Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Policing the Police

Gary Reece, Ph.D.

Living in the media age has its advantages and disadvantages. It frames our outlook on life and fills our brains with images and stories which 10 years ago we would not be seeing. This is a good-bad thing. It makes us more aware, heightens our consciousness and shapes our perceptions of the kind of world we are living in. Whether these images accurately reflect a new reality is hard to know. What it does to us psychologically viewing the daily carnage is a whole other issue. The frequency of police shootings and miscarriages of justice would suggest that things are worsening. These headlines grab our attention but do not really inform or portray an accurate portrait of reality, or do they? It merely illustrates the maxim, “reality is perception and the media definitely shapes our perceptions.

The frequency and type of police and citizen altercations has finally raised the issue of police conduct to a level of public awareness that seems to have passed some perceptual threshold. Everyone now seems to have a camera and video capability so that more and more people are recording these encounters which further illuminate these interactions. Sometimes it appears that the police are not serving and protecting. Because of these recorded episodes and several highly publicized episodes there is to be a growing movement for more accountability and citizen over sight of police activity.

The issue is obviously contentious. I have participated in and watched debates between the ACLU and Pasadena Police Department. The department does not want “one more level of bureaucracy to have to deal with,” the citizens want more to say and want more input into cases that have arisen between citizen and police encounters, in particular because of a police shooting of an unarmed black teen ager. This movement reflects a growing skepticism that appears to stem from the erosion of what has previously been taken for granted: police-public trust. This fragile bond appears strained and in some cases totally broken. Why?

One possible reason is a startling statistic, the number of felony suspects fatally shot by police officers last year-461 was the most in two decades (according to a new FBI record, USA Today).
Several high profile deaths at the hands of police officers have added to the ground swell of unrest and suspicion. And certainly the shooting of a black teen ager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri fanned the flames of outrage and violence as it captured national media attention for several days. Unfortunately this was not the only incident, several other events
fueled the controversy as well: in New York several officers choked an unarmed black man, in Albuquerque, March 16, 2014: Albuquerque officers fatally shoot James Boyd, a mentally-ill homeless man they were trying to prevent from camping in the foothills. In Los Angeles on August 11, 2014, Los Angeles cops fatally shoot Ezell Ford, an unarmed 25-year-old suffering from unspecified mental issues. The circumstances surrounding the shooting are still “under review”. In Cleveland Tamir Rice held a toy gun when he was leaving a park; he was shot when Police arrived.

Are these cases atypical, a problem created by mass coverage by media hungry for sensational headlines? Not according to FBI statistics. This year a USA Today analysis of FBI justifiable homicides database during a seven year period ending in 2012 found an average of 96 incidents each year in which a white officer killed a black person. It is difficult to get a clear picture from these statistics because Departments voluntarily report these figures and not all Departments report, leaving the public guessing at the true number of people shot dead by police. Without an accurate tally, it is impossible to examine when shootings are justified. While most of the shooting victims were armed, 16 per cent were unarmed or carrying toys, the analysis found. Many of the shootings involved calls for domestic disturbances and nearly a quarter of all victims were identified as being mentally ill.

The Post reported in April that only 54 officers were charged in thousands of known shootings over the past decade. Rarely were officers convicted, the Post also reported that 14 officers lost their lives.

It must be understood that policing is difficult and hazardous work. When officers respond to a call, they are often given incomplete information. They arrive, tension high, not knowing what they will be facing. Usually they are called to intervene mid-scene with people doing strange, often violent things to each other, in particular domestic violence cases are difficult; as are calls involving mentally ill subjects. Responders often make judgments; requiring the officers to make instant decisions in fast evolving situations. They rely on their training and evaluation of the scene. They are under stress and sometimes make the wrong decisions. The use of deadly force is often in question and is a function of the officer’s assessment of the situation. Some officials have admitted that they sometimes make the wrong decision. What is often apparent is that their tactics particularly with the mentally ill begin by shouting orders to the individual which immediately escalates the situation, seldom is there an attempt to back off and de-escalate.

