Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Swing Shift: Race, Body Cameras, and Safety in Law Enforcement





For the third time he watched the video with his captain, trying to explain what had happened.  It was simple domestic dispute.  Now his partner was dead and he was sitting in a hospital bed.  The day had started out so differently for everyone.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he leaned over to tie his shoes.  His shift started in thirty minutes, just enough time to finish suiting up and make it to the precinct.  It was his second day back on swings.  The transition from graveyard to swing was the toughest for him, throwing his sleep pattern into disarray.  Also, for the next four weeks he wouldn’t see much of his children except for in the mornings.  He made himself wake up early enough to eat breakfast with them and see them off to school, and then he tried to get a couple of more hours of sleep.  Usually he wasn’t successful.

With shoes on he walked quickly down the stairs to retrieve his gun belt from the top of the refrigerator.  Along the way he paused, as he did before every shift, to look at the pictures of his family on the wall.  The picture in the center showed a happy family, posed together in matching clothing with a scenic backdrop from a nearby park behind them--mother, father and four young children.  Individual pictures of the children surrounded the larger family picture.  He and his wife had been married for eight years.  The children had come quickly, welcomed into a cheerful and loving home.  Well the home was as cheerful as you can expect with four young children keeping mother busy while father was transitioning between shifts every four weeks or so.

Tonight had the potential to be special.  His oldest daughter, Maddie, had a dance recital in an area of town that fell into his assigned patrol area.  His partner had suggested that they stop by the recital to watch.  Maddie loved to show off her daddy in uniform.  If the calls fell right, they should be able to see her dance and stay around for punch and cookies after the recital.  His wife was excited for a little extra help wrangling the two-year old Jeb.  Jeb, who hated to hold still for almost anything, was enthralled by his dad’s uniform with the various pins, patches, and accouterments.  The twins, who had followed just a year after Maddie, were now six years old.  Both Adam and Allison were surprisingly well behaved for their age, perhaps to make up for all the hard work they created for their mother during their first three years.

Looking in the mirror he adjusted his gun belt one more time, trying to shift the bulletproof vest to make it more comfortable.  Luckily the autumn weather was cool, making the vest more bearable.  Turning to the door he remembered one more thing, the newly issued body camera.  He and a few dozen other officers had received the cameras just a week ago as part of a pilot program.  Reaching back up on the fridge he pulled down the camera and strapped it to his chest.  With the heavy vest, he hardly noticed the small, light camera.

His wife was out running errands before picking up the kids from school.  With a last glance at the pictures he left the house.



Two and a half hours into an uneventful shift he was feeling hopeful that they would make it to the recital.  So far they had responded to a disturbing the peace call that was called in by an old man who hated disliked the young teenagers next door.  With the music turned down calm was restored, at least for now.  During a short foot patrol through one of the parks they had managed to nod their heads to several joggers and they gave one person directions to an elusive street address.  With just under an hour until the start of the recital, things were looking good.

Unfortunately, trouble waits for nobody, especially for police officers.

“Unit 342, Control.”

“Control, this is Unit 342.”

“342 we have a report of a 10-16 in progress at apartment 112 in the Greenbriar Complex.  Other units are 10-6.  Are you able to respond?”

He looked at his partner, feeling his daughter’s recital start to slip away. 

“Well, Daniels, doesn’t look like we’ll make it to the recital.”

“Don’t despair yet, Hansen.  Watch us work a quick miracle.”

He keyed the mike and responded:

“10-4, show us en route.  What other details do you have?”

“Caller states that her husband and son are arguing loudly.  They’re starting to push and shove with a few punches thrown.  She is unable to get either of them to leave.”

“Copy.  Are we aware of any guns in the home?”

“Caller indicates that she is not aware of any firearms in the home.  The son does have some priors for assault and petty theft.”



When they arrived, the fight had escalated and moved to the front yard.  Several neighbors were out watching as the police cruiser parked along the curb.  Both officers quickly exited their vehicle and headed in the direction of the altercation, ignoring a few of the taunts and jeers from a few of the neighbors who weren’t fans of law enforcement.  Father and son were mostly yelling, though both had blood on their faces. 

“Break it up!  Break it up now!” Hansen yelled.  For a second anger and sadness welled up inside of him as he thought of his daughter looking around the room for her daddy knowing that she would be disappointed again.

Both men were large and physically dominating.  Neither even acknowledged the presence of the officers.  Neighbors and others began to shout encouragement to the combatants and jeers toward the officers.

“Control, 342.  We’re going to need back up as soon as you can send it.”

Hansen glanced nervously at the growing crowd of neighbors.  What he saw made him nervous for two reasons?  First, there were several young children who didn’t need to be exposed to this violence.  Second, he and Daniels were two white officers in an economically challenged African American neighborhood with a high crime rate.  They were unlikely to get any help from the neighbors and may even get the opposite. 

A woman, who must have been the caller, began to scream at the officers, “Stop him!  Stop him before he beats my husband to death.  What are you waiting for?”

Suddenly he felt the weight of the body camera on his chest.  It was now clear that he and Daniels were going to have to use force to break up the fight.  Everything they did would be recorded and potentially dissected by the police department, the media, lawyers, and maybe even a jury.  His training told him what he needed to do in terms of use of force.  When he was issued the camera he was told to stick to that training.  For his own safety, the safety of his partner, and for the safety of the community, he knew he needed to forget that the body camera was recording what was happening.

But he couldn’t so easily forget.  Here he was with two large men trying to beat each other senseless surrounded by a group of people that seemed to hate him and his partner.  If this goes down badly, the video will become the focus of a public trial by the media, in social media, and by the police department.  The need to stop the violent actions of these two men in this moment was not dictated by race.  It was their sworn duty to enforce the law regardless of race.  If things were to get out of hand, however, the fallout would be driven by race and the perception of racial injustice.  Perhaps institutional racism, inequities in the past and future had led these two men to their current actions.  Even if that were the case, how should it impact the actions of two law enforcement officers trying to enforce the law?  To use force will be seen as an exhibit of racism.  To ignore the need to enforce the law in a black neighborhood will result in charges of racism as well.  What could they do but their duty? 

Hansen had been in such situations several times over the past six years.  In an effort to prepare him, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours had been spent to teach him how to reduce the tension verbally without the use of force.  In this circumstance, however, he recognized that events had moved beyond their ability to restore order with words only.  Force would have to be applied to one or both parties.  The goal would be to avoid escalating the use of force beyond what was necessary to restore order, protect those involved, and to protect his life and Daniels’ life. 

He and Daniels would follow their training, but he would make sure they were extra deliberate about their decisions and vigilant about appropriate use of force.  Hansen wanted to go home to his wife and children and he wanted to go home without the fear of any unfair retribution for doing his job.  And, he wanted to get Daniels home safely.

Carefully both officers moved forward, hands on their holstered weapons.  Hansen’s thoughts kept returning to how the video would play out after the altercation.  Would he be able to justify what would be on the video?


“Hansen.  Hansen, tell me again, why did you hesitate here?” asked the captain pausing the video.

Sitting in his hospital bed, he could hear two other officers speaking in the hallway.

“Daniels’ wife didn’t take the news well.  The baby is only eight months old.  Won’t even remember his father.”

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