Lives Matter

Only the Bold Build Bridges

“…that officer struck that bottle with his nightstick—filling that pocket with whiskey and glass.”

Do black lives matter?

Of course, they do. And no need to subsume that with “All lives matter.” Doing so implies that the first was a dig requiring a retort. The initial utterance, a cry of people in pain, needs to stand, out of respect—”Black lives matter.” Full stop. The response: agreement—grace.

Grace, there is no mention of that word in any police manual, no tactical procedure uses this word. Maybe it’s time we expanded our assets of words and tactics for these most trying times. If used as an indication of sensitivity, thoughtfulness, it could work as a resource of goodwill in police/community relations.

We need to support our police. Full stop.

Do all lives matter, do blue lives matter? Of course, they matter. But when viewed as an attempt to dilute the initial utterance, “black lives matter,” using the same phrasing, the same cadence, it appears as a rebuttal, it appears graceless.

If my daughter were hospitalized and died of hospital infection, I’d be in pain, I’d feel grief, I’d feel aggrieved. If I told the hospital staff, “A daughter’s life matters,” and they responded, ” Well, all lives matter,” “staff lives matter.” That would be true, but I would feel they were dismissing me, I’d think they were inconsiderate, graceless.

Four police officers were involved in the death of George Floyd. One Officer, Derek Chauvin, had his knee on the neck of Floyd.  Floyd might well have died due to the combination of drugs,  alcohol and the stress of arrest without a needless knee to the neck. But that knee might well have exacerbated the stress. Had those officers turned Floyd on his side would he had lived? Only a jury will decide.

But Floyd’s death, with that needless eight-minute-knee, with his pleas for breath, for his life, for his mother—will live on as an icon of police brutality.

In 21st century America, knees don’t belong on necks, and definitely not for eight minutes. This was more 1940s Jim Crow Mississippi than 21st century Minnesota.

I don’t know if Officer Chauvin’s prior seventeen complaints concerned the unnecessary use of force; a jury will hear about that as well. But some cops are needlessly violent.

As most of you know, I was a cop for 26 years with the NYC Transit Police, retiring as a detective. Although I did have to draw my gun many times, I never had to fire at anyone. Most cops never fire their weapons through their entire careers.

In the Transit Police academy in 1966, we trained in the escalation of the use of force—the instruction: Use only the force necessary to effect an arrest. If encountering resistance, use only the force required to overcome the resistance. Use deadly force to protect your life or the life of others.

The overwhelming majority of cops much prefer to arrest without the need for any force. They prefer compliance; they prefer just to do their job and go home safely.

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So many tragic incidents start with failing to comply and resisting arrest. An arrest can turn from easy compliance to a fierce fight in seconds. Something as minor as smoking on the subway can turn violent. A subject might be wanted on a warrant and refuse to provide ID. An attempt to verify ID might lead to resistance, then injury, or even death. It all started with a violation but the headline will read: MAN DIES FOR SMOKING IN SUBWAY—as if black lives didn’t matter.

Once it starts, adrenaline is pumping in the officer; possibly alcohol or drugs is pumping in the subject. The officer knows if he loses control, his weapon may be taken by the subject—and used. Officers have died this way, by bullets they loaded into their own guns. Officers have had their skulls shattered, bone shards driven into their brains—by their own nightsticks. This last for simply awakening a man on a subway platform.

So yes, most officers would much rather arrests go easy.

But not all cops in America think like that.

A few use excessive force, and some cause needless pain and injury. A few needlessly kill. But should we blame all officers for those few?

There are over 900,000 practicing doctors in America today. Overwhelmingly they are committed to healing and causing no harm. But sometimes a physician makes a misdiagnosis out of haste or poor judgment.

Others intentionally defraud Medicaid, or Medicare, churn patients through dubious tests or ping pong them to other practices, sometimes to the detriment or even the peril of patients. Some peddle Oxycodone, or fentanyl, like ice cream on the fourth of July, too often causing fatal overdoses. Do we condemn the entire profession for these few? No, we continue to honor them for their service in keeping us safe and well.

Maybe we need to keep some of that honor in mind when so many police officers die protecting all of us. Some, coldly—assassinated.

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Funeral of Det. Wenjian Liu, NYPD,  assassinated pre-Christmas, 2014

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Funeral of Det. Rafael Ramos, NYPD, assassinated. pre-Christmas, 2014

We have over 800,000 law enforcement officers in America, about four times the manpower of the US Marines Corps. These officers swore an oath to serve, to protect. But just as doctors, some of them also misinterpret circumstances presented, sometimes they use hasty or poor judgment in the heat of a deadly moment.

But there are also times when I’ve seen police action on TV that is indefensible. Times when I cannot comprehend what was going on in an officer’s mind. What I see leads me to think they never should have become police officers.

When I was a young rookie with about six months on the job, I worked on a Manhattan subway station that adjoined a station on another line. The officer on that station came over to my post. He had more time on the job and spoke of how he had many complaints filed against him in the last couple of years. He told me he had eleven complaints in that year alone. He sounded proud.

We came upon a black man sleeping on a bench on my station. We got him to stand. He was drunk, his back pocket held a pint of whiskey.

The procedure for these circumstances was called an ejection. Officers would escort the intoxicated person to the street “for his safety and the safety of others.”

But that officer struck that bottle with his nightstick—filling that pocket with whiskey and glass.

We then ejected the man to the street, “for his safety…” I never spoke up; I was new, I was still on probation, he was salty and proud, perhaps trying to impress a probie.

That was 1966, over half a century ago. Yes, I’m a Neanderthal.

