Friday, July 8, 2016

From St Paul to Baton Rouge to Dallas

I was full of anger last night watching the events in Dallas. I feel it every time I hear of a police officer being killed. We are all a brotherhood, whether still working, retired, city, state or federal law enforcement (I am retired from DEA). I have also been angered by some of the statements made by people like Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson and others somehow blaming it all on white racism when a militant black named Micah Xavier Johnson targeted white cops.

Yet one black gentlemen whose name I didn't catch on the news challenged us all to grieve also for the two victims of this week's police shootings in Baton Rouge and St Paul, which both involved black men being shot dead in police confrontations and which led directly to the peaceful protest march in Dallas, which Johnson turned deadly.

It's a fair challenge.

So this morning I have been going over the available videotapes of the two shootings. To be sure, they are troubling, and the officers involved may well be in serious trouble. I would like to see more video if available because in the Baton Rouge case, it is unclear to me whether Alton Sterling was reaching for the gun he had in his pocket. (His hands are not visible as two officers are on top of him.) I would also like to know exactly why the officers chose to tackle him.

In the case of Philando Castile in Minnesota, I would like to see exactly what his actions were that caused one officer to fire into his car. He had reportedly advised the officers that he was in possession of a registered firearm and was reaching for his drivers license.

It seems that neither Castile nor Sterling were dangerous felons committing serious crimes, and their deaths are tragic.

I don't believe for a minute that the cops in Baton Rouge or Minnesota went into those confrontations with the intent to take anyone's life. It comes down to a question of whether they used bad judgment or whether either victim took some action in regards to the guns they, in fact, possessed that made the cops think their lives were in danger. On the other hand, Micah Johnson fully intended to kill police officers-white police officers.

I am sure I have written about this before, but as a DEA agent, I nearly made a fatal decision that I would be regretting to this day. It was in the 1970s and we were engaged in an undercover heroin transaction in a large hotel. While the undercover agents were concluding the deal and the dealers were being arrested, I was in the hotel lobby on surveillance with other agents and police officers. We observed a man seated in the lobby next to an art store. He was looking around and had one of those small men's handbags that were in fashion at the time and were also used to carry guns by some. We all came to the conclusion that he was doing counter-surveillance. As soon as  we were notified that the arrest had been made in the room, three of us went to the man in the lobby. He rose and immediately reached inside his bag. I was immediately in front of him and pushed him back to his chair telling him not to move. In doing that, I  drew my gun and had it against his midsection.

As it turned out, he had no gun and was not involved. He was merely waiting for his friend, the owner of the art shop, to return. Naturally, we made the most profuse apologies, and the man was very gracious and understanding. He never realized that I had pulled my gun because we were in such close quarters. Actually nobody noticed since I had quickly put it away when the man was under control. By the way, he was not black.

These are the decisions cops have to make very day. Sometimes they err. This is where good judgment and training come into play. Tragically, there are cases where cops legitimately think their lives are in danger, take deadly action and only afterward realize that they were wrong.

The Democrat governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, has made a rather reckless statement in my view that Mr Castile would not have been shot had he been white. While I criticize his condemnation of the officers before all the facts are in, I would be remiss if I did not address this. Is it possible that the officers, knowing their suspects had guns, had their antennae a little more raised because they were black? I won't lay this on those particular cops, but I will say in a general sense, yes.

It is a fact that black males of a certain age group commit more crimes-violent crimes, and that the risk of a deadly confrontation is higher in black neighborhoods. The police know this. In addition, when I was a DEA agent in my two domestic assignments, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, I often worked in black neighborhoods. When you are a white law enforcement officer in plain clothes and unmarked car, you stick out like a sore thumb in a black neighborhood. Were my antennae at extra alert? Of course.

This all goes to the entire debate about black crime rates and black incarceration rates. I am the first to agree that this has historical and sociological roots. That is for a different discussion. Over the course of my life, I have long since learned to  differentiate between black people who are of no threat and those who are. Same with whites.

It is important to note that we have a criminal justice system at both the state and federal level that is equipped to deal with these issues and have often in recent years under much publicity and scrutiny. We have seen the Treyvon Martin-George Zimmerman trial, the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore. I think the authorities got it right in the Brown case, and I think the jurors got it right in the Martin case. In addition, I feel that the Baltimore trials over Gray's death have turned out the right way thus far. I am greatly concerned that there may be unjust prosecution of these officers. There is one recent case that we had in Fullerton, California in which I think the jury got it wrong in acquitting the police officers in the beating death of a homeless man, Kelly Thomas. Now I know some wise guy is going to point out here that Thomas is the only white victim of those that I listed. To that I reply that the video of the shooting of a black motorist in Charleston, SC leads me to conclude that the officer will be convicted. You can't shoot a suspect just because he is running away unless he poses an immediate threat to you or someone else. I am unaware of any gun in the man's possession. The ex-officer is awaiting trial last I heard.

I don't have any answers or solutions here. If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here writing on my blog. I just feel sad having grown up in the 50s and 60s to see race relations reverting back to those days. Yes, we still have a lot of work to do.

We all do-because all lives matter.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Tragically, there are cases where cops legitimately think their lives are in danger, take deadly action and only afterward realize that they were wrong.

When a civilian does that, they are subject to prosecution for criminal homicide, not by any means intentional homicide, not first or second degree, or even voluntary manslaughter, but criminal homicide, with a potential sentence of several years in prison, although probation or suspended sentence may be an option.

The same should be true of police. If you take an innocent person's life in the honest but mistaken belief that the person posed a danger to you, you serve some time for it.

Gary Fouse said...

You said "should" (be the law).

Siarlys Jenkins said...

No Gary, I said under the law, the same "should" be true of police as of civilians. What was it you were saying in your latest on Hillary Clinton? Nobody is above the law?