Readers share their experiences with cops who went too far. (Though, as detailed in this report from ABC News, “There’s no concrete definition of excessive force.”) To join the series, email email@example.com. If you’re a police officer who can help provide context for similar situations, please email as well. Likewise if you were saved by a cop from bodily harm; we’d like to post those stories.
I’m a Canadian police officer, on a patrol and tac team (riot control and high-risk warrant service, etc.) I won’t get into a Big Thing about the issue because I’m tired, and angry, and we are on standby because of the situation in Nice, France.
I just want to say to the people who have written in about their horrible experiences with cops, on behalf of those of us who try to actually help people while conducting ourselves with decency and kindness, I am sorry for what you have experienced. I promise you there are more of us who are good—who would not and could not treat you that way—than there are bad ones. If I didn’t believe that myself, and could support that with logic and facts, I wouldn’t be a cop any more.
Please, please don’t lose faith in us. We are, truly, on your side.
In response to our callout for stories from readers who have been saved from bodily harm by a police officer, a reader in L.A. writes:
I’ve never been saved from bodily harm, but I have been both a victim of and witness to a violent crime that resulted in me having quite a bit of interaction with the police. When I was 16, a girl I was seeing at the time was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
I’ll never forget it. I don’t want to get too involved with the details, but I was basically the last one to see her before the attack. This resulted in many interviews with detectives and the DA. I never testified, since I was underage and had been drinking, so I wasn’t considered a good witness.
The guy accepted a plea bargain and went to jail for 20 years. The cops really hated this guy and it was very obvious from all of our interactions that they were going to throw him in prison no matter what. There were times I felt they were coaching me to say certain things. The rapist had been bragging earlier in the night about how tough he was and how he was connected with certain gangs. The cops promised to protect me if I had testified but, as I mentioned, it never came to that and I’m not sure how they would have anyways. I still remember meeting the plain clothes officers at a 7/11 by my school. They didn’t want to embarrass me by picking me up in a squad car in front of my classmates.
I haven’t talked about this in years. It drags up a lot of emotions thinking about it. The victim is now married with kids, and we were Facebook friends back when I still used it. I still feel so awful that I wasn’t able to do something to help her. In terms of the cops, they were very helpful, but it was a violent sexual assault on a teenager; there wasn’t a lot of grey area there.
In terms of being a victim, I’ve mentioned it here before: I was jumped late at night by a group of gangbangers. They beat me up pretty good but I was more or less ok. The cops didn’t prevent it, but they responded pretty quickly. One of the younger officers was especially helpful and rode in the ambulance with me so I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital by myself. He seemed to genuinely care if I was ok.
The older, more jaded cops didn’t really seem to care one way or the other. I don’t think there was much of an investigation either because I got a total of one call from a detective who said he was assigned to my case. He asked some questions and I never heard from him again. Oh well, I’m sure there were more important cases for them to focus on.
I live in a city that grabbed international headlines for police brutality a couple years ago. Several years prior to the outrage, a former friend/roommate of mine had just gone through the police academy and was going through the on-the-job training. One evening, he came home and wanted to brag about his day.
He and his training officer received a call about a domestic issue. They arrived at a house where they found a woman and a boy (about 5 years old) who both showed signs of being beaten. The woman's boyfriend clearly looked like the person who had caused the harm. They handcuffed the man to take him into custody.
Instead of taking him to the police station, they decided to “teach him a lesson.” They repeatedly slammed the suspect’s head onto the trunk of there police car when searching his pockets in order to “show him how it feels,” and they told him to “pick on someone his own size.” They would trip him on the sidewalk to make him land on the concrete while his arms were handcuffed behind his back.
They decided that it was their role as police officers to carry out vigilante justice. And the training officer clearly thought this was a proper procedure to display to his trainee.
A few months later, a lawsuit was raised by the suspect for police brutality against these two officers. My former friend neglected to brag to me about the outcome, although he felt completely justified in his actions. At risk was the suspect being released without charges because of the police behavior. I never heard about the outcome.
