Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 18, 2019 / 12 Shevat 5779
Summary: Rabbi Kosak tells the story of the day he “worked” as a police officer. He recounts the training involved, and paints a picture of what it is like to be a “man or woman in blue.” Finally, he shares how his own bias prevented him from doing his duty in the best way possible and invites readers to reflect on moments when their bias also kept them from living out their own best selves.
On the Beat: My Day as a Cop
This past Wednesday, I spent the day at Portland’s police academy. This six hour simulation placed senior clergy in the police training facility located in northeast Portland. This day of training that I attended was part of a program entitled “One Cop” which is short for “one congregation, one precinct.” The program is the brain-child of civil rights activist, Reverend Markel Hutchins. His inspiration came from the crisis sparked when Michael Brown was killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Its goals are two-fold. First, it wants to educate community leaders about the complicated work and nuanced decision-making our police officers are tasked with in rapidly evolving scenarios. Second, it wants police to form relationships with the communities they serve so that something like Ferguson doesn’t happen again.
As part of this training, we went on a car chase, learned how to spin out a fugitive vehicle, and in turn got spun around when we were the ones fleeing. We worked with blue weapons—the non-firing training guns that are otherwise identical with police issued stock and learned about the different sorts of ammunition police use in different tactical situations. We sat in multiple classes where we received some of the same training that officers are required to take, and where we also learned much more about the arduous requirements to become a police office. Did you know that only 8% of applicants who are accepted complete the training and are sworn in?
Finally, we participated in a number of role play simulations that took place on what looked like a movie set. By which I mean that within a large, hangar sized building, there are a number of homes, shops and apartments that are all built to scale, and set on a series of city streets. On that life-like set, we had to talk down an agitated machete-carrying individual, confront a suspiciously-acting man in a neighborhood suffering from numerous car thefts, respond to an active shooting scenario and deal with an irate small business owner who had reported a homeless man who was squatting in front of his shop .
That last scenario was the one in which I played one of the two police officers called to the scene. I want to describe it in some detail because it was an object lesson in how our best intentions can sometimes lead to less than ideal outcomes. In uncovering our own biases, we have the opportunity to learn and grow. To draw out those lessons, let’s get into the particulars of the case.
An African American shop owner, one of the last in a gentrifying neighborhood, had called 911 to report that a homeless man was defecating and urinating in front of his store. When we arrived on the scene, he immediately launched into how the police continually ignore his calls because he is black and how the homeless problem is threatening his entire business and that he wants the man arrested so that he can press charges against him. Pointing across the street at his shop, we saw a man in filthy clothing swaying in front of a sleeping bag and some other possessions. At one point he leaned up against the building, ostensibly to relieve himself.
How would you have responded? What would you have done? Why? Before reading any further, you might want to ponder what your own instincts would be in this scenario…
As prepping for this role play, the participants were informed of our legal courses of action. Of course, we could do nothing. But if we were to intervene, we could:
Shunt him off to another location
Arrest the offending party and bring him to the station where he would be booked.
Bring him, if drunk or on drugs, to a detox center that would hold him for 24 hours.
If the person seemed mentally ill, we could commit him to a mental facility, which could hold him for up to 72 hours.
We spoke to the businessman. I assured him that while I couldn’t speak about the past or his allegations about racial discrimination, I would take them seriously and enter that into the record. We then walked across the street, alerting the houseless man that we wanted to speak with him. In our interactions, he seemed clearly inebriated. Due to his intoxication, it wasn’t clear if the individual was mentally ill, or merely drunk. Speaking calmly to the gentleman, I informed him that he could not be there and would need to move. In his slurred response, he informed me that “Officer Mike” lets me stay here.
While I informed him that I couldn’t let him remain there, a citizen with a cell phone began to videotape us from the middle of the street. He yelled at us, “Leave him alone. What are you doing to him? You are being unnecessarily rough. I am recording you and I am going to report you. Leave him alone!” Rightly or wrongly, I chose to ignore the citizen, as he had a right to be there and didn’t seem to pose an imminent threat. I knew, after all, that up until this point, neither my partner nor I had touched the individual.
