As we draw to the close of another year, an election year at that, two thoughts set firmly in my mind: 2020 has been a very challenging year for the law enforcement profession due to a few select use-of-force incidents the mainstream media has chosen to showcase without providing all the information; and activist groups pushing an anti-police agenda capitalizing on those incidents and rioting in major cities across the country, including right here in Phoenix, Arizona. Yes, I called it rioting because there is a distinct difference between peaceful and unlawful assembly and damaging property, looting businesses, and burning vehicles and buildings. I’m no fortune teller, but I believe that regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, lawlessness, contempt for the police and additional limits on force options will continue. The end result will be veteran officers retiring, unmet recruiting goals and less proactive police work, all which will affect communities, particularly low-income and minority communities that already have high crime rates.
Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, lawlessness, contempt for the police and additional limits on force options will continue.
While I lived in predominantly white, upper-middle-class neighborhoods, I can say that I grew up in the inner city. I was 9 when my dad opened and ran his own business in Paterson, New Jersey, and when I was in eighth grade, instead of attending our local township high school, I opted to attend and graduated from what is now known as the Passaic County Technical Institute (PCTI), which began as the Paterson Vocational School. I worked for my dad until I graduated high school, and, as it was in 1973, Paterson is still beset with high poverty and crime rates. Many of my classmates and sports teammates were from Paterson and Passaic, another large city with similar issues. One thing I learned at an early age was to treat everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color or the neighborhood they lived in.
After Tech, the next melting pot I jumped into was the Army National Guard. Experience in two military police units and a stint as an instructor at the New Jersey Military Academy set the wheels in motion for a major career and lifestyle change: law enforcement. In the 14 years I served as a citizen-soldier, I met and worked alongside many cops from a variety of municipal, county, state and federal agencies. Those cops were as diverse as the units I served in, but we had similar values and virtues: service and giving back to our community. With the advent of the internet and social media, I learned of a number of my PCTI classmates who, like me, opted for law enforcement careers over trades.
Before my Academy graduation, I was asked to choose which of the six precincts I wanted to serve in. At the time, Phoenix had a population of around one million people spread out over approximately 400 square miles with a dense urban core, less densely populated suburban areas, open desert and farmland. Each precinct had unique #7860 geographical features, parks, residential areas and commercial properties. I could have gone anywhere in the city: older neighborhoods from the 1950s, world-class resorts, multimillion-dollar homes at the base of and along the sides of Camelback Mountain, open desert and large residential lots, horse properties and massive homes backing up to the mountains, or others with older homes, large apartment complexes, industrial parks and some active farmland.
I chose to work in a precinct that resembled the area where I grew up, the inner city, with established, older neighborhoods, multiple historic districts, large parks and a growing downtown with skyscrapers. However, the precinct also included some of the worst crime-infested and violent neighborhoods. They had low-income housing, public housing projects and neighborhoods where drug sales were rampant. Multiple drive-by shootings between rival street gangs were the norm on the weekends. This was a precinct where I believed that I could make a difference in the lives of the people who lived there. The residents who lived in these neighborhoods included blue-collar workers and professionals, but there were also many minorities, including Blacks and Hispanics. Many of the Hispanics were illegal immigrants who simply wanted to work and send money to their families in Mexico, but there was also the criminal element. Those who exploited their own people by stealing from, assaulting or finding other ways to victimize them and others living in the area. We also had a growing refugee population from war-torn Africa, Bosnia, Iran and Iraq.
I took my share of domestic violence reports from women of color who were beaten but didn’t want the offender arrested because he was the breadwinner. East Van Buren Street was a hotspot for prostitution, and I took my share of assault and sexual assault reports from prostitutes who were brutalized by pimps and johns. After taking a juvenile sexual assault call at a local hospital, I got together with fellow officers and put together a case against a pimp from California who kidnapped a Phoenix teenager and put her to work on the street turning tricks. She was terrified, and I could see the fear in her eyes when she identified him in a photo lineup and agreed to testify against him in court about the awful things he did to her. In that same moment, I saw the gratitude in her mother’s eyes, knowing he would soon be off the street, unable to harm her daughter anymore.
