Reporter's Notebook

Stories of Excessive Force
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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 hello@theatlantic.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.

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Stories of Fearing the Cops

Three more readers share their experiences with police that probably went too far. (We are also soliciting stories on the flip side: Has a cop ever saved you from bodily harm? If so, send us a note.) This reader had a moment of mistaken identity:

I’m now retired, but at a time when I worked for the court system at City Hall in [a large city in California], I was walking to my car late at night and saw a burglar climb into a second-floor window of a nearby law-office building. I called 911 and gave the police dispatcher both the address and a description of the burglar.

When the cops arrived, they went to the wrong address. When I tried to get their attention and tell them that they at the wrong address, several of them immediately drew their guns and pointed them at me. While I was saying “don't shoot, don’t shoot,” I could see the burglar climb down and run around a corner.

There was no reason for any of them to suspect that I was a burglar. I was the one who called in the crime. But not a single cop, nor any of the brass apologized for drawing down on me. Not one.

A reader in Vermont recalls a tense encounter almost 50 years ago:

This stuff is not new. It was about 1969, anti-war protests were in full bloom, draft centers were being bombed. On the one hand, I had some trappings of respectability; I was IT manager for an office supply wholesaler in Boston, I was married and had a young child, and I was a student at MIT. On the other hand, my car was completely covered with anti-war slogans and images I had painted.

I was driving to work in downtown Boston when a police car started to tailgate me.

My colleague Adrienne wrote a post last week about the efforts of various online groups and publications—namely The Washington Post and The Guardian—to create a running tally of the number of Americans killed by police officers. Her post begins:

It wasn’t until recently that it became easy to find a number to go with the gruesome reality that black people—and black men in particular—live with every day: the ever-present threat of police violence. Police officers fatally shot nearly 1,000 people last year, according to The Washington Post’s ongoing count. Halfway through 2016, police have shot and killed 506 more. “Unarmed black men are seven times more likely than whites to die by police gunfire,” the Post wrote last year.

Below is a lengthy reader dissent from Nick Selby, a Texas police detective and lead author of the new book In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians. Adrienne gave the go-ahead to post Selby’s response:

With respect to Adrienne LaFrance’s “Death by Police,” there are some serious structural problems with the data on which she bases much of her analysis. I don’t for one second believe she is intentionally manipulative, but I do want to point out, as with most things in law enforcement (the one place where Occam’s Razor does not apply), these numbers are not as straightforward as they might appear.

Some of the contextual issues from the piece that should be clarified are around The Washington Post’s numbers, because in the way they are quoted by Ms. LaFrance, they only tell half the story. It is undoubtedly true that newspaper’s Fatal Force study showed that, by the end of 2015, U.S. police had fatally shot 986 people (it was later raised to a total of 990). That number sounds truly terrible given Ms. LaFrance’s apparent inference that the 990 people were innocently going about their day when the police killed them. That is, of course, not the case. Yet Ms. LaFrance implies that it is. “In one in five fatal shootings,” she writes, “the names of the police officer responsible is never disclosed. Even when they are, many officers face no consequences.”

As a police detective who has intensely studied this issue, the underlying datasets, and media efforts to count them, I must point out that the implication of that passage is based, at best, on a lack of understanding of the numbers. As my co-authors and I wrote in our book, that passage fails “to differentiate killings by police who are behaving badly from those in which cops were doing what we want them to do—that is, standing between civilians in danger of losing their lives and those who would take their lives from them.” I think that to tell readers of The Atlantic, who want to better understand the truly important questions about how Americans—especially non-white Americans—are being policed, it’s not helpful to imply (even unintentionally) that all police shootings are unjustified. We as citizens should not be as interested in police using appropriate force as we are in their inappropriate use of deadly force.

In an interview on this topic with David Krajicek of The Crime Report, I said:

From a reader in Vancouver, British Columbia:

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.

From a reader in the Southwest:

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.

Then they made a poor decision.

A long-time reader, Christopher Boehme, writes:

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:

Here’s a portion of our news brief this morning covering the latest flashpoint in U.S. police relations:

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.

Here are the latest facts known, published this evening by the AP and FoxNews.com (live updates from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are here):

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.

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.

Here’s the father’s account in full. A portion:

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.