Monday, February 8, 2010

Police Relations and Personal Safety

Yesterday, I summarized a Washington Post op-ed piece by author Pete Earley (“Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness”) that was harshly critical of a Fairfax County (VA) prosecutor’s reasoning in deciding not to charge an officer for fatally shooting an unarmed man in his vehicle.

The prosecutor, in a public statement, rationalized that because the victim, David Masters, had been diagnosed with a mental illness and had been reported by his family as acting strangely earlier, then, apparently, it was okay for the officer to fire two rounds into him.

David Masters, a former Green Beret, had been suspected of stealing flowers outside a shop. Fairfax County had provided some police with Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) in 2008, but it hasn’t been offered since. CIT teaches police how to respond to situations involving individuals with mental illness.

I was not planning to do a follow-up. But that was before I read the comments to Pete’s op-ed.

“This article is a load of crap,” read one. “The cop did what he did based on this training. JOIN THE DEPARTMENT IF YOU HAVE THE STONES TO DO SO INSTEAD OF BITCHING HERE!!!”

Read another: “Monday Morning QBs. I'm pretty sure you'd all place blame on the officer if he were shot and killed.”

And another:

You should do a ride-along with your local Police Dept and learn just how dangerous it is to be a cop when stopping someone. It is really quite enlightening - much more so then watching "cops" on tv. would help of citizens were better trained on how to behave properly when interacting police officers: keep your hands where they can see them and then tell them what you are going to reach for and when you are going to reach for it. No surprises for them means no surprises for the citizen.

Fortunately, the expressions of outrage far outnumbered those who would issue every officer with a license to kill:

“Since when is bizarre behavior an excuse for the police to shoot someone?” is fairly representative, as is:

A cop's primary responsibility is to protect the community that pays him to serve it, which at a minimum means not shooting people if you don't have to. If his primary responsibility was to protect himself, he would shoot everything that moves.

Before I get to my response, here is a doozy that was posted several minutes after mine:

Oh so easy to second guess at a computer screen in a nice office rather than face crucial decisions on the street. Let's have more concern for citizens on the highway and others (including the police) put in danger from a deranged person or who suffer financial and other loss because of that person. (And if you want to say "it's only money" then you cover any damages from your checkbook) If there is a "villain" in this piece it is the system that allows deranged, volatile people--mentally ill--people to wander at will. Sorry, my sympathy in this case in limited. If you disagree invite the crazies--yes, politically incorrect as it may be to call them that--to your neighborhood and street.

Finally, my response:

The commenters defending the prosecutor and police here expressly state that the author and those who agree with him have no understanding of the police and the dangers they face. That is blatantly untrue. If understanding is the issue, I would cordially invite these same individuals to learn about mental illness. It's everywhere and it's very close to you if you open your eyes to it. Moreover, no one is immune from it - not even "normal" people.

Public safety is a major issue, but heaven help your personal safety if you just happen to panic behind the wheel of a vehicle and you fail to control your fear and agitation. A uniformed man with a gun is approaching. You've lost your ability to stay calm or even follow simple instructions. In that situation, you better pray to God that the officer has had CIT training. You better pray to God that officials who represent you and your fellow citizens hold that officer accountable for his actions. You better pray to God that the public - which includes your friends and family and neighbors and colleagues - understands you. Otherwise, you - yes you, Mr Normal - are just a nutjob who pissed off a cop. Are you ready to live in that kind of world?

No doubt this won’t be my last post on the issue. Stay tuned ...


Elizabeth said...

If that man had been "merely" drunk out of his mind, I doubt the policeman would have shot him, and if he had, I doubt he'd have gotten away with it.

John McManamy said...

Spot on, Elizabeth.