Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Steve Blow's belated epiphany, or, How the press stopped 'nodding along' when police sublimate service to self

After reviewing video of Dallas police shooting a mentally ill man "nonchalantly holding a screwdriver in his hands," Dallas Morning News metro columnist Steve Blow in this column concluded that perhaps he should “quit nodding along and question the maxim" that a cop’s main duty is to “go home to his family” every night. I'm delighted to read Blow acknowledge years of “nodding along” (his readers, meanwhile, were “nodding off”). Everyone who has spent so many years praising the naked emperor's wardrobe on this question should be so forthright.  So let’s celebrate his belated epiphany that cops:
have willingly taken a job that involves personal risk. It also requires split-second decision making that must go beyond simple self-preservation.

If going home safely becomes the overriding priority, that can become another way of saying, “Shoot first and ask questions later.”
Despite that realization, the column lamely concluded, "Of course we want every officer to go home safely. But it can’t be their only thought." So what else should they think about when making a "split-second decision"? How should they prioritize their public safety duties vs. competing personal safety concerns? ¿Quien sabe? What a muddled mess! That's an awfully mild takeaway if the problem we're trying to address is "shootings in situations that seemed to pose no immediate threat to officers."

Having only just recognized that he's been "nodding along" for years to a stream of self-serving apologia, perhaps Blow can be forgiven for failing to acknowledge that cops' jobs aren't nearly as dangerous as the media, for whom dramatizing workaday crime coverage is a money making staple, would like to portray. In 2012, for example, officers died on the job at a rate of 14.9 per 100,000 employees. That's comparable to the rates for groundskeepers (13.9), taxi drivers (14.9), and construction workers (17.4), but a lot less than, say, garbage collectors, who died on the job in 2012 at a rate of 27.4 per 100,000.

Garbage collectors are public servants too. What in the world would we do without them? (Thought questions for the comment section: Would society deteriorate faster if police officers or garbage collectors stopped doing their jobs tomorrow? Why?) Many years, a majority of police officer deaths on the job stem from traffic accidents. Why? The same reasons taxi drivers have a relatively high on-the-job death rate. Patrol officers drive a lot and many don't wear their seat belts, a pattern which boosts the overall deaths number significantly.

So yes, I agree with Mr. Blow that the press should quit "nodding along" and openly discuss the fact that, "If self-preservation is the first and foremost priority of a police officer, then you get what we have seen in recent months and years — a series of unsettling police shootings." While they're at it, the media could revisit the ubiquitous first-order premise that police officers' jobs are so risky that lesser mortals cannot contemplate the dangers they face.

Now awake to these larger questions of duty and public service, perhaps in next week’s column Mr. Blow will demonstrate the same awed deference to our state’s brave garbage collectors. After all, to a measurably greater extent than peace officers, those guys put their lives on the line every day.


Anonymous said...

I don't expect the press to stop fellating LEOs, I just wish they'd stop saying the phrase "officer-involved-shooting". So many careful syllables for bullets ripping through flesh.

Anonymous said...

The state has a really good mental health peace officer course that likely would have made a huge difference in that shooting in Dallas. I (a probation officer) took the course alongside several police officers, and many of us were not convinced the course was worth our time on day 1. By the end of day 2, myself and most of the class had changed our minds and saw the benefits of the program.

When I saw the video from Dallas, it appeared to me that the officers likely had not had proper mental health training. That man would probably be in a psych ward right now rather than the grave had they been properly trained.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

My thought exactly, 10:05, a lot of de facto decisions masked as unexamined assumptions occurred quite quickly; it could have gone very differently.

You're not the only person I've heard plug the state's mental health peace officer training, btw - everybody I've heard mention it seems to praise it to high heavens.

Anonymous said...

Scott, 10:05 here, like I said, I wasn't sold on it until Day 2. It really opened my eyes and has changed the way I interact with probationers and their families in the field, especially those with mental health issues. I just wish the class went into more detail about specific mental health issues/illnesses. The scenarios the program put us through helped immensely. I heard TCOLE (Tickle?) was going to require all new academy grads to complete this course, but I think every LEO in Texas should be required to take it. My CSCD is also considering sending every CSO through the program to boost our effectiveness with offenders with mental health issues.

Joorie Doodie said...

I'll agree that this man probably shouldn't be dead. But, having watched the video a number of times--it's very hard to watch--I think this is going to go very badly for Dallas PD. That said...

Blow's characterization of the mentally ill man's behavior as "nonchalantly holding a screwdriver in his hands" is inflammatory and uninformed. It is one of those retractible screwdrivers, and the man extends the shaft as he comes out of the door. The footage is hard to interpret, as the shooting officer's camera jiggles around the moment before the shooting. It at least appears the man may have lunged toward the other officer, but it's not really clear.

To me one question that is not asked enough is: Why are still using technology (and maybe practicies) from the frontier days to immobilize and subdue attackers? And that goes for ALL of us who feel compelled to arm ourselves for self defense. Hey, I am pro-gun, pro-second amendment. But I can't accept the dogma that we will never have anything better than guns to defend ourselves. Why aren't we looking for better options?

Anonymous said...

Remove the penal code section stating a peace officer has no duty to retreat from a threat or to affect an arrest. Hell, why aren't the police asking for this to be removed if they're so imminently "in fear of their lives" in any given encounter. Seems more logical to not have a law implying that one must always engage, which certainly elevates the risk factors for an undesirable outcome for either side.

Joorie Doodie said...

Um, 1:29, did you think this through before you hit the "publish" button? If peace officers DID have a duty to retreat from a threat, then how would they ever arrest anyone? That's the problem with this whole discussion: there's a bunch of dogma, nonsense, emotions, and grandstanding on both sides, but little rationality.

