Monday, December 22, 2014

Ex-NYPD Officer Weighs In On Murder of Two Policeman & Aftermath of Eric Garner Decision

Slain NYPD officers Rafael Ramos (left) & Liu Wenjin (right)
A good friend of mine from high school whom I'll call "KC", was a New York City Police officer for nine years.

We've been tight for about 26 years and I'd been looking forward to attending a holiday party held at his girlfriend's home this past Saturday night to get his take on the repercussions of a Staten Island jury's failure to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choke-hold death of Eric Garner.

KC is pretty plain-spoken and over the years we've had numerous discussions about police behavior and the use of excessive force as it relates to African-American citizens.

When I got to the party at about 6pm, the news was just unfolding that Ismmaiyl Brinsley, a disturbed 28 year-old African-American man from Baltimore apparently shot his girlfriend in the stomach (wounding her), then traveled up to New York City where he shot and killed two innocent uniformed NYPD officers who were sitting inside their marked police cruiser in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.  

Just hours before officers Rafael Ramos and Liu Wenjin were both shot at close range, Brinsley posted this chilling threat on social media: "I'm putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours, let's take 2 of theirs,"

His cold-blooded murder of two police officers was a heinous act.

But it's also disturbing that the language of his ominous message is deeply divisive at an already-fragile time in America when communities across the country are divided over the disproportionate use of excessive and deadly force against men and boys of color; and the lack of accountability for those members of law enforcement who commit such acts.

President Obama, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, the Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as the families of both Eric Garner and Michael Brown have all categorically condemned the brutal murder of officers Wenjin and Ramos through public statements.

While the violent act of a lone individual has nothing to do with the thousands and thousands of protesters across America who have participated in peaceful marches to protest the epidemic of unchecked police brutality, conservative defenders of the status-quo area already using this crime to distort the legitimate protest movement and blame Democratic leaders for the attack.

In the wake of the incident, the reactionary leader of the NYPD's Patrolman's Benevolent Association (PBA) Patrick Lynch wasted no time blaming Mayor DeBlasio, publicly making the absurd suggestion that, "blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor."     

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani wasted no time appearing on Fox News Sunday to tread the worn conservative path of blaming President Obama for spreading anti-cop "propaganda" that motivated Brinsely to shoot the two officers before launching into a lecture on black-on-black crime.

But even Giuliani admitted that Patrick Lynch's inflammatory comments blaming the mayor for the murders "goes too far." 

Even though data shows that the vast majority of people who kill cops are white, the usual suspects of right wing media are busy spreading a distorted narrative linking peaceful protests and widespread calls for reforms in community policing to the actions of one disturbed lone gunman who happens to be black and invoked the name of Eric Garner and Michael Brown before murdering two innocent police officers then killing himself.

At the party this past Saturday night, my friend KC, a jovial red-headed former cop who remains close to many members of law enforcement, was clearly outraged about the killings of Ramos and Liu, but he was measured in his response.

When I asked him about the protests surrounding the failure to indict Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Garner, he was quick to point out that the officers were only trying to do their job when they arrested Garner. Policemen don't respond to any incident wanting to kill someone.

KC was troubled over the incident because from his perspective as a former NYPD officer who's been in numerous situations where suspects resist arrest, had Garner simply obeyed the commands of the officers to submit to being handcuffed and arrested; he would have been released from jail fairly quickly considering the charges were simply for selling loose cigarettes - a charge he'd been arrested for on numerous occasions.

But what about his being arrested for such a minor infraction in the first place? I asked him.

The relative seriousness of a charge, in KC's view, is not the primary concern when officers approach and arrest a suspect. From an officer's perspective, if the law is on the books, they are there to enforce it; and if necessary, perform an arrest. But they're not going to debate the merits of a law, it's not their job.

KC reminded me that even the video of the arrest showing Garner being placed in a choke hold can distort the facts of what happened.

If an officer places someone under arrest, that person must submit. If the person resists, fights or attempts to flee, police are authorized by law to use physical means to take the person into custody.

KC says police are not just going to stand there while a person or suspect debates why an arrest is not warranted; they're going to do their job.

From KC's standpoint, the police were simply doing their job in Staten Island when Garner was arrested, and it was Garner who jeopardized his own safety by resisting arrest.

But was the choke hold really necessary? I asked him, noting that there were four or five other officers standing there at the time and that Garner was already on the ground.

KC said he's had to use choke holds on suspects before, but it's the kind of technique an officer resorts to only after repeated commands are ignored, or a suspect continues to engage in a physical struggle that could place the officers in harm's way.   

I'm not sure I totally agreed with that, especially since choke holds seem to be disproportionately used on black and Latino suspects; but I listened to his explanation and it did help me to better understand the mindset of those officers on Staten Island.

It's important to note that KC has helped me to try and resolve issues with the police in the past; especially during an ID theft situation in the early 2000's where a criminal had stolen my ID and I was being stopped by police in New Jersey because they mistakenly thought I was the criminal.

KC was in agreement that the Garner situation was very different than the case of Akai Gurley, the 28 year-old innocent black man who was shot by a rookie NYPD police officer in the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project a few weeks ago.

He felt that case was a serious breakdown in decision-making, tactics, training and oversight - and that there should be repercussions for the officer responsible for taking the fatal shot; and for entering the stairwell of a building with his gun drawn for no reason in the first place.

KC was also clear that the death of 12 year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland was also a breakdown of monumental proportions as well given that officers are trained to maintain a distance of around 30 feet from any suspect holding a weapon - there is no scenario in which police are trained to pull up to a scene less than ten feet from someone holding a gun and simply shoot him.

But KC, like many current police officers in New York and other cities and towns in America, are well aware that the number of high profile killings of innocent, unarmed African-Americans has reached a critical point and that something is going to have to change.

As is evidenced by the announcement today that former Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney was justified in fatally shooting a 31 year-old schizophrenic homeless African-American man named Dontre Hamilton 14 times in a park back on April 30th of this year.

Our nation needs that change desperately.

KC, like others in this country confused about what's going on with community-police relations these days, doesn't have a specific answer as to what that change would look like; but he thinks revised training and oversight for police is essential.

He also believes some kind of community awareness or education is needed for young kids as well.

I agree that it's a shared responsibility. One that must begin with awareness and dialog.

Let's hope that dialog isn't drowned out by the reactionary voices of the Patrick Lynchs and Rudy Giulianis on one side - and the tiny fraction of protesters chanting for cops to be killed on the other.

Real change has to come from within. And it has to take place on the middle-ground where people can come together and find common cause.

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