My introduction to the world of police work begins with a poem – one about gladiators and scribes.
It is read aloud by Kenneth McLaughlin, police chief of Ocean View, Delaware. And it is not a flattering portrayal of scribedom.
It begins as the gladiators enter some ancient version of the locker room. There, the scribes prod them about their technique. The gladiators try “to explain that in the arena there is not time to think of all these things, that blood is slippery, that lions have their own ideas.” The scribes are too dense and haughty to get it. The gladiators grunt and grumble, “convinced that no one but a gladiator understands the problems of fighting in the arena.”
And that’s it.
The moral: scribes are clueless. I am a scribe.
Officer for a day
So are the other dozen people in the room – all of us either local journalists, politicians, or community leaders. We’ve come to the seaside hamlet of Ocean View, population 2,039, to participate in the Officer for a Day program. Over the next six hours we will see and experience what it’s like to be a police officer in a crisis situation. We will also – on various and unscripted occasions – hear from those same police officers about how unfairly we have treated their colleagues over the past year.
The point of all this is to provide some public explanation for why cops do what they do. The intended effect is to cultivate a more sympathetic media for when the next incident of police violence hits public airwaves.
“Ferguson was a pretty quiet town”
After reading his poem, McLaughlin cedes the floor to Brian Rossomanno, whose most prominent feature at the moment is a set of sagging, bloodshot eyes. Rossomanno runs the civil disobedience unit of the St. Louis Police Department. He is, in other words, the head riot cop. He’s been busy lately.
With him is Nick Manasco, a 15-year veteran of the St. Louis PD, and Craig Grob, a former St. Louis cop who we are told now does “overseas contract work.”
They are here today as representatives of 0311 Tactical, a police training business Rossomanno has run on the side since 2010. Normally, Rossomanno holds seminars for police departments. Recently, he piloted two sessions for journalists and politicians in the St. Louis area. This is his third Officer for a Day seminar with media members, and the first outside Missouri.
If you’re wondering why a group of policemen from St. Louis have traveled across the country to take journalists and politicians on a walk in their shoes, you might have already answered your own question.
“Despite what’s been portrayed in the media, Ferguson was a pretty quiet town,” Rossomanno tells the room. “There wasn’t a whole lot going on there in terms of crime. But now they’re on the front stage, the world-wide stage. And that could happen in Ocean View. It could happen in Bethany Beach, South Bethany. It could happen anywhere.”
An unsettling montage
The seminar begins with a series of real-life videos showing police under attack. We see officers shot – and in some cases, killed – during traffic stops. We see one suspect pummel a seemingly friendly officer with little provocation. We see a woman wailing on a cop alongside the highway. We even see a man who was not properly frisked, pull out a gun while in police custody and shoot himself in the head.
It is an unsettling montage of violence, with no detail spared.
After each clip Rossomanno breaks down the footage and offers some insight into police tactics. He explains, for example, why multiple police cars might pull up on a routine traffic stop. (Cops are taught they should outnumber the number of people in the vehicle if possible.) He talks about why police shine their headlights directly in your sideview mirror (to illuminate the car interior) and why they never shoot to wound (apparently police are poor shots and bullets aren’t as powerful as you’d think). Police procedure, we are told, dictates that cops handcuff any suspect, even if said suspect appears dead or seriously wounded.
You never know who might be faking what.
“Never gonna be pretty”
Together, these videos lend the impression that police are under constant attack – or threat of attack – from a hostile public. Rossomanno explains that every police officer’s primary goal at the beginning of his or her shift is to come home alive.
“Our secondary goal at the end of every shift is to not get in trouble,” he says. “And encompassed in that is not hurting anybody that doesn’t need to be hurt.”
There are plenty of scenarios where police don’t assume the worst of the public. But Rossomanno implies that when police train for conflict, they are preparing to ward off death.
This survivor mentality can, we are told, lead police to operate out of fear. Rossomanno shows one video where a police officer wounds a man who was simply trying to show the cop his license. In another, an officer threatens to blow way a nonviolent protester.
Overall, though, the intent is to explain the logic behind callous-looking police behavior, not to debate whether this gladiator mindset deserves further scrutiny.
“Use of force, you know, is never gonna be pretty,” Rossomanno tells me afterwards. “Just because something appears a certain way on camera that’s not necessarily what it is.”
After a lunch break, we reassemble for the role-play portion of the program.
Each of us receives a holster, goggles, and a gun that shoots blanks. I’m paired with two local politicians and we’re given a scenario: A man has just stolen two sodas from the local convenience store and set them down on a sidewalk outside. He’s now pacing in front of the store with a knife.
When we pull around the corner in our police SUV, we’re dealt a surprise. There are two men, both agitated. My partners and I try to calm them, but the situation soon deteriorates. The original suspect draws his knife and moves toward one of my partners.
“Kill me! Just kill me,” he shouts.
My partner draws his weapon and fires. The man collapses, dead.
A lot went wrong in this 20 seconds of mayhem. We shot a suspect. We completely ignored the mysterious second man, leaving officers vulnerable to harm. And we lacked what officers call “command presence.” In other words, we probably should have cursed a bit.
“Sometimes those words are attention getters,” explains Nick Manasco, one of the St. Louis police officers. “Where he might not have been paying attention to you but now he’s like…oh…those guys are serious. I better get back. So that’s where we talk about command presence. It doesn’t necessarily mean an officer being arrogant or talking down to you. That’s just him taking control of the situation.”
The cost of preservation
Our second scenario proves even trickier and bloodier than the first.
We’re told there’s a man and a woman acting suspiciously as they prowl up and down a roadway median. The citizen who lodged the complaint suspects them of prostitution.
We approach the man and he refuses to pull his hands from the pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. My partner approaches and repeats the request. The man says we aren’t going to like what he has in his pocket and whips out a black device. My partner fires. The suspect dies with a cellphone in his hand.
The woman begins to wail and draws a knife. My other partner shoots her.
If you’re keeping count, my team has now killed three people in the span of two scenarios and about 90 seconds.
We are told by our police supervisors that all three killings were justified. This is simply the cost of protecting one’s self in a crisis.
A new arena
When the day ends, I catch up with a few of the officers to chat about their jobs in a post-Ferguson world. On the whole, they sound hurt, defensive, and perhaps a bit lost. It isn’t easy to host an event predicated on the notion that people no longer trust you.
“The last seven months, since August, and the environment we’ve been working in…it’s changed a lot,” Rossomanno tells me. “There was a point in my life where I probably would’ve been proud for my son to follow my footsteps. I can honestly say now I don’t want him to be a police officer.”
McLaughlin, the Ocean View police chief, has been an officer for 20 years. His grandfather and uncle were cops in Baltimore. He is proud of his profession, and bitter at what he perceives as unfair media coverage of police conduct.
“It is sad that we’ve gotta go to those lengths,” he says. “But it’s a reality. And a lot of people don’t understand what we do.”
The gladiators, in other words, must abandon their grunting. They have to suffer the scribes, maybe even appease them.
The transition won’t be easy. In fact there is a line in McLaughlin’s poem that probably puts it best.
It says of the gladiators, “They were now fighting in an arena they did not understand.”