As a parent, I can understand the hatred felt towards an abusive adult and the desire for vigilante justice. A police officer, however, must be held accountable to a higher standard. At the very least, these two officers abused a suspect and compromised the case against him. At worst, they set him free to abuse again.
It is essential to an orderly society that government be the sole legitimate employer of force (except in cases of self-defense). The job of policing—protecting society by minimizing crime—is so very challenging not because it is excessively dangerous but because law enforcement officers need to be selfless in the performance of their duties.
However, as much as we would like them to always be empathetic, calm, and compassionate, we cannot expect them to be superhuman, immune to insult and ignoring threats to their selves. Finding the right balance, incident by incident, is challenging and taxing and fatiguing, and to some debilitating, especially at times like these.
There is an inherent conflict between police protecting themselves against every threat and overreacting to innocent actions that are perceived as threats. Overreaction out of fear is human. Personnel selection and effective training in proper policing techniques—both defense and de-escalation—will minimize the problem but it will not go away. The danger for minorities is that implicit bias in fearful police too often results in the instinctive and tragic use of deadly force.
Having police from the community—those with knowledge of and empathy for those that they police—is helpful in accurately assessing threat level and minimizing overreaction. The community also has an essential role in promoting comity and minimizing danger. Individually we must support police by being friendly and respectful, at the very least civil, in our encounters and interactions.
Likewise with our interactions between protesters and counter-protesters. If you think this scene in Dallas last week is too hokey, you don’t have a heart:
The crowds [that set fire to buildings, shattered bus shelters, and threw rocks at police in Milwaukee last night] were reacting to the death of a man [Sylville Smith] Saturday afternoon, who was fatally shot by police after fleeing a traffic stop. Police said the man was armed, but the details of the incident are not yet clear. The police have not identified the race of the man or the officer who shot him.
A reader, Tim, contends that last night’s violence was partly due to nationwide activism:
As bad as the police sometimes are, the citizens in some of these neighborhoods are infinitely more ignorant (though thankfully not empowered to commit state-sanctioned violence). It’s too simple to blame BLM for this, but I think it’s fair to say that they’ve contributed. Because BLM seeks a broad base of political support among African Americans rather than an intellectual discourse, its leaders have failed to draw any distinction between justified and unjustified violence by police. Combined with uncritical coverage by most media outlets, this has helped to spread and reinforce the idea that any shooting of a black person (and only a black person) by police is itself a moral crime. Therefore, you get hundreds or thousands of people rioting in the streets before any relevant facts are known.
The man who was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer on Saturday … is seen on body camera footage with a loaded gun in his hand, officials said at a Sunday news conference. Sylville K. Smith, 23, was identified Sunday as the subject of a Saturday afternoon traffic stop that turned deadly when Smith allegedly ran from officers and then turned toward one with a gun in his hand. Both Smith and the unidentified officer who shot him are black, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said.
Flynn can be seen in this video (flagged today by another reader, Tom) that was recorded in 2014 following a public hearing held in response to the fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton:
If you can’t play the video, below is the transcript of Flynn’s reply to a reporter who asked him, “What’s your response to some of the people who thought you were being disrespectful by being on your phone and not being attentive [during the public hearing]”:
Well, I was on my phone. And, yes, that’s true. I was following developments of the five-year-old little girl sitting on her Dad’s lap who just got shot in the head by a drive-by shooting. If some of the people here gave a good goddamn about the victimization of people in this community by crime, I’d take some of their invective more seriously.
The greatest racial disparity in the city of Milwaukee is getting shot and killed. Hello. Eighty percent of my homicide victims every year are African-American. Eighty percent of our aggravated assault victims are African-American. Eighty percent of our shooting victims who survive their shooting are African-American.
Now they know all about the last three people who have been killed by the Milwaukee Police Department over the course of the last several years. There’s not one of them who can name one of the last three homicide victims we’ve had in this city.
Now there’s room for everybody to participate in fixing this police department and I’m not pretending we’re without sin. But this community’s at risk all right. And it’s not because men and women in blue risk their lives protecting it. It’s at risk because we have large numbers of high-capacity, quality firearms in the hands of remorseless criminals who don’t care who they shoot.
