My family and I recently had an interesting discussion about the shootings by the police in Ferguson, Missouri and Cleveland, Ohio. As you recall, Ferguson Police Officer Darrin Wilson engaged in a confrontation with Michael Brown that resulted in the death of Brown. In Cleveland, Police Officer Timothy Loehmann unfortunately mistook a pellet pistol for a real one and shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Both are unfortunate incidents in which the officers, the victims’ families and the communities will have to live with these tragic events for years to come.
You are a law enforcement offi cer and are paid to protect the public. As such you are the public’s first line of defense. You were especially selected and trained for one mission, and that is to protect us, the public. Don’t get me wrong. I will not need you all the time for I fully intend to protect my family and me whenever possible. After all, I was raised in the mountains, believe in the right of self-defense, own a gun, and know how to use it. There will be times, however, when we need help and when we call we expect you to be there prepared to give your life in defense of our safety.
I know that is tall order, but that is your job and that is why we pay you. I know you — along with the nation’s teachers and firemen — deserve more pay, a lot more, but unfortunately the resources are just not there. Nevertheless, even with the marginal pay you receive, I expect you to do your job of protecting my family and me.
I know that you as a law enforcement officer have been under the microscope since the shootings in Ferguson and Cleveland, and I also know that your training is currently being scrutinized in hopes of improving your performance. If that is so, then don’t take it personally since that is how bureaucracies work. The higher ups are going to cover their butts and everyone knows and expects it.
In addition, the pundits are piling on and seem to relish pointing out the actions of both officers in question and you are getting tarred with the brush of using too much force, profiling, prejudice, discrimination, etc. Again don’t take it personally; that is simply what pundits do. Their job is to criticize you, many times unfairly, for being gun happy without their ever giving a thought to the many correct life and death decisions you make on a daily basis.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel sorry for you nor should you feel sorry for yourself. As my mother would say, “ You chose this profession, now live with it.” You make life and death decisions every day that unfortunately can result in the death of a citizen or yourself if you make the wrong decision.
What I would like to do, however, in this open letter is offer some advice that will hopefully keep both you and me safe. Remember that you are not alone. I support you and will attempt to be there when you need me. After all, if I hire and pay you then I need to support you. Occasionally, though, I will need your help. And when that help arrives I want it to come with the knowledge that it will employ the best tactics and training possible.
We both realize that tactics and training for the law enforcement officer are intended to give him an edge, so here is some advice that may allow you and the citizens you protects to go home at night.
1. Distance creates safety. Distance from a suspect or assailant not only creates safety, but allows for more reaction time when confronting a dangerous situation. The closer you are to a suspect the more confrontational a situation can become and the shorter the reaction time necessary to resolve the situation. In the Cleveland incident it may have been more tactically sound if both officers had been farther from the 12-year-old boy, giving them more time to assess and perhaps defuse the situation. In the case of Ferguson, it may have been more tactically sound if Officer Wilson had backed off after the initial confrontation and waited for his friends rather than escalating the confrontation.
2. Bring friends. When you are engaged in a confrontation, or expect to be engaged in a confrontation, it is always best to have some friends along with shotguns. Nothing defuses a situation faster than the sound of a shotgun being racked or being confronted by overwhelming force. Too often a younger, inexperienced officer will let their ego get the better of his or her judgment and want to go “mano a mano” and then talk about it over a beer whereas the more experienced officer will call for his friends to come support him and then discuss the situation from a position of strength. The outcome in the Ferguson shooting may have been different if Officer Wilson had waited for his friends. I’m sure the tactic employed by the responding officer in Cleveland of driving close to the victim will be reviewed.
3. Don’t be badge heavy. As a law enforcement officer you should never go “badge heavy” and rely on your badge and bullying to resolve a situation. You, as a sworn law enforcement officer, have the force and power of the state behind you. You represent the point of the public spear in the use of force, deadly force, and when required the state can bring overwhelming force to a situation. Individual citizens cannot match that force and know it; therefore, there is no need for you to engage in using your badge to bully citizens. Unfortunately, younger officers just out of training or with little experience become aware of and enjoy the power that their badge represents. Badge heavy offi cers should always be paired with older, more mature officers who realize, as Shakespeare would say, that “Faire and softly goeth far”.
4. Lower your emotions. When you arrive at a scene you are facing the unknown, your adrenalin is flowing, and you are running on high and cranked for action. This is natural and as it should be for we are all humans and conditioned by nature to either fight or flee. Unfortunately, when you arrive on the scene you are facing another human who has also been conditioned by nature to either fight or flee. After you have stabilized the scene emotions can still escalate and get out of hand. You should expect your commands to be obeyed and the average citizen will willingly do that because you have earned their trust. Unfortunately, emotions will sometimes get in the way of citizens quickly acting upon your commands no matter how loud or authoritatively it is given. This, unfortunately, can lead to an explosive situation because you have come to expect your commands to be obeyed and when they are not your natural reaction will be to escalate the continuum of force to enforce your commands. This is the point at which “calmer heads must prevail.” Emotions must be lowered and this is most often done by employing a lower, less emotional and confrontational tone. There is a time for talk and a time for action and knowing the difference saves lives. Unfortunately, knowing the difference comes only with experience and there is the rub. Would the outcome in Ferguson have been different if the situation had not escalated? Perhaps, but we will never know.
