My old career in the newspaper business put me in close contact on a daily basis with a fair amount of police officers through a lot of years, mostly in a small-town setting.  My memories of those times are filled with respect for the tough job they had to do, although there may have been one or two whose reputations ended up being a bit questionable.

When something seemed wrong about an officer’s conduct, I wasn’t afraid to call them on it to their face.

policeFor the most part, though, I have some pretty fond memories of the law enforcement people I came to know.  They were friendly, worked hard, and they could be tough when they needed to be.  One of the most memorable road trips I’ve ever taken was a fast trip from southeast Idaho through Utah and Nevada and over to Los Angeles to pick up a couple of hot tubs to haul back to Idaho with a police sergeant and a reserve officer who owned a spa business.  That was a memory from the lighter side.

On the heavier side, I’ve seen first-hand the deeply personal impact an officer’s job can have on them when it involves “heavier” work — an accidental death, a suicide, a murder.  I’ve seen officers keep their cool admirably during situations that wouldn’t otherwise warrant such coolness.

That’s just through my work experience.  I’ve also had relatives who’ve worn a badge and sworn to “serve and protect.”  I can say that there are still good, decent law enforcement officers out there who take that “serve and protect” oath seriously and don’t get enough thanks for the tough work that they do.  And let’s keep in mind, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty through acts of violence or accidents is staggering.

At the same time, I’m seeing a trend today that’s disturbing.  It involves the conduct of people wearing a badge.  It may not be a new thing, and it most assuredly is being seen more these days because of the presence of cameras all around to record their actions, but in too many cases these days we’re seeing actions from police officers that is shocking and needless.  And too many are getting away with it lately with hardly so much as a slap on the wrist.

We’re seeing it in Ferguson, MO.  Simply put, maybe Michael Brown did something he shouldn’t have if he took some inexpensive items from a store and acted aggressively toward a store employee, which was recorded on video.  But the employee didn’t even call the police about it, according to the store’s attorney.  The action Michael Brown took has only been used as an excuse to condone the actions of Officer Darren Wilson in firing six shots at the unarmed young man, most of them coming from a non-threatening distance away, including a fatal kill shot to the head.

It was a response called into question just after it happened by people who were at the scene as it happened … again, caught on video.

Darren Wilson should have faced a trial with as little chance for bias as possible.  Instead, the case went through a grand jury proceeding which included misleading instructions to the jurors from the person heading it up and questionable objectivity, at best.  The grand jury decided not to press charges against Wilson.  His life goes on without censure of any kind.  Protests have gone on because of it across the country, in places far removed from Ferguson, MO.

I drove a transit bus right through one of those protests in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City just days after the Ferguson grand jury’s decision came down.  I saw the faces of anger all around me, and those faces came in all different shapes and colors.

Then there’s the story of 12-year old Tamir Rice, who just happened to be playing around with a toy rifle that looked too much like a semi-automatic rifle in a Cleveland park.  Someone called the police, they raced to the scene, and as quickly as an officer’s car door could be opened — before asking any questions or demanding that the rifle (the TOY rifle) be put down — the boy was fatally shot.  He was shot by an officer who had been judged before to be unfit for duty.

Then there’s the case of Eric Garner in New York City, who died as a result of a banned chokehold being placed on him while being questioned about selling untaxed cigarettes.  Too many police officers, lawmakers and pundits are excusing his death purely on obesity when a medical examiner’s report says otherwise.  The end result in the Garner case has been too close to that of the Michael Brown case.  No indictment for the officer who used the banned chokehold, but an indictment for the person who recorded video of the incident that’s been most widely seen by the world.

In Phoenix, there’s the emerging story of Rumain Brisbon.

In the Salt Lake City suburb of Saratoga Springs, there’s the story of Darrien Hunt.  Not far from Saratoga Springs, in South Jordan there’s the story of Ty Worthington.  In fact, there’ve been so many fatal shootings by police in Utah recently that it prompted a report by the Salt Lake Tribune showing that homicides by gangs, drug dealers and child abusers have been outpaced by fatal shootings by police officers.

“The numbers reflect that there could be an issue, and it’s going to take a deeper understanding of these shootings,” Chris Gebhardt told the Tribune.  Gebhardt, a former police lieutenant and sergeant who served in Washington, D.C., and in Utah, with six years on SWAT teams and several training duties, added, “It definitely can’t be written off as citizen groups being upset with law enforcement.”

It’s so easy to chalk so many of these incidents up to people not complying with officers, of resisting arrest.  Of course, people being questioned need to cooperate.  The trouble is, people are being shot and killed even when they are complying.  That was the case when a man in South Carolina was shot while reaching into his vehicle for his driver’s license when he was being approached about a seat belt violation, and the man’s quick response to grabbing his license ended up with him getting a bullet fired into him.  At least in this case, the man who was shot didn’t die but the officer did lose his job.

Take notice that I haven’t said anything yet about the race of the people involved in these incidents.  But make note that in all but one of these incidents, the victims — yes, the victims — were black.  Let’s not fool ourselves, race does play a factor in too many incidents like these.  Racial stereotypes are with us to this day, and they won’t go away until we honestly admit that.

Beyond that, we’re dealing with an issue of way too many officers acting in an overly aggressive manner.  There’s a growing attitude problem here.  And it doesn’t involve only white police officers.  I’ve felt the need myself in recent months to call the local Unified Police Department which covers the entire Wasatch valley because of something that happened between a black officer and my 21-year-old son.