For example a newly released video footage is giving Americans yet another glimpse at how police are trained, their mindset, and how the results can be lethal. The killing happened last year in Dallas, Texas. The mother of Jason Harrison, a black man with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, called police to say that he was off his meds. She wanted their help getting him to the hospital—something she’d received assistance before without incident-and requested cops trained to handle the mentally ill. When they arrived, within seconds of the door being opened, the two police officers saw that Harrison was fumbling with a screwdriver. They began shouting at him to drop it and quickly shot him five times. There have been numerous comments on this incident from police to public who have viewed the video. The net result suggests that police do not get enough training in how to respond to mentally ill citizens. Their first reaction is aggression and this leads to escalation. The results are predictable when this happens. An article from the Atlantic notes that U.S. police officers shoot somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people per year, whereas “there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year.” In Germany there have been 8 police killings over the past two years. In Canada, a country similar to ours, police shootings average about a dozen a year.

The questions remain open for discussion, is it poor training, job stress, racial bias, faulty judgment, the emotional makeup of police officers who are trained to be aggressive and armed and approach situations with a mandate to control and enforce the law with whatever force is necessary? What kinds of individuals are attracted to this kind of work? What is their training? What is the impact of their daily jobs on their emotional makeup? Should there be more citizen oversight? Would it serve any useful purpose?

What it appears to come down to is the relationship between the police and the community they serve, is it one of mutual trust and respect? Or are the citizens suspicious, resentful, and alienated from those tasked with keeping order in the community? What can police departments do to overcome suspicion, mistrust and outright hostility? Do they even see this as a problem?
Much has been made of the problem of police, policing themselves. Recently it was reported that Chicago routinely sent back reviews which indicated the police acted incorrectly and fired one of the individuals responsible for refusing to change his findings to conform to department wishes. There have been numerous occurrences of police reviews coming back with a verdict of “justified.” It appears that the police have difficult perceptual problems to overcome if they wish to keep the trust of the community, or perhaps I should say, regain it. The Post concluded “that only 54 officers were charged in thousands of know shootings over the past decade. Rarely were officers convicted.”

Personal Experience

What has been written up to this point has been theoretical based on my research and the experience of others. I find that when I can interject my actual experience and knowledge into a narrative it becomes more meaningful to me as well as others. In a recent meeting the topic came up about people and their perception of the police. Most testified to positive encounters with the police and had trouble identifying with the individuals we have been reading about who had recent encounters with the various police departments around the country. All were upper class whites with a progressive-liberal leaning regarding law enforcement. I did not share my experience at that time because it was so contrary to their perception of law enforcement. Mine was like theirs until one day in April of 2007. I went out to purchase a new computer. I went to a “Unitek Computer” store and found one to my liking. I was carrying a check from my bank drawn on a line of credit I had with them. I wrote the check for approximately $1800. This was on 4/14/07. I told them to call me when the check had cleared and I would pick up my computer at the end of the week. All was well, simple transaction, what could go wrong? Two days later I was called and told the check had cleared and that I could come and pick up my computer at any time. (1st lie) I told them I would be in on the weekend. The next day I get a call from Pasadena Police, officer Corrales telling me that they think I had ‘become a victim of identity theft and they would like to come out and talk to me. (2nd lie) I responded and set up a time for them to come and see me. I graciously went out to the sidewalk in front of my apartment so they wouldn’t have to navigate the stairs. Two Pasadena PD squad cars showed up. I went out to greet them and introduced myself. Officer Corrales stepped up to me, ordered me to turn around, placed me in hand cuffs behind my back and read me my rights. I was being arrested for “felony grand theft”. A complaint had been lodged against me for writing a bad check. I advised the officer that the check was good and had been drawn on my bank with an official check. I also advised him that I had a rotator cuff issue with my left shoulder and that the cuffs were very painful. (met with indifference) I also advised him that I was a fragile diabetic and needed my medication since I was obviously going for a ride down town. (They promised I would receive proper medical care)(3rd lie) I also said the standard things people say to police, ”I’m innocent,” “there must be some mistake, I have done nothing wrong, etc.” All fell on deaf ears. I was placed in the police car, hands cuffed behind me, in great pain. This was when I began to panic and I felt my carefully constructed, comfortable, well-ordered world spin out of control. I felt humiliated, helpless, shocked and terrified: victimized by indifferent officers who had all the power and I had none. This could not be happening to me! I am a successful, well educated, affluent, Caucasian male who has worked with the police. I have a Ph.D in psychology and am a respected member of my community. They were treating me like a felon. They saw me as a felon because the warrant said so. How they got an arrest warrant I do not know, because if they would have submitted the check to the bank it would have been honored. So that is a question yet to be answered. I was told that medication would be provided for me, (4th lie). And that a detective would be waiting to take my statement, (5th lie).

