This Oppressed, Unjust, American Life

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Protesting police brutality

February 6, 2015;National Public Radio, WUWM (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

Increasingly, some outlets are using longer-form journalism to bring their readers or listeners more deeply into an issue. This American Life is one of those outlets, despite the recent kerfuffle about its journalistic chops.

As outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder spends his last few weeks in office speaking to civilians about community relations with their local police departments, the issue is also taking center stage in a new podcast series by This American Life, a weekly radio program recently popularized by the true crime podcast, Serial.

Narrated by Brian Reed, the new two-part series, “Cops See It Differently,” was launched online last Friday and delves into the contentious relations between police departments and their communities, particularly minority communities. It’s an issue that erupted into public discourse last year following the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, leading to the Black Lives Matter movement.

This first part of the series focuses on the police department in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and ardent, good-intentioned police chief Ed Flynn in particular. By the time he came into the position back in 2008, there were already deep-seated tensions underlying community and police relations in Milwaukee, a city with a great racial divide.

The episode takes listeners through some of the Milwaukee department’s more controversial policing moments, such as the death of 22-year-old Derrick Williams, who died in the back of a squad car after telling officers, “I can’t breathe.” (That’s right; Milwaukee had its own Eric Garner three years before the Staten Island case.) The episode also looks into the aftermath of the police shooting death of mentally ill Dontre Hamilton, which resulted in the firing of the officer and a heated town hall meeting that was frustrating for both the community and police department.

But it’s the prologue of the series that provides the most succinct depiction of how many minorities feel about local police officers. Back in September, Lisa Mahone of Hammond, Indiana, her two children, and her friend Jamal Jones were pulled over for a routine traffic stop that escalated to police officers pulling their guns and demanding Mahone step out of the car. Fearing for her life, Mahone called 911—on the police officers.

In many ways, after listening to the podcast, Ira Glass and Brian Reed have not shown us much we don’t already know about the situations in these communities. Those being targeted are males from minority groups, African American or Hispanic. However, what’s interesting about the podcast is that it gives the much-less-covered perspective of the police officers on the other side.

In the case of Derrick Williams, as an example, we see two very different perspectives of the video camera that caught him gasping for breath and dying in the back of a police squad car. Watching the video, Williams can be heard pleading with officers to help him while he is repeatedly told to stop “playing games” or ignored entirely. Later, we see Williams slump down in the backseat. Only then does a police officer come to check on Williams and see if he was okay. He wasn’t.

A civilian watching the video would wonder why a police officer did not help Williams. Is it because the officers did not take him seriously? Was it some sort of subconscious racism that some officers may have, as will be discussed by the podcast next week?

Watching the video, Chief Flynn had a very different perspective:

“Our first thought when that tape was finished was breathing a sigh of relief. ‘Well, gosh, the cops didn’t do anything to him.’ And of course, what we’re completely missing is that the average person seeing that tape is perceiving absolutely uncaring, unfeeling officers who refused to do anything about a man in distress. And we missed it.”

Instead, Chief Flynn focuses on the disconnect between how the public perceives and understands a police officer’s world and an officer’s reactions to crisis situations:

“In hindsight, one recognizes it’s difficult to explain the universe of police officers in crisis situations and how often an average officer encounters an arrested suspect that doesn’t want to go to jail and wants to go to the hospital.”

After the 22-year-old’s death, Chief Flynn made it mandatory for officers to automatically call an ambulance upon hearing an arrested suspect needs medical attention. In so doing, the decision of whether a suspect needs attention is officially out of a police officer’s hands.

And then TAL asks the big question, the question you need to ask upon seeing officers ignore a man’s pleas for help time and time again in these videos: Is there a problem with police officers lacking empathy? Here, Chief Flynn talks about how dealing with the social ills of our society day and day out has an enormous effect on officers. “They harden themselves,” he says.

We need this perspective because the public needs to know exactly what about police brutality needs protesting. We need to understand the constraints police officers are under so we can figure out how to prevent more Eric Garners, Michael Browns, Derrick Williamses and Dontre Hamiltons. The emotions we hear from Chief Flynn in this podcast confirms that both sides want the same outcome, but we are nowhere closer to reaching it.

Where and how does race play a role in police officers’ decision-making? “Next time, on This American Life…”—Shafaq Hasan

  • Stephanie Thaw

    I totally get how the perspective of police officers change in response to their jobs. When you are constantly looking for a perpetrator that is what the world becomes. They no doubt suffer PTSD of some form. In my opinion, restorative justice practices should be an on-going part of the job for officers and for civilians AND every three to five years officers should have a mandatory paid work reassignment to do some type of work on the other side where they can experience the good in the world. Build houses, rebuild trails, etc

  • Shannon

    Before I have even finished reading this article, I do need to correct one of your statements. “…the issue is also taking center stage in a new podcast series by This American Life, a weekly radio program recently popularized by the true crime podcast, Serial”. This American Life has existed for many years now and has since made Serial a popular podcast, not the other way around. This American has been a hit on iTunes far before Serial existed. I don’t know if you simply meant to say it correctly and it came off wrong, but the phrase gives the wrong impression.

