“Don’t You Know About Ferguson?!”: Making Sense of Police Training

By: Simone Drake, PhD

Having a spouse who is a police officer does not worry me as much as most people think it would. I tend to agonize more over figuring out how to juggle a career while prioritizing the needs of my three sons when my husband is at work nights and weekends. I thought it a wise move, however, when he switched from being a regular patrol officer to working on the local police department’s bike patrol unit that collaborates with bike patrol at the university I work at. In this position, he rarely is dispatched on the high-risk “runs” that regular patrol units pick up. Instead, he spends a lot of time responding to cell phone thefts at 2:00 AM, when the victims are walking down alleys, underage drinking citations, and various misdemeanor disturbances in the residential areas surrounding campus. A recent event, however, made me think about the complicated relationship that exists between the critical race studies scholarship I produce and my marriage to a cop.

My husband casually—too casually, in my opinion—told me that someone tried to take his partner’s gun. I exclaimed, “What?!” and demanded more details. It was almost midnight on a weekend and he and his partner were riding at a walking pace as they answered questions about their bikes and duties for several pedestrians walking down the main retail street and thoroughfare of campus. My husband was startled to attention when his partner, who was riding behind him, hollered, “Get off my gun!” My husband turned to see an African American male attempting to remove the officer’s gun from his holster. Before my husband got to his partner, his partner had subdued the assailant; these incidences happen lightening fast. Surely high on adrenaline, upon arriving at the scene, my husband blurted out, “Don’t you know about Ferguson—I could’ve shot you!” Hearing that, I immediately asked, “Would you have really shot him?” Looking at me with bewilderment, he instantly replied, “Yes, he was wrestling with my partner for his gun; the only thing that stopped me was not having a clean shot.”

That was a sobering moment for two reasons. First, I really do not spend much time worrying about his safety; of course, freak accidents can happen, but he is well trained and smart. Hearing about that moment, however, and the necessity of him drawing his weapon and potentially firing it, created a sense of anxiety about the work he does. The second sobering aspect of the event is how one bad decision can ruin, and in this case ought to have ended, someone’s life. The assailant was, as my husband described it, “very high on marijuana” and the officers had numerous resistance problems with him even after he was handcuffed. Because of his actions, he now has a felony charge against him. My husband’s explanation of police protocol makes sense to me now. Thus, if the positions were reversed between him and his partner, I would have expected my husband’s partner to look for a clean shot to shoot whomever was attempting to take my husband’s gun at the very same time that I wish he did not have to do that because it would have meant someone else’s life would end, either figuratively (in a cell) or literally (in a coffin).

I know police violence toward people of African descent and especially African American men is a sensitive issue. It is one that does not go away because so many unarmed Black men, women, and children are victims of police violence. It is for this reason that many social justice advocates are quick to dismiss any defense of the police or police training. I occupy a complex space then as someone who is often suspicious of police, generally speaking, but who lives with an officer and, consequently, am learning that police work is complicated and therefore standardized to protect both the officer and the civilian.

What I mean by complicated is that, like many civilians, I have asked my husband questions like, “Why didn’t he [the officer] shoot him [the suspect] in the leg or somewhere non-fatal?” (Relatives of the deceased regularly ask this question on the local news.) What I have learned is real life and movies share little in common. Very early in his career my husband explained to me that at the point that you need to discharge your fire arm, your training is not to injure the assailant, you are trained to stop or neutralize the threat. The manner in which he was trained to shoot makes that clear: you aim center mass and you shoot at an angle in which the shot will go through and through. This means that shooting, or neutralizing the threat, in the aforementioned incident or, for example, when encountering an active rape is a facially neutral safety protocol for police working in my husband’s department. Again, this makes sense—I would rather shoot you than you shoot me—but I still struggled with the reality of having to make these decisions.

An easier topic for me to understand, but one also associated with police violence, is jaywalking. Work in the off-campus area of one of the largest universities in the United States results in my husband issuing hundreds of jaywalking citations. I have always known jaywalking is “illegal,” but I do it regularly because I figure I know how to cross the street without getting hit by a car. During the 2012–2013 academic year at my university, however, an alarming rate of students were struck by motor vehicles when walking in non-pedestrian roadways on campus. In fact, the university allocated an obscene amount of money to a task force created to figure out how to keep pedestrians safe. So the jaywalking laws have a function; they are not culturally or racially insensitive on their face. The insidious ways in which racism and law enforcement become entangled, however, make it difficult to parse out the racism from common sense police safety measures—measures that protect both the officer and the civilian. The entanglement is a most tragic legacy this nation inherited from its forefathers and that is now deeply ingrained in every facet of society. Thus, the reality of police departments nationwide increasingly making sure their protocols are race neutral (to avoid lawsuits) is complicated by the continuing problem of unarmed Black people being shot or otherwise caused physical harm by police officers who sometimes are following protocol and other times are dead wrong. This reality creates an ambivalence for me about both law enforcement agencies and protests against them.