After Ferguson: Cops, Community, and Needed Conversation
[Editor's note: Tim Mosman is an alumni of Public Conversations Project's open enrollment workshops.]
One of the foundations of a constructive dialogue is that people speak from their own experience to be understood, and listen with the intent to understand others who have different experiences. I have found that much can be learned of the other in this style.
Like most people across the country, the news of the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, was distressing to me. The wounds have been recently reopened with the news of the Justice Department's decision not to pursue a federal civil rights investigation against officer Darren Wilson, and shortly before calling on Ferguson to overhaul its criminal justice system. These reports coincide with the release of the President's Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing, which addresses trust-building, oversight, training and education, and community policing.
For the past 20 years, I’ve worked as a reserve police officer for the City of Pasadena, a diverse community that has had its share of discord between citizens and the police. My experience has given me some insights into the dilemmas officers face on a day-to-day basis. I also worked as a probation officer for 22 years and as a supervisor in a probation detention facility for the last two years of my career, both of which have given me insight into the socioeconomic and cultural forces that put someone like Michael Brown on track for the criminal justice system.
I knew that whatever happened in Ferguson on August 9, 2014 was painful, and that it was going to incite anger. It did not take long for the sides to form and start to vilify each other. The conversations were so polarized; I would just sit them out. For me, it wasn’t black and white.
The pain became more personal a few days after the grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown. Perusing Facebook shortly after the verdict, I was struck by a comment posted by a member of our church youth group. She said, in essence, anyone supportive of Darren Wilson was racist. Rather than fire off an angry reply, I gave her the benefit of the doubt; surely she could not make such a blanket statement and mean it. A few days later, I approached her in person, and was shocked to have her reaffirm this polar distinction: black or white, no room for gray. No sooner had I crossed the street to church, I was asked by a young leader in the congregation if I had shot anyone recently. I laughed it off but walked away a little staggered by the assumptions made of me. The issues surfaced in Ferguson had found their way into my community, into my church, the last place I would expect such severe judgment. I was saddened, and a little angry, to be seen as on the outside, as the other, and in a place where I felt so safe and secure.
Despite my knowledge of the social system that may have contributed to Michael Brown’s upbringing, I cannot speak too much about his life or his community. I know he was poor. I know he had not gained more than a toehold on the one path that could have led him away from his impoverished life: a quality education. I’m not sure he had the benefit of a strong male figure consistently in his life. These scarcities are not unlike the ones faced by the young men that myself and my peers in the probation department see every day. Often there are other issues in the mix – developing adolescent brains impacted by poor mental and physical health, and perhaps substance abuse as well.
All of this contributes to poor outcomes for youth. It also contributes to anger and frustration that boils over. My deputy probation officers, tasked with the near impossible, deal with these alarming short circuits every day. We could say all our charges need is a lesson in personal responsibility and decision-making. But when you see a man-sized child “go off” while being ushered to school along with 30 other incarcerated youths because he is on his way to a reading class and he can’t read, and he’s sitting next to his sworn enemy, you start to wonder if there isn’t more to it. Maybe he does, in fact, have his own best interests in mind after all and, with the limited tools in his toolbox, this is the best he can do. This I do know: in the system, it is almost impossible for youth to imagine something better for themselves.
But there are other social factors at play, some that haven’t been part of the conversation. There is something that happens when you put on the uniform of a police officer. There is nothing like it. You would think it would be like putting on an impenetrable suit of armor, with the bullet proof vest, black boots, badge and a belt full of tools. The steeling of emotion when you “suit up” suggests a level of impenetrability. Really, it is the opposite; for me, putting on that uniform makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. Here is why: how often do we, myself included, like to see a police officer? We like to think we do. We like to think there is someone out there who stands between us and the bad guy.