  • michael

    What goes unmentioned is why the majority of people like Lisa Mahone have encounters with armed government agents….they pulled her over for a seat belt. Eric Gardner was killed over cigarette taxes. Perhaps the citizenry would be safer if we cut back the power of the state to hassle citizens over petty crap.

  • Scott Landsman

    For the most part we are still skipping off the surface of the problems that exist between police officers and their communities. In both cases, the officer and the individual, it goes to the very core of what makes us tick. I am a retired sergeant, LAPD, and was heavily involved in training. Some of the issues are:

    *. Peoples’ needs in general
    *. The type of candidate hired as police officers
    *. The negative backlash of some training, even great and necessary training
    *. Victim’s mentality (both officers and public)
    *. Pressure on field officers to reduce crime
    *. Balance/imbalance of relationships ( each contact becomes a temporary relationship)
    *. Change in public attitude and behavior toward officers

    Those are just some of the issues that affect the relationship police have with their communities but each takes a little bit of time to explain and demonstrate how they are related to the overall situation. Not getting to the root causes means we are destined to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. Law Enforcement as a whole and the officers as individuals don’t understand what drives their behaviors and how even the best and seemingly positive motivations cause negative behaviors. Doing the same things, telling officers what they’ve already heard, implementing more rules and policies might have a temporary fix but history has shown that the negative behaviors continue and often times in a mutated form slightly different from the recently outlawed behaviors. Once we discuss the issues above as well as some others, officers will finally understand what motivates their negative behaviors, how and why the public responds to them, and how they are able to justify their behaviors to make them acceptable in their own minds and those of their peers. It’s time to change our direction and give the officers what they need to be true professionals and provide the public with a professional police force.

  • Kevin Maloney

    You don’t even have the facts straight on the Malone encounter. Officers were demanding that her passenger step out of the car, he was refusing. Cops pulled their guns when he went into his backpack, and later broke Malone’s passenger side window and tasered the passenger.

    And the Supreme Court long ago decided all of this was perfectly legal, in Maryland v Wilson:

    “On the public interest side of the balance, the same weighty interest in officer safety is present regardless of whether the occupant of the stopped car is a driver or passenger. Regrettably, traffic stops may be dangerous encounters. In 1994 alone, there were 5,762 officer assaults and 11 officers killed during traffic pursuits and stops. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports: Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 71, 33 (1994). In the case of passengers, the danger of the officer’s standing in the path of oncoming traffic would not be present except in the case of a passenger in the left rear seat, but the fact that there is more than one occupant of the vehicle increases the possible sources of harm to the officer. [n.2]

    On the personal liberty side of the balance, the case for the passengers is in one sense stronger than that for the driver. There is probable cause to believe that the driver has committed a minor vehicular offense, but there is no such reason to stop or detain the passengers. But as a practical matter, the passengers are already stopped by virtue of the stop of the vehicle. The only change in their circumstances which will result from ordering them out of the car is that they will be outside of, rather than inside of, the stopped car. Outside the car, the passengers will be denied access to any possible weapon that might be concealed in the interior of the passenger compartment. It would seem that the possibility of a violent encounter stems not from the ordinary reaction of a motorist stopped for a speeding violation, but from the fact that evidence of a more serious crime might be uncovered during the stop. And the motivation of a passenger to employ violence to prevent apprehension of such a crime is every bit as great as that of the driver.

    We think that our opinion in Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692 (1981), offers guidance by analogy here. There the police had obtained a search warrant for contraband thought to be located in a residence, but when they arrived to execute the warrant they found Summers coming down the front steps. The question in the case depended “upon a determination whether the officers had the authority to require him to re enter the house and to remain there while they conducted their search.” Id., at 695. In holding as it did, the Court said:

    “Although no special danger to the police is suggested by the evidence in this record, the execution of a warrant to search for narcotics is the kind of transaction that may give rise to sudden violence or frantic efforts to conceal or destroy evidence. The risk of harm to both the police and the occupants is minimized if the officers routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation.” Id., at 702-703 (footnote omitted).

    In summary, danger to an officer from a traffic stop is likely to be greater when there are passengers in addition to the driver in the stopped car. While there is not the same basis for ordering the passengers out of the car as there is for ordering the driver out, the additional intrusion on the passenger is minimal. We therefore hold that an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop. [n.3]

    The judgment of the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland is reversed, and the case is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. “