Now, I’m leaving here to go to that scene, and I take it personally, okay? We’re going there and there’s a bunch of cops up there processing the scene of a dead kid. And they’re the ones who are going to be out there patrolling and stopping suspects and they have guns under the front seat. They’re the ones who are going to risk their lives to clean this thing up. Alright?
We’re responsible for the things we get wrong and we take action. We’ve arrested cops, we’ve fired cops, and so on. But, the fact is, that the people out here, some of them, who had the most to say, are absolutely MIA when it comes to the true threats facing this community. And it gets a little tiresome, when you start getting yelled at for reading the updates of the kid who get shot… yeah, you take it personal. Okay, now, no offense, I’m going up there now.
For more perspective on Milwaukee’s crime rate, this local news report was published on Saturday morning—hours before the fatal shooting of Sylville Smith:
Five men are dead after a series of overnight shootings in Milwaukee. “We had a horrible night last night,” Mayor Tom Barrett said Saturday afternoon.The shooting’s stretched from 6 p.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday, a 9-hour span that saw 9 shootings, including the 5 deaths. The victims range in age from 21 to 36.
According to police, the first shooting happened around 6 p.m. on Sherman Blvd. That’s when a 33-year-old man was shot while driving near Sherman Park. “The police were right there,” said Barrett. “They were in Sherman Park, they could hear the gunshots.” [...] According to police, there have now been 81 homicides in Milwaukee this year. At this point last year, there were 94.
Meanwhile, more readers are debating who is to blame for the violence in the streets of Milwaukee last night. The first reader above, Tim, responds to another reader who claimed that President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder are responsible for tense race relations involving police. Here’s Tim:
I don’t see how this is remotely Obama’s doing. On race, he’s been a nuanced voice—smarter and more constructive than those on either extreme of the spectrum. (I do think BLM and completely uncritical media coverage of it have been a factor, though.) I don't recall hearing inflammatory or dishonest statements from either Obama nor Holder regarding race. If Holder’s DOJ wanted to inflame racial division with dishonesty, they certainly had their chance with the Michael Brown shooting, and instead they exonerated Darren Wilson without equivocation. It’s not Obama or Holder who pushed the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative; it’s dishonest eyewitnesses like Michael Brown's “friend” and activists who’d rather have a martyr than the truth.
Another reader, Harvey, points a finger at another public official:
The Sheriff of Milwaukee County [David Clarke] spoke at the Republican National Convention. You know, the one where they promised to Make America Safe Again. Heckuva job, Clarkie!
Another reader retorts, “Police of the city of Milwaukee (who were those involved in this) and Sheriff of Milwaukee County are different political entities and different, though overlapping, geographical entities!” As this Politico profile of Clarke notes, “As sheriff, he has ultimate authority for law enforcement in the county, but in reality, his jurisdiction is limited—the freeways, the courts, the airport and the jail.” For his part this weekend, Clarke requested the mobilization of the National Guard.
Clarke, an African American law-enforcement leader who favors cowboy hats and often appears atop a horse, fights crime in Milwaukee, the U.S. city that has been called “the worst place” for African Americans to live. He has become a fixture of conservative media. Glenn Beck presents the sheriff’s podcast on his multimedia juggernaut, The Blaze, and he is a frequent guest on Fox News. Clarke is also popular on Twitter, where he recently tweeted to his 127,000 followers that the young activists of the Black Lives Matter movement—he calls it “Black Lies Matter”—will eventually “join forces with ISIS.” He made sure to note, “You heard it first here.”
Back to some saner rhetoric, this next reader apportions blame to Republicans in Wisconsin:
It has to be understood that the state’s turn from good government haven to right-wing playground is rooted in the dynamics of having 6% of the population being black and most of it in Milwaukee. The systematic segregation that has damaged all other Rust Belt cities was magnified in Milwaukee because blacks with of their low numbers were unable to gain any political power. Thus a backlash developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which saw radicals gain a following and a vicious cycle of reaction developed and the entire political structure became devoted fear of blacks and Milwaukee.
