Last month the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff's Office extended an invitation to a local civil rights activist. The Rev. Jarret Maupin was asked if he wanted to experience law enforcement training in force-on-force scenarios.
Maupin accepted the invitation. Then he was given a taste of how quickly things can go bad for an officer on the street. In one scenario, he was quickly killed. In the second he shot a large, unarmed man who charged him with bad intent. Afterward, Maupin told a Phoenix area TV reporter that the thing he learned from the experience was the importance of complying with officer commands.
He didn't learn that lesson long. Just a week after declaring that people should comply with police, he was publicly demanding a university fire an officer who had used force to gain compliance from a female professor who resisted arrest.
There are those who believe that all law enforcement critics should experience force-on-force training in order to gain empathy with the experience of law enforcement officers. And I'm all for that. But I don't expect it to work. The problem with this approach is that the participants don't face any consequences from their mistakes.
If an officer makes the wrong decision about when to use force on the street, there are very real consequences, including loss of career, loss of reputation, lawsuits, prosecution, serious bodily injury, and oh, yeah…Death. There's no way to have activists, journalists, and politicians truly understand the very real fear that officers experience in use-of-force encounters just by running them through force-on-force training.
I think part of the problem is that we as a society have dehumanized officers. A small, but growing, part of the public sees you as just a badge and a uniform, a target, an enemy. Much of the rest of society—influenced by TV and movies—sees you as superhuman.
Most Americans, including activists, journalists, and politicians, have very little knowledge of what you actually do on the job. They don't understand the tightrope you walk between violating someone's rights and placing yourself in grave danger.
And the really scary thing is you may not know when you are in grave danger. Examples of officers killed in the line of duty before they even knew they were facing a deadly threat are plentiful. Recently in Flagstaff, Ariz., a rookie officer was sent out on a domestic disturbance call. The officer contacted and spoke with the man who was reportedly involved. And it seemed like a very calm, peaceful encounter. But the man wouldn't take his hands out of his pockets. When he finally did, he whipped out a .22 caliber revolver and shot that young officer dead.
A few weeks before that Flagstaff rookie was gunned down by a suspect who refused to show his hands, another Arizona officer faced another suspect who reportedly wouldn't take his hand out of his pocket. That Phoenix officer shot and killed the suspect, who later was found to be holding on to a bottle of illegal pills.
Then the protests commenced, with the Rev. Maupin in the lead. What many of those protesters and the people who read the Phoenix papers don't realize about this incident is that the officer who pulled the trigger is a real human being, the kind who feels fear and pain and makes mistakes. He isn't a trigger-happy fiend or an infallible superhero. What happened in that Phoenix incident is that a real flesh-and-blood police officer acted reasonably under objectively reasonable fear that he was facing a deadly threat and he made a reasonable mistake based on his belief that the suspect had a weapon.
There are those who want that Phoenix officer criminally prosecuted, but it shouldn't happen. The court has established that law enforcement officers are human and make mistakes and cannot be convicted of a crime for making an objectively reasonable mistake. (See Point of Law, page 44.)
I would never pretend to have all of the answers for how to improve police-community relations in the post-Ferguson era. But I think a good start is to have an honest discussion about the people inside the uniforms and the very real fear, the very real threat you experience on the job. Because you have everything to lose every day that you wear your badge, and you know it. The challenge is getting the public to understand what that really means.