5. Shooting to Wound. How many times have you heard someone say, “Well, he should have shot to wound”? That person has either been watching too much television, has little or no shooting experience or both. Military professionals may expend up to 10,000 rounds a month in practice. You as a law enforcement officer do not. Because of time and money constraints you are lucky to get to the range every three months, and even then the amount of ammunition provided is limited. You punch holes in a stationary target at specific distances to qualify in order to meet the legal requirements specified by your department in expectation of going to court after using your firearm. You are trained to fire at the major part of the body and to kill, not to wound. The shooting techniques you employ are probably sufficient for legal purposes, but other professionals question whether or not it is sufficient for a gunfight where you are frightened, the adrenaline is flowing, you are shaking, you are moving, it is dark and you are looking for cover. You were probably taught “in a fight front sight,” but you are now looking at the shooter, not the front sight, because that is where the threat is. You are shaking so bad it is a wonder if you can hit anything. To ask a police officer to shoot to wound is totally impractical and, not to put too fine a point on it, the height of idiocy.
6. Police militarism. You should have the best equipment and training the public can provide. If I have asked you to put your life on the line then that is the least I can do. After 911, it became apparent you were ill equipped to support a counterterrorism function. Therefore the government began to provide you with military equipment, including heavy vehicles. Unfortunately, little or no training or guidance on when or how to employ the equipment came with it. Since you want to bring overwhelming force to bear on demonstrations or riots what better way then to show up with an armored vehicle. After all, one of the basic doctrines of riot control is intimidation. Oops, you forgot how a bulky armored vehicle looks on the front page as you confront demonstrating American citizens. You now realize you look like a black booted thug and finally come to your senses when the public, in alarm, begins to scream, “This is not Tiananmen Square.” Well, you realize you need to regroup and rethink the use of counterterrorism equipment. However, you are going to be faced, sooner or later, with terrorist activity in your area so there is every reason for you to have military equipment — but it’s for use on terrorists and not on your fellow citizens. You will need to develop rules for employment and that deployment must be continually practiced and when employed it should be under the control of a senior experienced sergeant. Some good advice I once heard was that “heavy weapons must have a very narrow focus!”
7. Police body cameras. Well, after Ferguson and Cleveland, it was inevitable that the proposal be advanced that you be required to wear a body camera. How many times have you heard that the crime scene or interrogation should have been captured by video because it does not lie? I have been asked my opinion on this several times and to be truthful I think the idea should be explored but with caution. One caution is this: When you turn that camera on then your action and the action of your opponent will change, for the focus is now on the camera and your realization that the confrontation will be judged by your superiors or by a court. Therefore, you may begin to act cautiously, and a cautious officer may hesitate, and to hesitate may mean you do not go home to your family at the end of the day. Your mission is to support the public but yet, at the end of the day, be able to go home and anything that prevents that from happening should be handled cautiously. Don’t get me wrong. There will always be one of you who is first through the door. Just make sure everyone realizes the consequences. My second caution is that in many cases there is no context for the scene captured on camera. For example, it may show the perpetrator getting beaten but does not show the reason for it or what happened prior to the scene captured on camera. The third caution is the public’s right to privacy. When the camera goes on it captures things in an indiscriminate manner and in some cases scenes or individuals are captured without their consent. Unfortunately, cameras, like witnesses, do in fact lie and should be used cautiously.
8. Witnesses lie. Perhaps I should rephrase this to “witnesses are unreliable.” My first experience with this came in a classroom when the instructor was interrupted by a gunman who appeared at the door, fired three shots at the instructor and vanished. After order was restored and the instructor picked himself up off the floor, the students were asked to write a description of the gunman. The result was 10 students with 10 different descriptions of the gunman. We see events through the prism of our culture and value system. We don’t deliberately lie, it’s just that we have difficulty seeing what really happened because in most cases our brain completes what we expect to see. This is why you need as many witnesses to an event as possible and even then you will rarely get a consensus on the truth. A good example of this is Ferguson, where different people saw the same shooting but described it differently. It is an axiom that a good observer must be trained and the average person is neither trained nor reliable.
9. I look for trouble. I have often thought the proper description of your job is, “I look for trouble.” You on a daily basis deal with the underbelly of society. As a result, both your divorce rate and drinking is higher than it should be. Because you are constantly dealing with the worse elements of society you quickly become jaded, suspicious of your fellow man and begin to associate only with the people you trust which are your fellow officers. I always thought this was natural and to be expected. Because of this you must constantly remind yourself that you are part of the civic body and are paid and work for the people. As an aside, I always thought we were lucky in the mountains because our deputy sheriffs grew up in the county, are known and respected. Unfortunately, that is not always true of major police departments in urban areas who can easily become a community unto themselves and are viewed as such and because of this can be viewed with suspicion by elements of the public.
10. Training. The real estate folks have three things to say about the importance of property: Location, location, location. Borrowing from this I have three things to say about your tactics: Training, training, training. You, like the military, must constantly train. Most of us who come from the hills and played sports remember the coach constantly reminding us that “how we practice is how we play” and we practiced constantly because we needed to react instinctively. When you are faced with a dangerous situation you will react according to your training because practice becomes instinct, which is what is required when decisions must be made instantaneously.
If you are trained to “shoot first and let God sort it out” then that is exactly what you will do. If, however, you are taught to use time, distance, your friends and cover, then that is exactly what you will do. The public and I expect a well-trained law enforcement offi cer employing sound tactics to protect us.
I know this advice is just common sense, but it is always good to occasionally be reminded of obvious things. Thanks for listening. I look forward to your continued professional help and promise that I will, in turn, support you.
J.T. Oney was born and raised in southeastern Kentucky. He served more than 40 years with the Department of Defense in various military, intelligence and security organizations. After retiring from the military in 2000, he taught for 11 years at a small college in Northern Virginia. He is now retired, living in Mayking, and is an adjunct professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. Oney is also the author of eight books of both fiction and non-fiction.