The Milwaukee metro area is the only Rust Belt one that has not benefited from the manufacturing rebound centered around the booming auto industry and other segments of the medium to heavy manufacturing that was so prevalent there. The state essentially discouraged the tax incentive and promotion of industrial development model because whites did not want to work with or even see blacks. They didn’t want any factories that employed blacks. The growth of Wisconsin has lagged behind every other Midwest state.
Which, like these riots, have been a boon to the GOP, because it reinforces the vicious cycle of social disfunction in the Milwaukee area that causes only more rightest reaction, and so on and so on and so on. The Walkers and Ryans and the GOP there didn’t aim for this outcome, but they just as well should have because it does and it will continue to benefit them politically as the vicious cycles swills ever downward.
The absolute craziest thing about the Milwaukee riots is that the cop did exactly what he was supposed to do in order to protect the community. The community responded to a civil servant risking his life to protect them by burning shops and attacking people.
This wasn’t police abuse. It was a police officer protecting a neighborhood from a violent felon with a stolen gun. Five men were murdered the night before in Milwaukee, and four more were shot; that didn’t even draw protests, much less rioting. The one example of socially legitimate violence, on the other hand, saw destruction of property and attempted murder break out within hours.
Another reader replies, “It’s not about this latest shooting; it’s about everything that’s happened prior to it. I honestly can’t make it any more succinct than that.”
A reader flags an unsettling story out of Arizona:
Here’s a link to a WaPo article on an insane traffic stop that ended with an officer screaming that he would murder an innocent father and pointing a gun at a 7-year-old girl. The worst part was that the supervisor of this officer confirmed the account was true and said it was acceptable behavior. I thought it might make an interesting story, or at least a note for your series.
I hadn’t been speeding, so I wondered if perhaps the car had a broken taillight or something. I rolled down my window and waited.
Suddenly, the officer rapped on the rear passenger side window with his pistol. My daughter, who was sitting inches from the barrel of his gun, jumped with fear as the officer yelled at me to roll down the front passenger window, his service weapon pointed directly at me.
I knew something was terribly awry and I tried to remain calm, keeping my hands visible as I slowly fumbled for the window controls in an unfamiliar car. My daughter rolled down her window and I explained that we were in a rental car, that we had no weapons, and I was having trouble figuring out how to roll down the front passenger window from my driver’s side door.
The officer didn’t listen, and kept yelling louder and more insistently, ordering me to comply with his request as he leered at me down the barrel of his pistol. My daughter panicked and tried to get out of her booster seat to reach forward to roll down the front window, and the officer screamed her at her not to move as he pointed his pistol at her.
A commenter on Facebook tries to see it from the perspective of the cop, who believed the car was stolen based on a database and who might have assumed the child was being kidnapped. Unfortunately there is no dashcam footage. Here is part of the police department’s defense, per the Post piece:
The Arizona Department of Public Safety confirmed that the traffic stop took place but disputed the tone and some of the details in Walton’s Facebook post, calling it “inflammatory” and “irresponsible.” The department is standing by the trooper’s actions, including his threat to shoot Walton during the traffic stop, said Capt. Damon Cecil of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
“We sympathize with them; I don’t think there’s any law enforcement official who would not be just as angry, just as fearful and terrorized if [they were in a similar situation and] officers had guns pointed out,” Cecil told The Washington Post. “It’s a scary situation. But in light of that, this is a positive story. … This case is a prime example of how things should be done.” […] Cecil confirmed that Villegas [the cop] pointed a gun at the 7-year-old, but did so unintentionally, and that he threatened to shoot Walton because he “perceived a threat.”
In the end, “an investigation ultimately found the rental car company had not replaced the license plates when the front plate was reported stolen, which is why it had been flagged in the system.”
Are you a cop who has experience with situations like this one? Is it justified and/or part of standard operating procedure to draw your weapon purely based on the belief that a car is stolen? We’d really like to post your perspective: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Describing neutrino oscillations is notoriously tricky. The search for a shortcut led to unexpected places.
After breakfast one morning in August, the mathematician Terence Tao opened an email from three physicists he didn’t know. The trio explained that they’d stumbled across a simple formula that, if true, established an unexpected relationship between some of the most basic and important objects in linear algebra.
