When Cops Kill

I’d rather be judged by 12 of my peers than buried by six pallbearers. Law Enforcement trainer

I investigated crimes in the worst areas of Chicago long ago. I played by the rules. I support police officers on the front-lines. They do a dangerous job. But I support justice, respect, excellence and professionalism more.

America’s had a recent and ongoing outbreak of horrific killings and beatings of black men by white police officers. Technology has given us a look into the dark side of law enforcement. Are these violent acts—even murders–random events or a deeply ingrained cultural pattern? A law enforcement colleague wrote me: “After 35 years, I am pretty astute in what is required in most police confrontations. When I was on the street using my weapon was the last option, today it seems to be one of the first options.”

How can officers who shoot or use other deadly force as a first option be so self-assured?

I believe their confidence comes from a culture that makes it okay to mistreat people. Trained to be in control and aggressive, officers don’t take lightly to resistance or challenges to their actions. They cannot lose a confrontation: their culture demands that they win.

Many suffer chronic stress. An “us vs them” mentality fans anger. Group-think drags people down. Cynicism runs deep, secrets abound and some suffer burnout. Racism is real and conformity required. Police work in the underside of the community and can become desensitized to verbal and physical violence. Some officers come to the job unfit; others become unfit because of the job. Power gets abused.

Officers first get away with verbal and physical assaults. Minor abuses become larger cruelties when values are not upheld. Bonded by secrets, danger and loyalty, good cops usually go along to get along and suffer their failure of moral courage in a culture that values physical bravery. Police administrators—most former officers–exonerate bad cops. Self-policing favors the police officer. Strong police unions fight for the guilty. Prosecutors rarely charge cops for wrong doing. Violence and abuse become normal. “I feared for my life” becomes, for a few, a free pass to kill.

Responsible for their actions, those who break the law should be held accountable. But police leaders, the silent good officers, the unions with misplaced priorities, political prosecutors and citizens who look the other way share the systemic responsibility for the culture that makes it okay for officers to mistreat people—from verbal abuse to murder.

Responsibility and accountability have diminished as personal values in America. As a consultant, a lack of accountability cut across every organization I worked in. Many executives don’t want to know what goes on in the enterprises they lead. They don’t want to deal with painful or embarrassing issues. Instead they prefer quick fixes that provide the illusion of real change.

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza wrote (2012) that police are out of control and said the same on April 15, 2015 on the Chad Hartman radio show.

Video evidence and public outrage will result in accountability for some. But a broader and deeper transformation is needed in police cultures for change to endure.

Efforts to transform organizations most often fail or succeed only temporarily. Few leaders have the talents and skills needed to lead transformative change.

For sustainable change to happen in the police culture an awakened and outraged citizenry must put nonstop pressure and demands for change and accountability on mayors, prosecutors, city councils and police administrations.


8 thoughts on “When Cops Kill

  1. Well said Tom. Here is a portion of an article from the editors of Care2Causes that also rings true.

    While all violence is wrong, it would be immoral to condemn the destructive protests without using the same breath to also condemn the state-sanctioned police violence that has gone unpunished for years.

    Of course spending $5.7 million to settle more than 100 police violence cases without jailing a single officer will destroy the credibility of the police department in the community’s eyes. Of course chasing young men without evidence of a specific crime, ignoring their needs for medical help and videotaped howls of pain, and using “rough rides” to snap their spines will produce an outcry. And of course decades of economic blight so close to centers of growing wealth will lead a people to feel unheard and ignored.

    Does this justify responding to the state’s violence with more violence? No, absolutely not, but it certainly makes the anger of the oppressed understandable. Any pleas for peace must be directed at the police and the politicians just as much as, if not more than, the citizens who cry out in pain. All violence is wrong and rioting is counterproductive, but broken spines are worse than broken cars and the abuse of authority is worse than marginalized voices pushing back in the only way any of us seem to hear. If we decry the riots without also addressing the broken system that incubated them, then we are simply trying to cure a disease by treating its symptoms.

    Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/standing-with-baltimore-calls-for-peace-must-include-the-police.html#ixzz3YhrwheDL


    • Thanks Jay–for your comment and the piece you sent along. Police violence is a systemic situation and community violence even more so. We need to understand the totality of the dynamics that intertwine and lead to violence, as the piece you sent points out.


  2. Excellent.  Thanks.  Judy From: Tom’s Thoughts To: spiritwalker63@sbcglobal.net Sent: Wednesday, April 29, 2015 6:30 AM Subject: [New post] When Cops Kill #yiv1334678181 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv1334678181 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv1334678181 a.yiv1334678181primaryactionlink:link, #yiv1334678181 a.yiv1334678181primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv1334678181 a.yiv1334678181primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv1334678181 a.yiv1334678181primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv1334678181 WordPress.com | Tom Heuerman posted: “I’d rather be judged by 12 of my peers than buried by six pallbearers. Law Enforcement trainerI investigated crimes in the worst areas of Chicago long ago. I played by the rules. I support police officers on the front-lines. They do a dangerous job. But” | |


  3. I found it interesting that in the same week as the Baltimore story unfolded, the country was also all jazzed up for the “Fight of the Century” at MGM Grand in Las Vegas and people paid hundreds of dollars just to watch the fighters weigh in, while ignoring the fact the one of the contenders has multiple charges of CDV. Celebrities were filmed excitedly entering the event site and sitting ringside. Maybe, at our core, we’re just a violent society. Look at our spending on “defense” – we currently spend more on defense than the next 7 countries combined! Some anthropologists suggest that we Homo Sapiens dominated and eliminated Neanderthals, a much more peaceful species. Seems we have violence in our DNA. I’m just sayin’ . . . . .


  4. I am catching up on emails from April… and am just now reading “When Cops Kill” and the comments following your meaningful post, Tom.
    I am an American-born dual citizen, now living in my “second country”, Canada.
    While I write this as a citizen of the World, and don’t intend my comments to point fingers or compare unnecessarily, I can’t help but notice that the news (at least the news I see/hear) in Canada indicates fewer deep systemic police/community challenges here.
    However, that said, the RCMP has been notoriously lacking overall in its investigations of inner (RCMP-wide) claims of sexual harassment, and overall treatment of First Nations (Indian) needs deep soul-searching and change (hopefully with our newly elected federal government, these relationships will improve).
    We’re concerned about gun violence (violence of all kinds) and our communities and large cities are not without crime and riots and poverty and homelessness and racial/cultural confrontations — and a few confrontations end in deaths that could definitely have had a different outcome if cooler heads had prevailed.
    Communities in the Far North seem more prone to have systemic police-related problems and those communities have added stressors (effecting those representing the law as well as those representing the oppressed).
    Tom, what stood out to me is that your piece was written in April… and it is now almost December… and I’d say the situation in the US is only getting worse, at least from the publicity it is getting in our TV newscasts.
    Canadians (as a country stereotype) get chided for being polite and apologetic for behavior that Americans (generally, stereotypically?) find puzzling and laughable, but I find a genuine underlying respect for people (of all cultures) evident here that might help heal some of the inequities that are at the core of the problems addressed by your article.
    This turned into a longer comment than I thought!
    In loving spirit, Eleanor


    • Thank you Eleanor for your thoughtful comments. In the last two weeks, we’ve had two killings by police in Minneapolis–one of which has received national attention. And just the other day, the horrific video of the police shooting in Chicago was released to the public. Things do not seem to be getting better. So much violence is institutionalized in the cultures of police departments. A massive cultural transformation is needed and I don’t see it happening any time soon.Sorry to say.


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