There were countless times when I stood by crime scenes on the street or in the hospital trauma room where the lifeless bodies of teens and young adults of color lay after bleeding out from being shot multiple times. Meanwhile the screams and cries of hysterics from their families echoed in the neighborhood and hospital corridors after learning the fate of their loved one from a cop or social worker. Many of the homes and apartments I went into during my career had dirt yards and no air conditioning, evaporative coolers if they were lucky. Children slept on ratty mattresses placed on the floor with threadbare sheets and torn blankets in filth that I wouldn’t let my dogs live in. The public housing projects in the areas I worked, the Sidney Ps, Krohns and Duppa Villas, were like resorts compared to the CCPs, Brooks-Sloate and Alabama Avenue Projects some of my classmates and friends from Paterson grew up in. When my colleagues and I would walk through the projects, the kids would swarm us begging for “sticky badges” (police stickers) and we’d high-five them as they approached. At other times, we’d toss a football, shoot some hoops or kick a soccer ball. The kids always smiled when we’d get back in our patrol vehicles, turn on the emergency lights and chirp the siren and air horn. Many of these kids were dirt poor and living in broken homes, but they were always happy to see us and knew us by name because we made it a point to interact with them and offer hope and stability in their lives.
Two very poignant incidents in my career happened around Christmas. In 2013, I participated in our Shop With a Cop program and was teamed up with a young Black girl who lived in the projects near 14th Street and Monroe. I picked her up in a Tahoe and drove to the event at Spectrum Mall. She was an absolute joy to be with that day as we talked about our families and spent time in Target picking out gifts for her and her family. The event came full circle when I showed up at her apartment on Christmas Day and was met with smiles from everyone, including her mother and siblings who were in the living room enjoying their gifts. The second incident involved a Black family living in South Phoenix who lost everything they had when their grandmother’s house burned a week before Christmas. After hearing about the incident from a firefighter friend, I set the wheels in motion for a PLEA Charities donation. When I showed up to deliver a check, two colleagues who I worked with in 500 were there with monetary donations and items they collected from their squad and other sources. As always, during these interactions, skin color and economic status went out the window. It was raw human emotion — hugs, tears, compassion and gratitude for strangers supporting you in your time of need.
The officers I have had the honor of serving with are as diverse as the areas I worked, but like my fellow soldiers, despite our unique individual characters, we were in it together, working toward a common goal. We had each other’s backs, and if necessary, we were willing to sacrifice our lives for each other. Having each other’s backs also meant keeping each other in check, knowing when to intervene if someone was having an issue with a complainant or a suspect who was getting the best of them, which could lead to a complaint. We worked hard and did our best to solve problems for citizens, but if it did come down to having to make an arrest, we did what it took to get that person into custody. While we preferred to talk people into putting the handcuffs on, there were times we explained we could do it the easy way or the hard way, and if they chose the hard way, they were going to lose — and they did. We made sure our supervisors knew what happened so they could advise the shift lieutenant prior to writing the use-of-force report. We never used excessive force; it was always what was reasonable. Until you’ve had to fight a scrawny 125-pound person for almost five minutes because they were so high on methamphetamine and cocaine that they felt no pain, you’ll never realize how difficult it can be to get someone into custody who is fleeing from the law because of outstanding felony warrants. The same can be said for a suspect with a probation violation who stays hidden in their home with the help of family members, but is stupid enough to leave the house shortly afterward, run from and fight with you after you try to contact them in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center because he knows he is going back to prison if he’s caught.
We never targeted people because of their skin color. We targeted criminal behavior. Many of those exhibiting criminal behavior had been in and out of the judicial system since they were teens and had spent time in prison. Yet they continued to commit crimes, including violent crimes against their families and other members of the community after being released, and some were still on probation or parole. Criminals, especially those on probation or parole, get desperate because they know they’re going back to prison and will do whatever they can to avoid it, even if it means killing a cop.
During my career, 19 of my colleagues have died in the line of duty. Some of their killers were taken into custody alive or without incident, while others were killed. If they were still armed and a threat, they were shot. If they refused to come out of a hiding place after being given numerous opportunities, we sent a K-9 in to get them. If they decided to fight, we used the amount of force necessary to effect the arrest; however, if they surrendered peacefully, there was no reason to use any force other than handcuffing them. This is because we are professionals and can separate the personal emotion of losing a colleague from doing the job we are expected to do. We grieve later on. In that same vein, it disgusts me when activists and politicians try to make an issue of a murder suspect’s arrest by injecting race into the equation and implying that suspects of one race are treated differently than another without providing context to the circumstances of the arrest.
Could relations between the community and the police be better? Is there room for improvement? Can we get back to true community-based policing instead of 21st Century Policing? Can we put aside our personal and political differences and work toward a goal where people can feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods? I personally believe that the men and women who wear a badge and go out there every day to do an increasingly difficult job can and want to, but unfortunately there are politicians and activists, including those who are currently serving on the Phoenix City Council, who are more interested in continuing to push the anti-police agenda rather than find and work toward solutions.