In one of the two, weekly newspapers that arrive in my mailbox each week, retired police officer Mark Petrus had this to say in a guest column.
It is difficult these days to open a newspaper, listen to the electronic media, or scan the Internet without encountering a story or commentary dealing with what some would call the rising tide of police aggressiveness in this country. The Ferguson fiasco, the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland, and the death of Eric Garner in New York City are currently the most prominent incidents bringing this issue to the forefront.
Is this, then, a real issue? Has something changed within our police departments? Are police officers today more aggressive than they were a generation ago? My answer to these questions would be yes, and I would like to offer a possible explanation for this change.
Petrus joined the police force of Wadsworth, Ohio, population 21,842, in 1987. He retired from the force in 2012.
In his view, Petrus sees a culture of aggression that has come to pervade police forces, like the one in Wadsworth, fostered by media fixation on violence since the events of 11 September 2001. These news reports paint a picture of unsafe streets and constant threats despite national crime statistics that indicate a steady decrease in violent crime since 1990.
Yes, I have that right, crime in the United States has been in a downward trend for the past 25 years.
You would never guess that truth if you were glued to broadcast news.
In 1980, national statistics showed 729.6 violent crimes (murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assaults) per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2012 that number had dropped to 386.9, a decrease of approximately 47 percent; nearly 50 percent less violent crime and the drop has nothing to do with hyper-aggressive, militarized police forces.
In the first fifteen years of my service my fellow officers and I went about our duties with what I would term a defensive mindset. That is, we approached our encounters with potentially violent people with the understanding that we could only use some measure of force if force was directed against us or against an innocent party. The fist or the baton or the firearm could only be employed if the suspect initiated the aggressive action.
During the last ten years of his service, Petrus writes:
[P]olice training began to adapt to the new [post-2001] environment. Police training videos, books, seminars, and schools/academies began to move toward more of a strike first mentality.
In the small town of Wadsworth, that training manifested in part, in the form of:
[T]he installation of a relatively young and inexperienced officer as the firearms and tactics instructor. Imbued with the new philosophy of aggressiveness by various police schools and seminars, this officer was given free rein by the department administration to impose his aggressive style on all members of the department. Our training thus became increasingly military-like in both tone and structure: The streets were full of the enemy, out to kill us; not full of our fellow citizens who deserved the benefit of the doubt in the vast majority of our encounters. When veteran officers such as myself cautioned that aggressiveness must be balanced with common sense and humanity, we were called old-fashioned and not in step with the times. Needless to say, those new officers who were subjected to this instructor’s philosophy with no room for argument had to embrace the philosophy or suffer the wrath of the department administration. Thus, a philosophy of strike first and aggressiveness wins became the dominant mindset of the department.
I have family in law enforcement, now long since retired, and they, as well as the police officers I have known during my lifetime, were honest men guided by an ideal of service and a concern for the community they served in.
When we give assault rifles, body armor, grenades and tanks to the men and women tasked with keeping the places where we live safe, we cannot be shocked when they use that military gear in ways that horrify us and grossly offend our senses of decency and humanity.
When honorable men like Petrus tell us that we ought to be concerned, we ignore his warning at a risk of great peril.