Police officers dispatched to investigate a 911 hang-up last week in an Idaho suburb were surprised by the reaction they got from the mother of the children who’d been playing with the phone.
“She said, ‘I’ve told my kids not to talk to you because you’re the people who kill us,’ ” recalled Tracy Basterrechea, deputy police chief in Meridian, Idaho, near Boise. The mother was Hispanic and her children African-American, he said.
Police in Meridian and other cities across the country are facing an angry backlash from the public after a series of police killings of unarmed African-Americans.
Some in the law enforcement community say the incidents – and the protests that followed – are a wake-up call that should spark soul-searching among officers and drive departments to revamp training. But many police think they’re being stereotyped as racist and brutal.
“The idea that police wake up, strap on their guns and pin on their badges and sit around thinking about how they’re going to make lives miserable in the minority community – that’s just at variance with common sense,” said James Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national labor union representing rank-and-file officers.
Officers and their families are concerned that antagonism toward police might make them targets of violence or retaliation, Pasco said. They also worry about identity theft and so-called doxxing, in which an individual’s address and contact information are published online as a form of public shaming.
Hackers, for example, threatened to release the names and Social Security numbers of police in Ferguson, Mo., where white officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, a black teen, in August.
Police killed on duty and killings by police since 1999
“Police officers are very, very upset at what’s going on now, and the way that 700,000 of us are being painted with a broad brush of racism and ill-intent and malevolent motivation – that we just want to go out there and hurt people, when it’s the exact opposite,” said James Glennon, a retired police lieutenant from Lombard, Ill., referring to the number of police working in the U.S.
“We pull people out of wrecked cars, we hold people’s hands when they’re dying, we talk to 5-year-olds when they get raped, and one cop puts a chokehold on somebody and all of a sudden we’re all racist killers,” said Glennon, who owns Calibre Press, a company that trains police officers in the use of force.
Glennon said few civilians understood what it was like for cops to make split-second decisions when they felt threatened.
“People think we’re all karate experts, that we can use the Vulcan death grip and knock somebody out without hurting them,” he said.
“I was in a gunfight in a hallway,” Glennon said. “You have never experienced the kind of stress you feel when you’re in a real fight when somebody’s trying to kill you. You’re going to lose your peripheral vision. You won’t hear your partner yelling things. The higher your heart rate, the more you get cognitive deterioration.”
Most officers are devastated when they kill someone on the job, even if they’re convinced they had no other choice, said Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, a coalition of police units and associations from across the United States.
As a prosecutor in Miami, Johnson worked closely with officers who’d used deadly force. He was assigned to represent them before grand juries and under questioning by their fellow police.
One of the hardest parts of his job, he said, was breaking the news to the officer that the person he’d shot or injured had died at the hospital.
“Generally, the officer who was involved is isolated because they want to get his statement, so he oftentimes isn’t aware of what happened to the suspect,” Johnson said. “So sometimes you have to be the person to tell him, ‘Hey, I have to let you know this guy died.’ Some would be silent, some guys would cry, some would be sick. . . . But no one was ever happy.”
About half the officers eventually leave their jobs, he said.
Johnson said some departments trained officers poorly, but by and large he thinks police academies do a good job of teaching officers that resorting to deadly force has to be the absolute last choice.
“Officers I’ve represented who’ve had to use deadly force, they’ll tell you at some point it’s an oh (expletive) moment,” Johnson said. “It’s not, ‘Let me go through my options.’ It really becomes a visceral response to a threat. The guys’ll tell you, ‘I knew I was going to die.’ ”
He said officers generally thought that the grand jury process worked.
“That doesn’t mean they think they’re getting a break from them,” Johnson said. “They do realize they are going to be investigated if there’s a shooting, whether or not they’re in the right.”
For African-American police officers, the recent killings and protests highlight the challenge of balancing their professional identities with the concerns of minority communities.
“It isn’t about choosing sides,” said San Diego police Officer Bryan Pendleton, who serves as the Western regional president of the National Black Police Association.
“I certainly understand, as a black police officer, the attitude amongst a lot of blacks that a black life doesn’t mean a thing. That’s my perception too,” he said. But, he added, “that’s a hard conversation to have with your colleagues in law enforcement, because most cops will always side with the cop regardless.”
Still, Pendleton said, stereotyping police officers as racist because of individual cases is unfair to the profession.
“It gives law enforcement a black eye, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.
Basterrechea, the deputy chief in Meridian, said his department hadn’t added any special training in light of recent officer-involved deaths in Ferguson, Staten Island, N.Y., or Cleveland. But he follows such cases closely.
Meridian is a quiet, conservative city of about 83,600 just outside the capital city of Boise. Like the rest of Idaho, the city is largely white – 92 percent – with a black population of less than 1 percent and a Hispanic population of almost 7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Every time something like this happens, you have to use it as a learning moment and a teaching moment for the profession,” Basterrechea said. “Are we doing things right? Do we need to change things? All those things need to be revisited. You can’t just say, ‘That happens over there.’ It's our responsibility to try to spread that professionalism everywhere.”
He said he told his officers to treat everyone as they’d want their moms or dads to be treated if they were stopped.
“Treat everyone with respect, and you will more often than not get respect back.”
Police don’t always do everything right, admitted Pasco, of the Fraternal Order of Police. But he said it wasn’t law enforcement’s responsibility alone to fix the broken trust between officers and the communities they were sworn to protect.
“It’s not just about building community trust in the police, it’s about building police trust in the community,” Pasco said.
“We’re ready to work, we want to improve the perception of police and we want our feelings of lack of cooperation and respect to be heard,” he said. “It’s going to take both sides. . . . If we squander the opportunity, then we’ll just continue to muddle along the way we have, which would be a tragedy on top of tragedy.”