Raise your hand if you ever were punished for doing something wrong.
“Well, what do you mean by punished?” you might ask.
Yes, there’s a broad world relating to that word. Butt spanks. Grounded. Losing car privileges. Severe beatings. Barrage of debilitating insults. Psychological torture. Physical torture. Demotion, unofficial or official. Suspension from school or work. Getting fired.
I’ve been on the receiving end of a few of those punishments. Thankfully, I can only think of a few times where the punishment was more extreme than my crime. I have yet to ever be severely beaten or physically tortured. I earned the punishment a vast majority of the times I fucked up. We all fuck up.
Rarely have I ever gotten a break in the times I fucked up.
I have a lot of respect and admiration for emergency personnel. They have willingly decided to take jobs with horrendous hours, immense stress and the potential to either die or be directly responsible for someone’s death every single time they go to work. It’s not something I’d choose to do every day. We owe these people gratitude.
But we don’t owe them a break for fucking up.
We can still be supportive of our police officers while demanding justice be done when excessive force is used. If law enforcement officers face real consequences for excessive force, especially when people die if they didn’t have to die, then people with reasons to fear police might just one day trust them again. If after watching the Laquan McDonald video, you still think not-white people aren’t mistreated, mishandled and unduly killed by police, I don’t know what else to say. Yes, when that happens some people act as if all police are enemies and they aren’t. But even with that, this is a real problem and it has existed for a long time. The road to solving the problem starts with real accountability.
No matter the complexities and difficulties of law enforcement, rightful consequences must be carried out when mistakes happen. It’s the only way people will be able to trust police. It’s the only way people will learn that good police do exist.
In six years of crime reporting, and a few run ins of my own, I have met and gotten know many cops. Many of them are great people. One that comes to mind, a county sheriff, is a foster parent after raising his own kids. I could call him at home and hear a cacophony of movement behind him of the current bunch of lives he welcomed into his home, even into his elderly years. I know of at least one person he demoted for fucking up. The first job with this particular sheriff’s office is in the jail, and that’s exactly where this person returned. He had a calm acceptance to his voice when he described his punishment. No declaration or fake grin or awkward chuckle indicating he felt slighted.
Others pulled me aside to let me know information their bosses didn’t want me to know. Others ran in the direction of a shooter while civilians ran away and took cover. One took a lot of work home with him late at night to make sure a woman who lost all of her savings to identity theft got her money back. One has a knack for teaching overwhelming compassion for everyone he encounters. One runs a jail so tightly, but also so humanely, some inmates go to her for counsel. When I asked her why she’s always so open with me, she said without missing a step “we have nothing to hide.”
I also met cops who blatantly lied to my face. I met others who mocked people suffering from grave circumstances, and others who threatened people with force when unprovoked. A university police chief didn’t have his officers put narratives in his public police reports and took other steps to hide his department’s real actions and inactions.
Good and bad police alike face a ton of scrutiny no matter which they are. As a journalist, I know scrutiny very well. I once wrote a story about a man in his early 50s who kidnapped a 21-year-old woman, tied her to a chair in his home, shot her in the head, set his home on fire and then shot himself in his head. I wrote five different stories about this. One person wrote in the comments of one that I am worse than the man who committed these deeds because I wrote about it.
I’ve been blamed for suicide attempts and ruining lives. I’ve been threatened with death six times. I lost count of the beatings threats. At no point in my journalism training did anyone tell me to expect that, but when I voluntarily took on crime, I should’ve known. I think I was least prepared for how passionately people would deny a truth that I felt completely assured of simply because they didn’t like it. I know what it’s like to work a thankless job.
But I chose the job. I stayed with the job even after I faced these things. Law enforcement officers chose their jobs as well.
That certainly doesn’t make the jobs any easier. I feel for the good police officers. It has to be one hell of a psychological burden to feel as if the people you are tasked with protecting — even if it means giving up your life — are against you. But it is at the very least a similar burden — if not a far greater pressure — to feel as if the people tasked with protecting you will willingly kill you without just cause and won’t face any repercussions for it.
I recently met Emmett Farmer, father of Flint Farmer. Flint was shot to death by a Chicago police officer. He ran from the officer. The officer later said Flint reached into his pocket, and so he opened fire. Flint had a cell phone but no gun. The phone was found near his body. At first, the officer shot him four times in the leg and abdomen. Flint was lying face down on the ground when that same officer walked up to him, stood over him and shot him three more times. Those last three bullets went into Flint’s lungs and heart, killing him.
“How are you going to tell me the officer was in danger with Flint lying face down on the ground bleeding?” Emmett said to me.
That officer, Gildardo Sierra, was placed on desk duty, but was not found guilty of any wrongdoing. In addition, it was Sierra’s third shooting in that year, the second of which ended in death. Farmer was shot in June 2011, and the Independent Police Review Authority said they are still investigating the case when I requested records. There’s dash cam footage of that shooting that showed Sierra shot Farmer again while he was already on the ground, similar to what happened to Laquan McDonald.
“Not everyone’s bad,” Emmett Farmer said. “Just like how everyone in Roseland and the South Side of Chicago ain’t bad. And everyone that’s on the police force ain’t like the one who killed Flint. But those that are, they need to be punished. That’s it. In any industry you have people that ain’t gonna do right. But the majority, and you find that in any industry too, the majority of the people are righteous.”
Emmett told me he forgives Sierra, but is still pushing for charges to be filed in connection to his son’s killing.
“I can forgive. You forgive, but you don’t forget,” he said.
Yes, it took way too long, but I’m glad Supt. Garry McCarthy recommended that Officer Dante Servin be fired from the Chicago Police Department for the Rekia Boyd killing. Yes, it also took way too long, but I’m also glad Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez formally charged Officer Jason Van Dyke with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. Yes, they both coincide with releasing the video of McDonald’s killing. But it’s time. It’s been time. Even if they only did what they did because they were finally backed too far into a corner to do anything else, it’s what needed to happen for any change at all to begin.
And this is just the beginning. A lot of other cases are out there with no action on them outside a settlement, such as Flint Farmer.
We all have a lot of work to do. Police need to be held accountable for excessive and/or unnecessarily lethal force. They need to be trained differently. They need to be less militarized. And if that happens, we need to try to not look at every police officer as an enemy. Know that I am fully aware that it’s easy for me, a white man, to write that previous sentence. But I believe that’s what needs to happen.
It’s going to be a long journey. Let’s walk together.