I was thirty when I joined the police department, back when there was still some post-9/11 glow to it. Right after I graduated the academy, my wife gave birth to our first child, and I was able to take one day off before I had to report to my downtown station. That first night, my partner told me to tape a picture of my daughter inside my locker and look hard at it before every shift. "Not everyone makes it back," he warned. "Every time you run into some gangster, remember: That little girl wants you to come home."
Five years later, I was able to sit down and count ten friends and acquaintances who were shot in the line of duty. I skipped the ones who were stabbed, beaten or hit by cars. I hadn't yet met my friend who was ambushed and felt a bullet skim over the top of his crewcut. I didn't count the officer who shot and killed a real bank robber brandishing a fake gun. His friends said he never got over it. Fifteen years later, he walked out on a California beach and shot himself with his service pistol.
The wounds this job inflicts on its street cops are real, and some of them never go away. You might make it home to your child but leave a piece of yourself at the scene where you saw something you can never unsee. Or did something that you can never undo. Like the cop who shot the robber with the toy gun, we can torture ourselves for decisions made in the heat of the moment that we wish we could take back.
I have been fortunate that all my regrets could have been solved by keeping my mouth shut. Other friends weren't so lucky. One realized he was aiming at the wrong person right as pulled the trigger. "God, I hope I just missed," he thought.
Too often, the media spouts the lie that the wellspring of police violence is racism or callous indifference to life. Our mistakes happen because we harbor brutal urges, parallels to the dark days of Jim Crow or the Rampart scandal. The confusion, the chaos, the conflicting perspectives — what we call "the totality of the circumstances" — is ignored in favor of a simplistic narrative which interprets virtually all police action through the lens of racial intolerance.
The wounds this job inflicts on its street cops are real, and some of them never go away.
When Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, thousands seized upon "Hands up, don't shoot" as a cry from the heart exposing the racist core of American policing. After the coroner's investigation proved that Michael Brown was trying to kill Darren Wilson and never put his hands in the air, the popularity of the chant barely diminished. It was a useful fraud, and the throngs of chanting protesters guessed correctly that very few in the media would correct the record or care much about Officer Wilson, who lost his livelihood and had to go into hiding.
This is not to say that there aren't bad cops, or even murderous and racist ones. But in my experience the truth is that this kind of person is not just a minority, but a hopeless outlier. The good news is that incidents like the one in Ferguson are rare. Crime rates are actuallymuch lowerthan they were twenty years ago. Officers are much more diverse, and many of the big urban departments reflect the racial makeup of the communities they serve. The LAPD hasn't been majority white in over 25 years.
The next time you turn on the TV and catch some of the non-stop animosity directed against the police, think of the hard-working rookie who works nights and weekends, sometimes Christmas and Thanksgiving. He is approaching a scene with too little information and may be on hour 13 of his shift.
When he gets to where he's going, he may have just seconds to make a life-or-death decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. However you judge him, please understand that as he draws his gun, he's thinking of the picture taped to his locker, of the family who wants him to come home.