“We are trained to be trigger happy”

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Or you could say, “We are trained to shoot first. We don’t ask questions, and we don’t answer them.”

Here’s a question you might ask leaders of police departments, though you’ll never receive an answer to it: Why such a significant shift, primarily since 9/11, from protection of others to protection of self? Why is police training so similar to military training now?


One way to conceive this transformation is to remember the kindly Boston police officer named Michael in Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. The rotund officer has a smile for passers by. He feeds the ducks peanuts every day. He stops traffic so Mrs. Mallard and her family can cross the street. He is there to help. Compare that image to the stormtroopers of today, often in helmets, always dressed in black, and always armed. One would say that in encounters between police and citizens, in many locales, emotions on both sides do not recall Michael and his famous ducklings.

These archetypes, the storm trooper and Michael the local cop, do not cover all police officers or situations, of course. If it helps, think also of Andy Griffith, Shane, or the characters of Law and Order. All of these stories present images of people who try to protect others, who act with a fair degree of selflessness for the sake of their communities. On the other side, one envisions stormtroopers, the white-clad, mindless soldiers in Star Wars, or peacekeepers in The Hunger Games. In every case, their mission is not community protection. Their mission is to protect themselves and the state. Modern troopers beat, taze, murder, and rape people in their custody. Just as Michael is an archetype, so is the armed officer, trained like a soldier, who does not know how protect the community.

Why such a significant shift, primarily since 9/11, from protection of others to protection of self? Why is police training so similar to military training now?

The first difference is a huge change in mindset. Michael is there to take care of other people, even animals. They place service to others first. They do not think about themselves above everything else. That’s why we admire them: they would put themselves in danger to protect us. In contrast, when we bring one officer after another into court, after they have killed someone in the line of duty, their defense always amounts to the same exculpatory excuses. Everything they do rests on self-protection. They open their statements with, “I thought he might…”

A prosecutor might tell an officer in the dock, what you thought your victim might do does not pertain to a case where you used disproportionate, lethal force to extinguish your fears. We don’t care what you thought your victim might do. You are not in a kill or be killed situation. If you were, you wouldn’t be in court. Everyone, prosecutors included, can easily recognize a situation like that. Those situations are rare, even in war. They practically never happen in civilian police work. Yet police manage to work themselves into an adrenaline-stoked high, or a panicked, hair-trigger reaction for so many situations you cannot begin to describe them all: traffic stops, drug busts, someone has a toy gun, or a real one, any kind of unusual behavior. Almost every situation calls for escalation.

A prosecutor might tell an officer in the dock, what you thought your victim might do does not pertain to a case where you used disproportionate, lethal force to extinguish your fears.

What deadly cocktail produced this way of thinking, this way of reacting? We used to admire police for their ability to size up a situation, to deescalate a situation where someone might be troubled or emotional or angry. Now they just shoot. The defendant in the Arizona La Quinta case had his victim crawl toward him in the hotel hallway, then shot him five times because he tried to keep his shorts from coming down as they dragged against the carpet. Hand to the waistband? He might have a gun. Plug him. After all, that’s what I have etched into my service weapon: “You’re fucked”.

I guess that should be the motto of trigger happy police everywhere. “You’re fucked.” That’s exactly the way they act. I have a gun and you don’t. The officer who shot the man crawling toward him said he would do it again, if the situation were to repeat itself. Of course you would. Your lawyer told you to say that, and a sympathetic jury loves that shit because it’s true. Of course you would do it again: to use your own words, that’s how you were trained. You’re not trained to check out a guy who’s showing off his new pellet rifle – we used to call them BB guns. You’re trained to plug a guy who reaches for his waistband because you “thought he might.”

After Chambers went to the hospital, a group of nine other uniformed NYPD officers showed up to intimidate her.

The excuses police come up with to exonerate themselves have the same false foundation in every case. We’re the law. Therefore what we do can’t be wrong. Now let’s fashion a story that shows why our actions were justified in a particular instance. An egregious example recently involved a pair of New York police officers who took Anna Chambers into custody. They handcuffed her, drove her to a dark parking lot, forced her into oral sex in the back of their van, then raped her. Afterwards, when she accused them of assault, they said she consented. It didn’t matter that they had her in handcuffs. If she let herself be raped, she must have consented.

After Chambers went to the hospital, a team of nine other uniformed NYPD officers showed up to intimidate her. They said anything they thought would deter Chambers and her mother from reporting the crime. Chambers’ case is quite different from a trigger-happy murder. I raise it here because it illustrates so well that police officers, whether they make a mistake or commit a crime, will not take responsibility for what they do. Their colleagues back them up. You can always find an excuse. The nine men at Maimonides hospital even tried to convince Chambers that her assailants weren’t police officers! The weeping victim might have replied, “If they weren’t police officers, then why are you here?”

If that is how police officers are trained, if the shooter would truly do the same thing again, then his department should show the video to new recruits, to show them how to act in similar situations.

As for the poor gentleman gunned down as he lay prone, sobbing in the La Quinta hallway, he can’t speak for himself anymore. I wonder if the jury would have acquitted the police officer if they had heard the victim’s version of events. Well, they acquitted him even though they saw a video recording of the murder. Without a doubt, the shooter’s behavior in the video is not good police work. Other officers in the hallway did not think they had to shoot to protect themselves. The shooter had hyped himself up with barked commands the victim could hardly understand. The victim only knew the officer was looking for a chance to kill him.

If that is how police officers are trained, if the shooter would truly do the same thing again, then his department should show the video to new recruits, to show them how to act in similar situations. The situation in the motel hallway was, as our prior president would have said, a teachable moment. What do you do when an abject man begs for his life, face down on the carpet in front of you? If he reaches for his waistband, you plug ‘im. Five times to make sure.

What does the officer tell his family when he returns home that night? Does he tell them he did good work, because he’s safe while his victim lies on a gurney in the coroner’s office? I’d do it again, he adds in court. I acted the way they told me to act, without thought. You don’t have time to think. You just react. In fact, his leaders might remind him, you control the situation. You do not have to react on a hair trigger. You do not have to behave as a soldier in battle. So instead you tell your victim, in multiple ways before you shoot: you’re fucked.


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