Since the drunken man was not heeding us, I conferred with my partner, then calmly informed the homeless man that he could either relocate himself and his belongings, or that we would need to take him into a detox center. “You can’t touch me. Office Mike lets me stay here. Go away.” After issuing one last warning, which was ignored, we moved in to handcuff this now belligerent person. As I respectfully took hold of his right arm, he immediately fell to the ground screaming. The other people screaming were the citizen recording us and yelling about our inhumane treatment, and the businessman who kept urging us to arrest the man. Restrained, we prepared to take him to a detox center, at which point our role play ended.
How did we do? Did we take the proper course of action? Did we respect the business owner’s rights? How about the houseless person? The citizen with a cellphone? Again, consider what you would have done? Why?
In analyzing the role play, and discussing the many features involved, I assigned my partner and me a B or B minus (ok, I admit to being a hard grader). After all, we remained calm and respectful. We didn’t let ourselves get baited by either the citizen or the drunken man. We offered him a choice twice, thus honoring his free will. We removed an individual who was harming the businessman’s interests. We didn’t argue with a citizen who was completely within his rights to record police officers doing their job.
So with all those positive outcomes, why only a grade of B?
Because my bias steered me into making a less than ideal decision, which my fellow officer then went along with.
We tend to think of bias as a negative thing—that we are biased against someone because of their ethnicity, gender or religion. There is also positive bias and it too can cause injustice. One of my motivating social concerns is addressing homelessness and hunger. A society that can’t find solutions for its unhoused residents is failing in some very basic ways. Moreover, without a structural solution, what can we reasonably expect of our homeless? They can’t just magically disappear. So they set up tents, and the police periodically move them after a certain number of complaints. Then they set up camp again. What else can we expect them to do? Shelters are few and far between, and often dangerous.
In the moment—all the time which the role play afforded us to make a decision—those thoughts running in the back of my head. I erred on the side of doing the least possible to resolve the problem to protect both the rights of the homeless man AND the business owner. In the end, however, my concern for the inebriated gentleman was greater than that for the business owner. It made me momentarily forget that I had seen this dirty man urinate while still across the street, which is a misdemeanor. I was only aware that he had not relieved himself while I was talking to him. By taking him to detox, rather than arresting him, I removed the shopkeeper’s right to press charges. For a man who felt he has already suffered racial bias from the police, that was a genuine grievance. It is why in precincts like Portland, which emphasizes community policing, officers learn how important it is to explain to citizens why they took the actions they did.
But turning back to my story, here’s the greater rub. By imagining I was taking the least drastic steps to diffuse the situation, I also deprived the homeless person of his freedom for a longer period of time. If arrested, he would have been booked and released in a couple of hours. Instead, he was held for a full day. As someone who clearly had been on the street for some time, a misdemeanor on his record wouldn’t cause him any material harm. Moreover, nothing about being locked in a room until the alcohol left his system was likely to change the trajectory of his life. An arrest, however, sometimes can be a wake-up call for a person. It can allow families—through a physician—to put a grown child into a facility where they can receive the necessary care for a mental illness that the person otherwise refuses to receive.
This is where we all stumble. We all carry about implicit bias. Sometimes, that is outright bigotry. Other times, our empathic concerns lead us to cause harm to another even when our intention is to do good. That’s unavoidable. Life constantly provides us with opportunities to uncover our prejudices, to reflect on them and to grow as a result. When we do that, we earn an “A” for our humanity.
I want to thank the Portland police force for giving me an opportunity to do just that. I invite you to stay aware of when the world around you presents you with similar lessons for growth. It’s what God calls us to do. It’s what our nation needs.
Shabbat Table Talk
This week, questions are embedded in the Oasis Song article.
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