Being a cop was always a tough job, and today it’s way beyond challenging. Arresting law violators sometimes involves the use of force, a job description a bit more challenging than your average workday tasks. And often, cops are unjustly accused of unnecessary force, just because force was used.

I don’t think any police officers today are as contemptuous of a human being as was that misfit officer I was with over fifty years ago. But a few cops still have a propensity for unnecessary force and are proud of their reps. They need to be stopped. For the sake of the community, of course. But also for the consideration of other cops. When these officers go down, lose their jobs, or are sent to prison, they take other cops, complicit by their presence, with them.

What if, in drunken retaliation, that man in the subway lashed out at us with a punch? Could he have ended up on the tracks, could he have lost his life?

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Would I have to testify against that officer? Would I be called a rat? Would that officer have lost his job, his freedom, his family? Would I be writing to you now about how I fared in Sing Sing for 25 years?

If that kind of horror didn’t happen that night but happened a year later, with another officer in my place, would I be complicit for not speaking up when I should have a year earlier?

There is talk of defunding police and diverting monies for social programs. Shouldn’t adequate funds already be committed to those programs, perhaps preventing countless police/citizen confrontations? We’re going to defund police, out of punishment, out of spite, for this piddling sum to address this gargantuan issue?

Cops respond to situations requiring mental health workers, mediators, addiction counselors. They deal with sidewalk and subway mental health cases resulting from failures of those underfunded efforts. Failure due to a lack of American—re$olve.

We were able to muster a resolve to fight COVID-19 with as much money as we needed, by the many trillions. That was a logical response.

Covid-19 was and is a hurricane of hurt for America. But can’t we take this moment to see the deadly storms that rain on too many of us, year after year; those “usual” twisters of mental illness that have at least a part in homelessness, opioid overdoses, teen suicides, mass murders? It seems we’ve grown comfortable with them because they don’t close our nation’s bars, restaurants, malls. It seems we’re indifferent to this slow-motion pandemic of death.

But they do send our loved ones to morgues too. They tear families’ hearts out too. Can’t we fund, with at least one of those trillions, the mental health resources that can mitigate these storms?

If there were more funding for mental health, alcohol, and drug abuse, perhaps George Floyd wouldn’t have ended up dying in a gutter. Maybe our inadequate mental health/drug abuse resources were more complicit in his death than those officers holding him down in that gutter.

How many Americans deal with their depression with drugs and alcohol?

How many mentally ill are put into the recycling bin of prisons when they should be hospitalized? The bin where they often act out against guards or other prisoners.

Jail jpg copy.jpgHow many have added years to their sentence or go to solitary confinement? All of this further making the mad, madder. (At a cost in NY State of $70,000 per year) And then, if they are released, a citizen or a cop, has to deal with them on the street, on the subway. And then run them through the system again.

Please keep this in mind when demands go out to defund police. This reaction can only hurt our already beleaguered and demoralized police forces. They struggle today to make arrests under insane guidelines designed by committees. They are harassed and assaulted by violent subgroups that attach themselves to legitimate protesters for their own agendas, hoping for overreaction—hoping for TV cameras. They contend with opportunistic thugs who loot and burn.

It is so difficult for us to take the point of view of the other police/protester side.

I do hear that minority families have “the talk” with their children. They alert them to the dangers of catching the attention of the police. If I were a minority, I too would have that talk with each loved one’s foray to the street.

But I don’t read in newspapers or see on TV: “If you are stopped, comply.” “If you are placed under arrest, comply.” “If you feel you are being disrespected, comply.” “If you feel you are racially targeted, comply.” “You can always take up these matters later, lawfully seeking redress…but comply.”

Why don’t we hear in Congress, from the pulpit, anywhere, everywhere, “So mothers don’t cry, just comply.”

Is there a fear that these words would be seen as supportive of the other side, our police? A concern it would be seen as capitulation and involve castigation or ridicule from our side? History gives us brave souls who have suffered such. But maybe it would be seen by some as a bold gesture of goodwill, a hand reaching out, a hand of understanding, a hand of—grace. A grace that may be a bridge to the other side.

Do our police forces suppress earnest assent to  “black lives matter” for fear of similar appearances of capitulation, risking sneers from our side for that support? Maybe a bold public embrace of it, an acknowledgment of the pain, would be seen by just some as a hand reaching out, a hand of understanding, a hand of—grace. A grace that may be a bridge to the other side.

We need to see more of the others’ side, we need to feel more of the others’ side.

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Only the bold dare build bridges

How many times have we heard, “Police departments need to do a much better job of weeding out bad officers.” Trite, but true.

Unless things have drastically changed since I was a cop, there are a few cops who are potential trouble. And I’m not talking about active cops that sometimes use strong, necessary force. I’m talking about those few who use brutal, needless force.

And good bosses know where that trouble is. Good bosses learn of time-bomb cops in official and in unofficial ways. And really good bosses do something about them.

Because they know if they let them continue, they enable them; they allow the likelihood of needlessly lost lives. They allow the likelihood of lost careers, the imprisonment of police officers, some of them good cops who were only present when the time bomb exploded. Maybe all it takes is the wise use of words to stop them—but it might take more.

And maybe the wise use of words, by family, by community leaders, openly, publicly, urging compliance can save lives too: “So mothers don’t cry, just comply,”

Maybe we need more words and actions that draw us together, not tear us apart.

Words matter.

Black lives matter, so does a little grace.

Be well,


See also, So Mothers Don’t Cry:

4 replies »

  1. I too have traveled this road. Started in 1968 little training, walked a foot patrol beat, night shift. Your words are correct and true. As a cop you had to manage without fear, step beyond the safe step. Black lives Matter. Please read this, absorb these words. Hand in hand we must step together.


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