My son is far from a gang banger.  He may listen to rap and hip-hop, he may occasionally wear a flat-billed cap in a way that’s “gangsta style,” but he’s no gangsta.  One night he was driving home from work after dark in the family sedan, and he came to an intersection that was being blocked off as part of a crime scene.  No officers were directing traffic, so vehicles turned through the intersection where they felt they could get through safely.  My son followed along.  He was pulled over by a black officer, asked for his license in an aggressive manner, treated like an idiot, and had his license thrown back at him while being yelled at with the words “I don’t have time for this s**t!”

I called to talk to a supervisor as soon as I found out about it, left a message … and haven’t heard a word from them ever since.  All because of a left turn through an intersection behind other vehicles doing the same thing because there was no traffic control.

Our tax dollars pay their salaries.

To the officers’ credit, I know how tough their jobs can be.  There are a lot of “challenging” people out there.  I wear a badge myself.  I have to “police” people’s conduct on a bus every day, often through some of the toughest, most crime-infested areas in the Wasatch valley.  In the time I’ve driven a bus, I’ve had to deal with passengers who feel entitled to challenge authority or caused a disturbance in other ways.  I’ve had to use my loud voice and/or my wits to defuse situations before they escalate too far.  It’s possible to do that.

A gun or even a fist to the face or the kidney isn’t always the answer.  I’m sure there are officers who still believe that.  We’re seeing way too many instances lately where situations that could be handled in a non-lethal or non-physically damaging manner are being handled in an all-too-aggressive and deadly manner.

And, yes, all too often the factors do seem to involve race.  That needs to be examined openly and honestly, and it needs to stop … now.

One look at a music video gives a graphic example of the issue, why there is a growing and legitimate cause for concern, and why the reputation of police officers as a whole is sliding downward as a result, dragging the reputations of the good ones down with them.

What we’re seeing today in a broader sense is all too reminiscent of a time America might rather choose to forget, but if we aren’t reminded of it we’ll be doomed to repeat that ugly time.  I’m reminded of the turmoil we saw in the 1960’s, particularly around 1968.  We had race riots and police brutality then too.

Or did those times ever truly go away?  Is it just being brought to our attention more these days because of the abundance of video cameras in our daily lives?

What we’re seeing these days reflects sadly on where we are as a society, and where our society is heading.

  • Can we honestly say that racism is dead when the nation’s first black President is disrespected the way Barack Obama is?  Disagree with his policies all you want, that’s part of the freedom we enjoy.  But, as just a small example, when was the last time members of Congress threatened to cancel a State of the Union address because those members disagreed with a President’s policies?  The newly elected majority of Congress is setting a bad example all by itself.  Their disrespect and outright hatred bleeds down to the people.
  • Violence is becoming much too glorified, seeing how far we can go in popular TV shows, movies, video games, music, etc.
  • Going hand in hand with that violence is the glorification of guns.  Tell the truth: would Tamir Rice have been shot dead in an instant by a police officer if he’d been playing with something other than a toy that looks like a semi-automatic rifle?  It’s a minority of people who are so paranoid about their stash of guns and ammo being taken away that gets to call the shots.
  • Aggressiveness is becoming a way of life in everyday America.  Love, honor and respect are becoming things to ridicule.
  • Yes, economic inequality is at the core of the problems we’re seeing today.  People are angry because they have to fight so hard to survive from day to day.

This isn’t even scratching the surface when it comes to examining the things turning us in the ugly direction we’re going as a society.  It’s an examination that must be conducted.

If it takes protests to get things turned around, those protests need to happen.  I would have stepped off that transit bus in the middle of downtown Salt Lake City and joined the protest a week ago if I could have.

People are raising their voices and marching today in a way that hasn’t been seen all across the country since the heat of the civil rights and anti-war rallies of the ’60s.  They’re doing it because the laws of the land are being abused by people paid to enforce them, it’s in plain view, and they’re getting away with it.

The lyrics to a song that was an anthem in the ’60s protests are just as relevant today as they’ve ever been.

For what it’s worth …

4 thoughts on “Our growing need to “police the police,” what it says about us

  1. this is a wonderful piece John. Great to read it and hear your perspective on all this.
    A few months ago I was stopped for not staying at a stop sign 3 seconds. I was driving my honda accord ( which is my 2nd car I keep to transport my dogs) Its an older car ) 1993 and pretty beat up.
    Two officers pulled me over with my girlfriend who is hispanic and explained why they pulled us over… the stop sign.
    In about 30 seconds we were astonished and scared to find they let a dog out to inspect the car..
    and questioned us extensively about drugs . They saw 2 gum wrappers on the floor
    which they later explained are used by drug dealers as bindles for coke, heroin and others
    It all ended with a warning , but we felt completely harassed.

    A week later on the Pioneer crossing the police had set up what looked like a sobriety check point ( anywhere else) , on a Thursday night.
    When they got to us… the police used their flashlight to look at my seat ( with a guitar on it)
    and asked us . “why are you out so late on a Thursday night?
    It was 11:10 PM…
    After I told him we went to dinner in Provo.. he replied …well its a little late to be out
    Being a New Yorker , having started my first music sets in clubs at 1 am
    I just had to wonder what the Lehi and American Fork police in Utah had for training.

    I am grateful for their work, so many are heroes, and their work is dangerous and difficult
    but there is surely racial profiling, trigger happy officers out there, and something has to be done.

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