(Editor's note: Cheri Maples is a former police officer, a Buddhist dharma teacher, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice.
She wrote the following essay as her community in Madison, Wisconsin, struggles with grief and anger over the death of a local musician who was shot by a police officer after he accidentally entered a neighbor's home. The incident has provoked community outrage and rethinking of local policing standards. But Maples's piece also sheds light on the dynamics behind increasingly militarized police response in communities across the nation.)
As I think about the reactions and commentary from the community and the police department to the tragic death of Paulie Heenan, I see the competing underlying philosophical tensions in policing once again rearing their old and familiar heads.
Are we a paramilitary profession protecting the community from bad guys?
Or are we a community-oriented profession building public safety through community and problem-oriented policing strategies that build neighborhood capacity?
How you answer that question will determine how you train and use your resources.
In police departments across the country, including our own in Madison, Wi., I hear a loud internal cry that it's a different job than it was. "You don't understand what it's like out there... It is more dangerous now than it was before. Tactics must change to reflect that difference. Now, in order to keep officers from being hurt and killed, we have to train them always to operate from a tactical position of advantage."
When I came on in the early '80s, I heard the same cry. It's a different world in Madison now then it was then. Now we have gangs and crack cocaine and things that just did not exist before so we better get with it. We better get tactically and technologically prepared or we won't be able to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. We'll lose the "war."
The problem is that we are not at war. We are not fighting an enemy. We are protecting and serving our neighbors and fellow citizens.
And, as police departments continue to gear up to become more militarized to fight terrorism and violence, the violent crime rate in this country has actually been going down. Are there exceptions to that general rule? Yes, by the nature of statistics, there have to be.
Since 911, there is even more of a trend toward the militarization of our police. Most of the federal funding available reinforces the trend. We want our police departments prepared tactically, and we will give you federal funding to help make sure you have the necessary equipment to fight the terrorist enemy that cannot be seen or identified. Hence, more money for more tactical gear and training to help you get better prepared. And more riot gear rotting in the trunks of squad cars.
I do know that police officers continue to die in the line of duty. I also know that police officers deal with some of the worst elements of the community that are often invisible to their fellow community members. And, this fact definitely has an impact on them.
I also know that we lose more officers emotionally than physically. The number of officers who take their own lives continues to be much higher than the number of officers who die in the line of duty. In fact, in Madison, I don't know when the last time was that an officer was killed in the line of duty.
I know it has not happened in the over 35 years since I have lived here. And, my guess is that there are probably no longer any former MPD police officers alive who remember losing a fellow MPD officer. With all of my heart, I hope and pray that trend will continue. However, I know several officers who have had a hard time surviving the emotional effects of the job. And, we still don't seem to train much for the emotional effects of the job.
As we continue to invest in the militarization of our police departments, as we continue to invest the majority of our police training resources in this country for tactical training, the great majority of calls the police respond to are still calls that require crisis intervention skills.
They are calls that require people skills, calls that require an understanding of mental illness, calls that require us to know how to defuse conflicts of different kinds, calls that require us to listen and receive another person in crisis with some kindness and compassion.
Sometimes, I think the police are their own worst enemy because they don't take credit for the majority of their work, which is, in fact, crisis intervention.
We want to take credit for the gutsy, sexy stuff that requires us to wear guns and be warriors.
We don't want to take credit for that pansy touchy-feely social worker crap.
We don't want you to see us as compassionate, caring people.
We want you to see us the way we are portrayed on TV. We're the omnipotent, small gang of armed good guys chasing the ever-growing, ever-invisible gang of bad guys.
And, we want you to believe we have the best technology and training at our disposal for doing so.
We want to make sure we train you to never take the chance of letting the bad guy get the drop on you.... We have the responsibility to train you for the 1% of those times when things can go horribly wrong and your life will be on the line, for that 1 out of 1,000 traffic stops when somebody might produce a weapon, for that 1 time when somebody might get the drop on you by drawing that weapon you can't see, the 1 time when your life could and will be on the line.
Should we train for that 1%? Absolutely.
At the expense of the 99% of our other work Absolutely not.
While tactical training is important, it has to be balanced to reflect the reality of the police officer's actual job. When we continually train people to expect the worst out of each other, when those are the main pathways that get cultivated and fed in training, we are bound to find ourselves in conflict with the community, and we are bound to experience more police-citizen community controversies. And, the current controversy involving the shooting of Paulie Heenan is no exception.
Why we want to continue to be part of promoting these false images of ourselves as a profession is beyond me. I remember a cop selling tee shirts that said on the front, "I'm part of the biggest gang in America;" On the back, it said, "The Police."
Isn't this image that we promote exactly what gets us into trouble with the communities we need the support from to do our jobs effectively?
If we train officers effectively, then we will train them to utilize a wide array of possible responses and approaches to public safety. Defensive arrest tactics, and arrest and suppress strategies, are just one of many different tools that we train police officers in. But it would be hard to know that from the perspective of the police officers speaking up in this controversy.