But who sees themselves as the bad guy? When we encounter an officer, it is usually because somebody has done something wrong. Despite a department’s best efforts at community policing, most of police interaction with the public is reactive. Officers don’t pull people over to tell them what a fine driver they are, or go to Target in uniform to shop or to a bar for drinks. We are not at your loud neighbor’s house for dinner. At best, people react to an officer in fear; more often, it’s with aggression, in the forms of belligerence, or hitting or spitting. At the worst of times, it is life threatening.
I am hearing the voices, even in my own head, suggesting that perhaps the officer should be of a little thicker skin, that they shouldn’t expect gratitude, and I would agree. I would even go so far to say they should expect to be physically assaulted from time to time, though I can think of no other vocation where there is a public expectation to suffer such abuse. But this is what my argument turns on: we are the sum of our experiences. Everything we experience inks itself indelibly onto our soul. So much more the traumas. The little t and big T traumas, from the name calling to the assaults. All stress is cumulative. Experiences are sticky and can be corrosive. They shadow and shade us. There are not too many professions where a person’s psyche is molded and shaped by every human encounter in such dark ways. This is the life of a police officer. If we pretend that there is no long-term impact to experiencing people’s reactions, be they fear, anger, or avoidance, every time an officer puts on the uniform, we’re not being honest with ourselves.
The statistics on suicide, divorce and alcoholism for this vocational choice speak to that impact. An officer is far more likely to get in a fight than he is to fire his weapon and that has proven true with me. Though I cannot count how often I have had to draw my weapon, I have never had to fire it. I can tell you exactly how many fights for my life I have been in: there have been three. The first I never saw coming. The second happened so fast, the only tools I could get to were my fists. In the third I was coming to the aid of another officer just as a suspect punched him. Both of us finished our shifts in the ER. In each of the encounters I learned something. Don’t get too close. Trust no one. Watch the hands. But there were not so obvious lessons as well, like that my mere presence could charge a situation. My experiences taught me how to brace myself for violence, and you can’t undergo something like that without altering yourself. It can become easy to start reaching for the tools on your belt. Like I said, we all learn from our experiences.
I am not excusing excessive force or officer brutality; I’m trying to explain the emotional preparation an officer has to do to get through the day, to shield their soul, for self-protection. But those preparations, however necessary, might themselves be the first step onto a dark path.
We may never really know what happened during that first encounter between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown; what was said and how it was received. The outcome is tragic on too many levels to count and the problem is not black and white. You can support the officer without being a racist and, at the same time, hate the unjust system that placed Michael Brown on a path that led to his destruction. Both made choices that had traumatic consequences for them and for all of us. For me, the conversations just can’t begin by demonizing cops or making the broad assumption Michael Brown brought this on himself. The change comes slowly.
I’m not sure where the solutions lie. I can offer but few. My work in probation makes me fairly hopeful that we are already addressing issues of poverty and education, but the change comes slowly and isn’t always welcome. I’ve seen enough to know that what we have done in the past hasn’t worked. Yes, we need to have personal responsibility, but the ownership can’t be left to one entity. It’s likely we have generations to go before we see a tipping point between lock ups and graduation rates.
With regard to law enforcement, there are a few things I would like to see. First, I think that maintenance of one’s psyche needs to be addressed early in an officer’s career and become a regular part of his/her training forever after. A better understanding of themselves might keep police away from the shadowy parts of self-protection.
My final suggestion for law enforcement has to do with community. There is no question we will always need law enforcement in our community, but it will always exist on the edges. The very nature of our job makes our hold on the fabric of the community rather tenuous. Even in the places community members retreat to be made whole—their families, their churches—even in these places they stand apart, near the edges. I have a theory that this is because they don’t live where they serve. I wonder if things would be different if there was a personal connection to the neighborhood, some interaction and partnership with some of the other entities in the community that have a stake in these issues. Risky I know, but consider the rewards.
Conversations about what happened in Ferguson will continue, but it is my hope that they will be constructive and restorative, not fueled by the ill chosen words of the media and those eager to lash out at one another. For me, this must start with telling our stories, and listening to the stories of others, the only way to avoid polarized debate, and to start making relationships whole.