Police feeling ‘under siege’ – USA TODAY
In his 21 years on the Marion, Ohio, police department, Jay McDonald has run into burning buildings, been shot at and rushed into houses with a SWAT team to serve warrants on armed suspects.
And one thing is certain: He doesn’t want any of his three children to follow in his professional footsteps — especially now, as anti-police sentiment sweeps the country following several high-profile cases of unarmed black men killed by white officers.
“It’s a very frustrating profession,” McDonald says. “I’ve dedicated my professional life to this community. … You’re in danger at any time. And now you’re in danger of being called a racist and have your integrity attacked. It is stressful.”
McDonald, like many of his rank-and-file brethren in police departments nationwide, says police feel under siege and demoralized by the bias against them from a public that they believe doesn’t understand the dangers they face.
Tensions between police and minority communities have been building for months since the deaths of Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, all unarmed, all black, all dead after confrontations with white officers.
Now police are hunkering down, becoming more cautious since the ambush killings of two New York City police officers on Saturday. Across the country, police departments and unions are warning officers to remain alert so they do not become targets. In New York, the police union warned officers to respond to calls with two cars. The New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association told its officers to change their routines, such as the routes they take when they patrol or where and when they stop to eat. That way if someone is watching them, they won’t know their daily habits.
“Police officers are wondering, ‘Why do I do this? For the money I make, why do I continue to do this?'” says Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing 325,000 officers across the USA. The median annual salary of a police officer is $55,000.
In Stonewall, La., DeSoto Parish sheriff’s Deputy Scott Atkins finds himself looking over his shoulder a little more as he makes traffic stops. Returning to law enforcement after several years running his own business, Atkins says he was already aware of the decreased respect for uniformed officers even before the officer-related shootings and the murder of two New York Police Department officers.
“The guys on patrol, we are catching that flack,” Atkins says. “It can be fearful. You know you have a job to do. We chose this career to serve and protect.”
He says he realizes there is a “select group out there now who are making us out to be the bad guys.”
“You always have a feeling in the back of your mind: ‘Will I be able to go home to my wife and kids while I’m out here just doing my job?’ Even when I’m in a restaurant, I’m thinking, ‘Could something happen here?’ ” Atkins says. “I never thought I’d see these days. None of us did.”
Washington, D.C., police officer Todd Korson watches protesters chant on television, calling for “dead cops,” and hears the accusations that police are racist killers. And it cuts deep.
He says he knows firsthand what it takes to make the split-second decision to shoot a fleeing suspect who is a threat. It’s not about race or targeting a particular group or being trigger-happy. It’s about staying alive.
Last year, Korson shot and killed an armed carjacking suspect he was chasing. The suspect, Nathaniel McRae, ran out of the car with Korson close behind. Korson says he shot McRae when the man turned and shot at him.
“One minute you are at a family dispute, an argument over $1.25 or something, the next you are chasing a person waving a gun in a rearview mirror,” says Korson, 45, who was speaking as a union member. He is not authorized to speak on behalf of the department. “You hear the crack from the shot and you think, ‘I gotta stop him or I’m not going home.’ “
The shooting is still under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office, says a spokesman, Bill Miller.
Nowhere is the tension between police and the community more evident than in New York, where Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, fatally shot officers Wenjian Liu, 32, and Rafael Ramos, 40, as they sat in their patrol car Saturday afternoon. Before the deadly spree, Brinsley purportedly posted comments on Instagram saying he planned to kill police as revenge for Garner’s and Brown’s deaths.
Police deaths on duty are up 23% this year to 123 after a decline in 2013, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which tracks officer fatalities. Firearm-related deaths, however, had the largest increase, up 55% to 48 so far this year. The numbers include the shooting deaths of the two New York City officers.
It is unknown how many people are killed by officers because most police departments do not maintain that information. The FBI estimates that police kill 400 people a year, though that number comes from a database that is incomplete because it relies on local law enforcement agencies to make voluntary reports.
Canterbury says there is no epidemic of officers killing or assaulting people but an alarming number of officers are being attacked. Nationwide, about 50,000 officers are assaulted every year, he says.
Former FBI Assistant Director Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which helps officers charged with a crime while policing, says police morale has declined.
“They are feeling as if the public does not respect their sacrifice,” he says.
The biggest fear now is that police may become so afraid of getting in trouble that they won’t take risks when answering calls, says Delray Burton, a 20-year veteran of the D.C. police department and chairman of the police union.
“That’s a real sentiment from officers who think, ‘I’m not going to risk my career, risk being disciplined. I don’t want to be the first guy they make an example of,’ ” he says. Burton, who is black, says the race of the suspect has nothing to do with how police treat him. It has to do with the suspect’s actions.
“We’re reacting to what others do,” he says. “We’re dealing with people at their very worst. … Sometimes when I come, I will make you do something you don’t want to do. And if you don’t do it, I have the authority to use force to make you do it. Do not resist. It’s a lose, lose proposition.”
People can always file complaints with the city or police or lawsuits against an officer they feel mistreated them, he says.
The current distrust between the police and some of the communities they serve is the most important issue in policing in the past 10 years, says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that studies policing issues.
“Even though many of our communities have achieved record crime declines, the recent tragic events demonstrate that this means little without gaining public trust and confidence,” he says.
“Officers are feeling targeted because they’re wearing a police uniform, and many African Americans say they feel targeted because they are black,” he says. “The fear on both sides is toxic to good relationships between police and the community.”
He said everyone on all sides of the debate should look to the words of Jaden Ramos, the 13-year-old son of one of the slain officers, who said in a Facebook post, “Everyone says they hate cops but they are the people that they call for help.”
Contributing: Vickie Welborn, The Times in Shreveport, La.