A Police Shooting, A Facebook Debate


Last week a Huntington Beach police offer shot and killed a man outside of a convenience store. The deadly exchange was captured on cell phone video by two different bystanders, one of whom posted the video to Twitter within minutes of the encounter. It took only a few minutes more for arguments to begin on social media.

The video was only 17 seconds long and captured only a portion of the interaction but that was enough for hundreds of people on Facebook to make confident judgments about the rightness or wrongness of the officer's actions. The opinions were diverse, with the officer being described as everything from a hero to a murderer.

The assessments were diverse but shared a common confidence. Multiple "analysts" expressed their opinions without wavering, seemingly oblivious or uncaring of the thoughts of others. People chose their sides and held their ground eager to judge not only the officer and the man who was shot but also the assessments of fellow commenters. Scorn, praise, disdain and encouragement were freely given to complete strangers based on brief comments on Facebook. The relative of anonymity of social media led to name calling and personal attacks, peppered with dismissive insults of others such as “Embarassment”, “Fool”,  “Wackadoo” and “Asshat.”

Those against the officer's actions demanded he be punished, confidently stating he could have and should have acted differently. Some declared that the officer could have shot his attacker in the kneecaps instead of the torso, (which leads me to wonder if they have ever fired a handgun, as such marksmanship under pressure would be truly incredible). Others asserted that the officer, after an intense wrestling and fighting match with the man, should have somehow been able to subdue the man with his hands alone. Some were confident that had the officer only had better training in mental health issues he would have been able to “deescalate” the situation and avoided violence. They described the 27 Year-old man who attacked the officer in sympathetic terms, as a victim of society, the mental health system and overly aggressive policing.

Others decided not only to support the officer but to devalue the humanity of the man who attacked him. His name, once revealed, was seldom used as people chose to instead call him pejoratives such as "scum", "garbage" and "loser". Many said that not only that the officer justified in his actions but that the man "deserved to die."

Almost all of the comments revealed major flaws in American society, the seemingly universal inability to listen to and entertain alternative points of view, as well as the inability to questions one’s own positions and arguments. Battle lines take priority over lines of communication. Personal feelings of moral superiority trump the personal feelings of others. We are quick to judge, quick to speak and completely unwilling to listen to one another.

Many of the responses I read displayed a type of selfishness, an apparent desire to elevate one's self over others and to gain a sense of moral superiority. Opinions mattered more than people. Lacking in most of the dialogue was a sensitivity to those involved in the actual event, as if they were characters in a drama instead of real people. I do not know the officer but I suspect he has no need for others to question his actions.  He will undoubtedly undergone countless hours of self doubt and questioning in addition to the inevitable formal investigation. For the rest of his days he will have to deal with the reality of taking the life of another human being. The family of the man killed have had his mental illness and irrational behavior put on display for all of the world to see, with their family dynamics called into question. Those who disparage his upbringing and support network do so with no knowledge of the pain and agony experienced by the loved ones of those with serious psychiatric disorders. Families of the mentally ill often question themselves, wondering where they went wrong and what they could have done differently. This family has the added emotional stress of processing the graphic video images of someone they loved die from gunshots. With so many opportunities to question themselves and their past actions, they do not need the questioning of strangers.

It is time for all to take a step back. We need to be less confident in our opinions, more questioning of ourselves, and less questioning and judging of others. We are all flawed and broken people, we all fail, and we all struggle. None of us wants our imperfections publicly displayed and debated or to have our actions examined under a public microscope. We need grace more than we need judgment.

For me, I am going to make it a personal goal to change my initial responses to the actions of others shared in the media. Instead of jumping to conclusions and passing judgment I aim to fall to my knees and pray, for this may actually accomplish something.

- Bart

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Why Would Anyone Want to be a Police Officer?

I posed the question to a police officer this week and he could not give me a good answer. Morale among officers is the lowest he has ever seen. He is not alone in his thinking as I have received similar answers from other officers. The job is difficult, dangerous and increasingly thankless. For these reasons many officers are considering leaving the profession and there is a fear that the quality of future officers may be on the decline. Excellent candidates may choose other careers.

In California recent law changes have made it easy on criminals and hard on everyone else. A state ballot proposition passed in 2014 converted many felonies into misdemeanors and made many crimes the equivalent of a parking ticket. Repeat offenders who used to get jail time are now given nothing more than a citation and sent on their way. The inability to remove many lawbreakers from the streets has been demoralizing to officers who want to protect society.

Recent events have highlighted the dangers that officers face on a daily basis. While shootings such as the one in Dallas get national coverage the dangers of the job are not limited to firearms. Police officers often find themselves attempting to detain uncooperative suspects who are bigger and stronger than they are. A police officer patient of mine recently related a terrifying story of fighting for his life. He was in a five-minute fight with a suspect in the midst of a hostile crowd. Punches were thrown, bodies were slammed into cars and weapons were drawn. It never made the news but it left him seriously shaken.

This officer and others like him have told me that they often worry about being killed or injured. They all relate the same primary goal. They want to go home alive at the end of the day. Many have told me of fearful spouses who have difficulty sleeping while their loved one is at work. Stress levels are incredibly high and depression and anxiety are common.

For men and women in a career filled with danger and stress attacks on the profession wage a heavy toll. When protestors march and chant about harming cops and when racism is assumed in every interracial interaction officers are on edge. Their work has become so highly politicized they fear that every interaction carries the risk of criticism and disciplinary action. One officer I know discharged his weapon at a suspect who was reaching for a gun while holding a hostage. Even though he missed and no one was harmed he was subjected to a grueling and demeaning performance review that lasted for over a year.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that many officers are not paid well. Starting salaries in the United States are as low as $26,000 a year, about $12.50 an hour. Patrol officers make on average less than $40,000 a year in 11 states and less than $50,000 a year in over half of the states. We cannot expect the best and brightest of our citizens to put their lives on the line when we do not pay them well or appreciate them enough.

Recent police shootings illustrate another seldom discussed reality of police work. Even well-trained, educated and experienced officers can sometimes struggle to perform in high stress situations. It is one thing to know what to do and to be trained on what to do. Doing it in a life or death situation is a different story all together. I have seen this in my own profession. I have observed firsthand as experienced doctors who had passed all the tests and completed all of the training melted down in a life or death situation. They had good intentions and wanted to do well but they did not have the psychological make up to perform under intense pressure. Regardless of training, we cannot escape the reality that we are all human.

I wonder if this is not a major factor in many police shootings. As I watch the videos from Minnesota and Louisiana I wonder if panic and fear were the primary factors leading to poor decisions and actions by the officers involved. From what I know of police officers, and about people in general, this is far more likely than racism to be the root cause of the tragedy.

If we want to minimize police errors and mistakes we will have to create an environment in which the best and brightest among us pursue careers in law enforcement. If we continue to attack and question the motives of police officers, if we paint with a broad brush and accuse them of racism or other ill motives, if we continue to pay them poorly and treat them poorly, the best and the brightest will turn to other careers. All of us will suffer as a result.


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