies show a rising number of police brutality cases since 9/11. That is troubling and tells a story.
The corruptive effect of power manifests itself in ways other than physical brutality and abuse of authority.
Recently I read an article about Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents attending sex parties with prostitutes hired by drug cartels in Colombia. The Justice Department also noted that the FBI did not cooperate with this investigation. I was not surprised by either of these. Having worked with the DEA on various task forces, I have great respect for the individual agents and for the accomplishments of the agency. But, DEA had a rogue quality to it. And, after 24 years in the FBI, I am rarely surprised by the great things they do or the questionable things they do in their own interests. The recent Secret Service scandals of sexual misconduct and incompetency surrounding security at the White House were more surprising. Discipline and protection were the hallmarks of the Secret Service.
Federal agents, at one time, represented the pinnacle of law enforcement. Their sense of superiority and lack of accountability has led to them becoming fodder for late night television.
And that is why the police are where they are – having lost the respect and support of the citizenry that was so strong immediately following 9/11.
During my 27 years in law enforcement, we were able maintain the peace and security without the extensive powers and over-aggressiveness of police today. We did it then; we can do it now, even when facing the growing threat of terrorism.
To my friends and colleagues in the law enforcement community – please get back to basics. Tone it down. Remember for whom you work. You are here to serve. Be professional, polite and respectful.
The time will come when you must be aggressive and tough and maybe you will have to use lethal force. But, if you develop of sense of public service, follow the tenets of police professionalism and honor a demanding code of conduct, the public will once again respond with a sense of respect, support and perhaps give you the much deserved benefit of the doubt.