I was taken to Pasadena Police Department and placed in a cell. That is a uniquely traumatizing experience looking out through green bars. In the mean time they had taken all my possession, ring, watch, wallet, gold bracelet, car keys, and had me take off my shoes and socks and patted down. This is also a uniquely dehumanizing experience where you are deprived of your identity,
as well as dignity. (I was just another face to be processed, with bored indifference.) I was then photographed, finger printed, and given my phone call. This happened at approximately 4:00 in the afternoon. I called my employer, very strange call to make, telling her something very weird had just happened. She arranged for a bail bondsman. I was given a meal; not diabetic appropriate food. At 10:00 I was notified I could leave. They let me out the back door, they kept my shoe laces, I ended up on the street with my possessions returned to me, I had to return to the front of the station and request that they call a cab for me, since I had received a free ride to the station. They apparently don’t provide free returns. This experience lasted 6 hours, but was very traumatizing. I continue to revisit the experience at odd moments. I now know what it feels like to be treated like a felon, deprived of freedom; and the utterly traumatizing shock of being taken prisoner and held against your will, knowing I was innocent. When I got home my blood pressure was 220/150. My glucose was over 300, I did not sleep at all that evening and had trouble with insomnia for several months after that.

I called my lawyer the next day; he called the bank, was reassured the check was good and then called a Detective Granado. They discussed the case for 5 minutes and my lawyer was told it was dismissed. I lost $2,000 in bail money and $20 in cab fare. But much more was lost that day. I no longer trust the police. When I see a Black and White I become very anxious and have become super careful around them. The technical term is “hyper-vigilant”. My greatest fear is that of recurrence. That is typical of all trauma victims. On April 25, I received a letter from Constance Orozco, Chief Prosecutor, telling me there was no fraud involved. The matter is now closed. (no apology for the “inconvenience, expenses and emotional distress), I kept my plastic bracelet with my name on it and my booking # from the Los Angeles County Jail. I know that if I had been loaded onto a bus and taken there I would probably have died.

What we learn in dealing with trauma is that anything can happen, that we are all vulnerable, even old well educated white guys who live in “safe neighborhoods” and belong to the correct clubs. I was the victim of sloppy, deceptive police work. I was fortunate in that I had resources, an employer and a good lawyer who was a personal friend. This sort of thing happens at a higher rate of frequency in different parts of town to different ethnic groups. (who often do not have the same resources). They experience the same humiliation, shame, helplessness and fear that I did, it is no wonder there is fear, mistrust, resentment, and even rage when they encounter the police. It happened to me 8 years ago, and left an indelible mark on me psychologically. Falsely accused; falsely arrested! These kinds of experiences shape our world-view and leave their mark; if it happens repeatedly to others in the community the experience only deepens the scars, and compounds the gulf between the police and those victimized by the abuse of power.

Any experience which causes a breach of trust, whether between parent and child, the police and civilians, or international relations must be healed or else, as we have observed, they escalate into ongoing strife and open warfare. Trust is not easily gained and even harder to regain once lost.

The safety and well being of our communities is at stake, we must feel safe! We must be able to rely on the police to protect our bodies, property and well being. We must be able to trust them to protect our rights and treat us with respect. Casual indifference and assumption of guilt does not engender trust.

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