Tony Norman: Protests bring out worst in some police

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Soldiers have maintained that they learn more about fellow soldiers’ character from the first few seconds they come under enemy fire than from years of kibitzing in the barracks.

Only during a firefight do they truly learn who has their back, who’s reckless, who remains disciplined under pressure, who freezes from indecision and who the well-armed cowards are among them. There’s probably a similar understanding about judging a cop’s character among police officers, as those tasked with maintaining order in Ferguson, Mo., could attest.

Over the past two weeks, the nation has gotten a good look at the calm leadership and reassuring presence of Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, a man who grew up in Ferguson and knows its strengths and weaknesses intimately. He has no visible fear of the people whose calls for justice have echoed through the streets of Ferguson every night since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed. 

We also got a close look at police Lt. Ray Albers, from the nearby suburb of St. Ann, who was filmed screaming a profanity-laced threat that he would kill unarmed demonstrators if they got any closer to him. It was a threat the veteran of four years in the military seemed prepared to back up with the rifle he aimed at incredulous protesters. He stopped only after a superior interceded and walked him away. The entire scene was captured and uploaded to YouTube.

Lt. Albers has been placed on indefinite, unpaid suspension by the St. Ann police for what they deemed a lack of professionalism. His meltdown endangered both demonstrators and his fellow officers. If Lt. Albers’ fear level was so high during a peaceful demonstration, imagine how over the top it would have been during a potentially lethal confrontation. Fortunately, he’s scheduled to undergo a full psychological evaluation by the department next week. If he manages to hold onto his job, he will probably be restricted to desk duty going forward.

The unrest in Ferguson has created a space for ordinary citizens to discuss what we should reasonably expect from police officers. We’re asking good questions like:

Is there something fundamentally screwy about tolerating an “us-vs-them” mentality among officers who have the “right” to use deadly force against us?

Does an individual cop’s temperament matter as much as his or her training?

If it is true that police are only trained to shoot-to-kill and never to shoot-to-wound, shouldn’t the mental fitness of officers be evaluated at least annually to ensure the pressures of the job haven’t eroded their judgment?

If they lack the physical skill or confidence for non-lethal ways of neutralizing a threat, should they be officers at all?

Ordinary citizens across the political spectrum are united in asking whether the militarization of small-town police departments is a good idea. Having a police force that is 97 percent white patrol the streets of Ferguson, where the majority of residents are black, is generating long overdue conversation about whether cops should reflect the demographic makeup of their communities.

I have my own, perhaps idiosyncratic, idea of what would constitute an ideal police officer. A cop in any city I ran would be literate, sociable and always open to learning the profession’s best practices, and he wouldn’t be afraid of the public. 

If police are physically and mentally fit, they’re not going to be intimidated by unarmed citizens, no matter how big, mentally disturbed or menacing they are. A proven ability to de-escalate conflict and save lives -- rather than achieving seniority -- would be what earns someone in my department bonus pay and advancement. Contempt for the public would be a fireable offense.    

In my town, cops would wear body-mounted cameras that record every encounter with the public and automatically upload those images to a secure municipal website. Becoming an officer would imply a willingness to work in the open while being subject to the same laws as ordinary citizens.

In the rare case where shooting an unarmed citizen was necessary, the cops would enjoy a universal benefit of the doubt based on their daily professionalism and recorded evidence. Am I kidding myself? Is this too much of a burden to expect real police to carry in a diverse and violent society? Discuss:

 

 


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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