Police dismayed to be seen as racists

Lindsay Wise and Katy Moeller
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Washington — Police officers dispatched to investigate a 911 hang-up recently in an Idaho suburb were surprised by the reaction they got from the mother of the children who had been playing with the phone.

"She said, ' I've told my kids not to talk to you because you're the people who kill us,' " recalled Tracy Basterrechea, deputy police chief in Meridian, Idaho, near Boise. The mother was Hispanic and her children African-American, he said.

Police in Meridian and other cities across the country are facing an angry backlash from the public after a series of police killings of unarmed African-Americans.

Some in the law enforcement community say the incidents — and the protests that followed — are a wake-up call that should spark soul-searching among officers and drive police departments to revamp training. But many police think they're being stereotyped as racist and brutal.

"The idea that police wake up, strap on their guns and pin on their badges, and sit around thinking about how they're going to make lives miserable in the minority community — that's just at variance with common sense," said James Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national labor union representing rank-and-file officers.

"Police officers are very, very upset at what's going on now, and the way that 700,000 of us are being painted with a broad brush of racism and ill-intent and malevolent motivation — that we just want to go out there and hurt people, when it's the exact opposite," said James Glennon, a retired police lieutenant from Lombard, Illinois, referring to the number of officers working in the United States.

"We pull people out of wrecked cars, we hold people's hands when they're dying, we talk to 5-year-olds when they get raped, and one cop puts a chokehold on somebody and all of a sudden we're all racist killers," said Glennon, who owns Calibre Press, a company that trains police officers in the use of force.

Most officers are devastated when they kill someone on the job, even if they're convinced they had no other choice, said Bill Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, a coalition of police units and associations from across the United States.

As a prosecutor in Miami, Johnson worked closely with officers who'd used deadly force. He was assigned to represent them before grand juries and under questioning by their fellow police.

One of the hardest parts of his job, he said, was breaking the news to the officer that the person he'd shot or injured had died at the hospital.

"Generally, the officer who was involved is isolated because they want to get his statement, so he oftentimes isn't aware of what happened to the suspect," Johnson said. "So sometimes you have to be the person to tell him, 'Hey, I have to let you know this guy died.' Some would be silent, some guys would cry, some would be sick. ... But no one was ever happy."

About half the officers eventually leave the job, he said.

Johnson said some departments trained officers poorly, but by and large he thinks police academies do a good job of teaching officers that resorting to deadly force has to be the absolute last choice.

"Officers I've represented who've had to use deadly force, they'll tell you at some point it's an oh (expletive) moment," Johnson said. "It's not, 'Let me go through my options.' It really becomes a visceral response to a threat. The guys'll tell you, 'I knew I was going to die.' "

He said officers generally thought that the grand jury process worked.

"That doesn't mean they think they're getting a break from them," Johnson said. "They do realize they are going to be investigated if there's a shooting, whether or not they're in the right."

For African-American police officers, the recent killings and protests highlight the challenge of balancing their professional identities with the concerns of minority communities.

"It isn't about choosing sides," said Bryan Pendleton, a San Diego police officer who also serves as the western regional president of the National Black Police Association.

"I certainly understand, as a black police officer, the attitude amongst a lot of blacks that a black life doesn't mean a thing. That's my perception too," he said. But, he added, "that's a hard conversation to have with your colleagues in law enforcement, because most cops will always side with the cop regardless."

Still, Pendleton said, stereotyping police officers as racist because of individual cases is unfair to the profession.

"It gives law enforcement a black eye, and that's unfortunate," he said.

Police don't always do everything right, admitted Pasco of the Fraternal Order of Police. But he said it wasn't law enforcement's responsibility alone to fix the broken trust between officers and the communities they were sworn to protect.

"It's not just about building community trust in the police, it's about building police trust in the community," Pasco said.

"We're ready to work, we want to improve the perception of police and we want our feelings of lack of cooperation and respect to be heard," he said. "It's going to take both sides. ... If we squander the opportunity, then we'll just continue to muddle along the way we have, which would be a tragedy on top of tragedy."

Moeller reported from Boise, Idaho. Daniel Salazar contributed.