In Milwaukee Shooting, Consider the Officer
Message from Chairman Fred Rowbotham: The following article was written directly in response to a shooting involving a PORAC LDF member whom we are representing in Milwaukee. I found it to be a valuable read, and was moved by the reporter’s thoughtful understanding and depiction of the situations we face daily. His description of the thought process that deputies and officers go through during a critical incident is precisely what I feel the public needs to be educated on. A deeper understanding by the public of the complex analysis we have to make in fractions of a second will benefit us all. This article first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on August 17 and is reprinted with permission.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Close your eyes and imagine yourself as a 24-year-old African-American police officer in Milwaukee. On Saturday afternoon, you make a routine traffic stop that results in a young black man fleeing the scene. According to the events laid out by Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, you turn on your body camera and give chase, eventually cornering the suspect in a fenced-in yard.
He turns toward you. And then you see he has a gun.
You tell him to put the gun down. He doesn’t. You then know you have a mere instant to make a decision that is going to affect you for the rest of your life. But the rest of your life could mean just seconds if you let him turn and shoot at you.
Most likely, you are thinking about your training and your fear of what is about to happen to you. But for months, you have been pummeled by images of unrest in America’s cities over the use of force by law enforcement officers. After the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a white officer, you watched Ferguson, Missouri, set ablaze over the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” myth. In your own hometown of Milwaukee, you saw an officer fired after a scuffle with Dontre Hamilton ended up with Hamilton being shot to death.
You know that if you pull the trigger, it could set off similar rioting in Milwaukee. Unrest could follow, with businesses being burned and cars set ablaze. Disaffected youth could take to the streets, throwing bricks, rocks and debris at police officers, sending several to the hospital. Gunshots could ring out through the air, occasionally striking other people out on the street. (And all these things eventually did happen.)
Maybe this is your neighborhood; perhaps you grew up in one just like it. Nobody knows better than you how important aggressive law enforcement is to protect the law-abiding residents of black neighborhoods. You’re well aware of the decay that has led fatherless young men to roam the streets, terrorizing other African-Americans. You know that society has called upon you to clean up the mess caused by broken families, inadequate educational systems and rampant unemployment. The frustration felt by the African-American community has many causes — but you are the one left to deal with its effects.
But you also know that your role as societal janitor has led you to the backyard in which you now find yourself. If you end this young man’s life, elected officials may fail to back you up, instead making vague calls for “justice,” assuming you share equal blame for what happened. Your congresswoman will issue a statement blaming the incident on “the hostile environment cultivated by the flagrant racial inequality and segregation that has plagued Milwaukee for generations,” not on a criminal brandishing a gun while trying to evade arrest.
You’re aware that if it ends up being you lying face down in that yard, the calls for “justice” for your life probably won’t be nearly as loud. No civil rights leaders will be flying in for your funeral; there will be no marches through the streets of Milwaukee calling for federal investigations. And for your efforts, many will cite you as a cause of many of the city’s problems.
Special enmity may be hurled your way because of your own race. You likely grew up feeling the same sting of bigotry and segregation that led others to choose lives of lawlessness. Nevertheless, members of your community may continue to see you as a traitor for wanting to impose law and order in a black neighborhood. White do-gooders may blame you for the high incarceration rate for young black males. You may never be able to live in the community again without having to look over your shoulder for gangsters looking to exact revenge. While it’s just you and a perpetrator standing together in this yard, both of you are about to join in national headlines.
Of course, you’d rather see this standoff end peacefully. But even if the young man standing in front of you is apprehended, there’s little chance he will be behind bars for long. In this case, the man standing in front of you has been arrested or ticketed nine times since 2011, including on charges of shooting another man and intimidating a witness to that shooting. If you are able to get him in handcuffs, he soon may be back out on the street and in front of one of your fellow officers, who might not have the chance to defend himself or herself.
Since you left your squad car and gave chase, fewer than 25 seconds have passed. All you ever wanted to do was make the city a safer place.
Then you pull the trigger.