The formula “looked too good to be true,” says Tao, who is a professor at UCLA, a Fields medalist, and one of the world’s leading mathematicians. “Something this short and simple—it should have been in textbooks already,” he said. “So my first thought was, no, this can’t be true.”
Then he thought about it some more.
The physicists—Stephen Parke of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Xining Zhang of the University of Chicago, and Peter Denton of Brookhaven National Laboratory—had arrived at the mathematical identity about two months earlier while grappling with the strange behavior of particles called neutrinos.
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
More than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern white voters, the system continues to do just that.
Is a color-blind political system possible under our Constitution? If it is, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 did little to help matters. While black people in America today are not experiencing 1950s levels of voter suppression, efforts to keep them and other citizens from participating in elections began within 24 hours of the Shelby County v. Holder ruling and have only increased since then.
In Shelby County’s oral argument, Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned, “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get them out through the normal political processes.” Ironically enough, there is some truth to an otherwise frighteningly numb claim. American elections have an acute history of racial entitlements—only they don’t privilege black Americans.
A record-setting acqua alta has left much of Venice submerged, following stormy conditions blowing in from the Adriatic Sea.
Yesterday, strong winds and rainstorms pushed water levels in Venice, Italy, to the second-highest levels ever recorded. The high-water mark hit 74 inches (187 centimeters), just short of the record set in 1966. This exceptional acqua alta has flooded businesses and historic structures, sank boats, and been blamed for one death so far.
As age factors more urgently in politics, a simple test could evaluate who remains fit for office.
Remember these numbers. You’ll be asked about them at the end of the test: 70, 73, 76, and 78.
These are the ages of the leading candidates in the 2020 presidential election: Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders, respectively. In most any other line of work, people in their eighth decade are usually retired. For most of human history—and still in most of the world today—people of this age were usually dead.
Last month, Jimmy Carter, the 95-year-old former U.S. president, said that the office requires a person “to be very flexible with [one’s] mind,” and that by age 80 he wouldn’t have felt able to do the job. He joined the growing ranks of those suggesting they would support an upper age limit for the office, either for purposes of breaking up the gerontocracy or to ensure a person has the physical and cognitive capacity. “You have to be able to go from one subject to another and concentrate on each one adequately and then put them together in a comprehensive way,” Carter said.
Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.
Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.
HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.
The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?
I first met him 21 years ago, and now our relationship is the subject of a new movie. He’s never been more revered—or more misunderstood.
A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding.
I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding. And yet the movie, called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved.
He can’t help but go after women, even when doing so hurts his cause.
On the second day of the impeachment proceedings, President Donald Trump couldn’t control himself on Twitter: He lashed out at Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was subjected to a smear campaign, and who testified to that effect before the House Intelligence Committee. Trump’s lack of control, in itself, was not unusual. But, for some reason, Trump showed more restraint 48 hours earlier, when William Taylor and George Kent went before the Committee. It was almost as if the president found himself triggered by Yovanovitch, the 61-year-old career diplomat. But why was the president’s response so different to witnesses who were roughly saying the same thing? What was the big difference between Kent and Taylor and Yovanovitch? All three are career diplomats, all three are Ivy League graduates, all three have worked in the State Department, all three are experts in Ukraine. But only one of them is a woman. Could that be why the president singled out Yovanovitch? It is almost as if the president is unable to control his rage against women. It is almost as if the president thinks he can bully women and silence them.
President Trump’s pardons for three service members accused of war crimes will have lasting consequences.
None of the services seems happy with President Donald Trump’s decision to pardon two service members accused of war crimes, and reverse the demotion of a third. The Navy’s reply, however, sets some kind of record of disdain. The Twitter account of the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Information Office wrote on November 15: “As the Commander in Chief, the President has the authority to restore Special Warfare Operator First Class Gallagher to the pay grade of E-7. We acknowledge his order and are implementing it.”
Those icy words breathe the mood of the admonition from Band of Brothers: “We salute the rank, not the man.”
To understand why the Navy—and the other services, too—reacted so negatively to the pardons, here’s a story I heard on a visit to Germany a couple of months ago. I had the chance to talk with a senior U.S. officer in that country.