Anonymous said...

Nobody in Texas has a duty to retreat. That law was changed about 10 years ago. In a criminal prosecution where the defendant argues that force was used in self-defense, the jury is forbidden by Texas law from even considering whether or not retreat was possible.

Joorie Doodie said...

Maybe the middle ground is a statute that ALLOWS peace officers to retreat--without risk of disciplinary actions or prosecution--in situations when they COULD retreat without endangering other persons or themselves. Again, the problem here is that if police officers are not obligated to use force, or are prohibited from doing so, will it be easier for criminals to resist arrest and/or restraint?

Anonymous said...

Providing and requiring the mentioned TCLOE training would be a great step in the right direction as well as requiring a block of training in junior high and high school for students about interaction and general compliance with school staff, authority figures, law enforcement, judges, elected officials, etc.

Also for those with known "mental" issues, the requiring of a "M" tattoo on their forehead so those that interact with them can "immediately" recognize them as "mental" and thus generally requiring a different approach. Otherwise it would be a guessing game or life as we now know it.

The Phantom Bureaucrat said...

Houston made the training mandatory years ago, every cadet going through the full course and the department assisting TCOLE as well as later making the rest of their department take a shorter version of the class. It does not stop all bad encounters with mentally ill but it has definitely had a huge impact that everyone I know appreciates.

That said, for decades, the city police emphasized how officers were required to take action on or off duty, from calling something in all the way up to fully engaging a suspect depending on the circumstances. That kind of cultural tidbit makes change more difficult, their current pension leader part of a team that tried to get officers to back off between the mid 80's to a little after one of the major school shootings.

Then, the old ways were abandoned and officers were trained to aggressively and actively confront suspects with weapons. The many limitations of bean bag shotguns, tasers, and other "less than lethal" weapons were drilled into their heads and any use at all of a baton was discouraged mainly because of "how it looked" and how people make wild eyed assumptions about their use.

Through it all, the phrases "in fear for my life" and the general going home at the end of the shift were hammered into training classes of all sorts, even those with no tactical purpose such as computer programs. Unlike some here would ever believe, many officers would raise questions about how much fear was enough to shoot with, how changing circumstances could necessitate doing something "different" than was being taught, the stock answer being that they were legally covered as long as they followed a a limited range of taught responses.

The going home phrase was never intended to mean simply going home alive nor did it ever truncate all other concerns, enough of us carted off by ambulance or sidelined for days at a time by some jerk to impress focusing on deaths alone was about as fair as demanding activists only consider something "brutality" when it resulted in the death of someone.

Those that would wash away all concerns by officers under the guise of "you knew the risks when you signed up" will likely find few others to spout such nonsense either. The courts rarely buy into it, jurors show how much they hate a defense attorney trying that tactic in court with maximum sentences, and the general public agrees with the expected police thoughts on the matter.

Still, demanding more of officers in general and forcing their departments to properly train their people is becoming more important these days. Eventually, that demand will be met by cities as a cheaper method of fighting off lawsuits but it is as rare as hen's teeth across the country, not just Texas.

TriggerMortis said...

From the column in question:

"Where does that standard end though? Someone asked: What if Harrison had come to the door holding a sharpened pencil?"

That situation already occurred in Houston, and the victim was a double amputee confined to a wheelchair. He was killed for brandishing a permanent marker and no charges were filed: http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/23/us/texas-amputee-shooting/

sunray's wench said...

Anon 11.44 said "Also for those with known "mental" issues, the requiring of a "M" tattoo on their forehead so those that interact with them can "immediately" recognize them as "mental" and thus generally requiring a different approach. Otherwise it would be a guessing game or life as we now know it."

Seriously? So what would you include as "known mental issues"? How would you feel if a doctor labeled you as such and you had to wear a tattoo on your forehead to show it? Well I guess you'd be OK with that, seeing as you've proposed it.

Anonymous said...

Trigger, while I agree in general, the fact is that in low light situations that rapidly change, an officer can mistake something in the hand as a weapon, the ability to "Monday Morning Quarterback" a luxury we can afford yet they cannot, hence the Grand Jury's decision. I was given the privilege of listening to the recordings made on that case, all of them in fact, and if anyone should have been indicted, it was the person calling the matter in to police given how embellished the account was to speed up a response.

Anonymous said...

12:19pm - my posting was a little facetious for known "mental" illness, but my point is society (the general public, media, LE, doctors, courts, etc) should come to a reasonable compromise. Officers should be properly trained, but they are not roadside mental health experts that can always talk folks into compliance like on TV.

The "M" tattoo or any other immediately recognizable item, marking, etc could allow officers, the general, etc to know who they are dealing with. While I acknowledge this would be considered cruel and unreasonable; it too is unreasonable to believe that law enforcement can know or immediately detect that a person has mental illness and therefore expect officers to attempt a different (sometimes less confrontational) path that generally involves some use of force.

While I have seen the stats Scott likes to post about death rates per occupation; garbage collectors, forestry personnel, police officers, etc have dangerous jobs. However few occupations outside of the military and law enforcement have folks wanting to kill you. Sure a garbage truck can roll backwards killing a garbage collector, a tree can fall on forestry personnel, and a tire can blow out on an officer's code call killing any of them, but few garbage collectors or forestry personnel are ambushed while eating lunch or responding to a call simply because of their uniform.

sunray's wench said...

Anon 4.08 ~ police officers should be courteous and cautious at all times, not only with a section of the community. They are public SERVANTS. We pay their wages.

Anonymous said...

1:02AM - I agree police officers should be courteous and cautious at all times. They also pay taxes, so I guess they also pay part of their own wages.