If there is one media subject that sticks with me from 2016, aside from the bizarrely satirical election, it is the coverage of officer-involved shootings. It was often “breaking” news across all networks, as was the civil unrest that nearly always followed. There was overwhelming coverage and demands for responsibility on the front end, with a vacuum, largely devoid of either on the back end.
On September 27th, 2016, an unarmed black man named Alfred Olango lost his life in an interaction with police in El Cajon, California. What followed in the minutes, hours, and days after the shooting was very similar to what happened in many locations throughout the country. Anger, frustration, resentment, fear, and misinformation slowly increased until it reached a fevered pitch and unrest broke out. It was nowhere near the severity as what occurred in other cities, but for the first time, the national news was covering what I consider to be my home town.
Yesterday, as I was waiting for a coffee at Starbucks, I glanced at the print newspaper stack and saw a picture I recognized from the shooting. The headline read “Officer shooting ruled justified.” In the body of the article I found what I expected to find; a family still in pain, mourning, and vowing to continue the pursuit of “justice”, and a report from the city explaining the outcome of the investigation. It was not an article that will cause celebration. At the end of the day a family lost a loved one, and an organization that is already tasked with a nearly impossible and thankless job begins a new shift, under increased scrutiny and tension.
I feel for the family; I don’t expect them to act any differently than they are, but I can’t say that I agree with them. It is hard to be objective, especially when you are that emotionally attached. It is easier to blame others, than to accept the reality that individuals are accountable for their actions, both good and bad. There is a difference between being held accountable for your actions, and saying that “someone got what they deserved.” No one deserves to be killed, but you have your hands on the wheel of your life. If your actions put the car into the rails, the hands turning the wheel should be looked at long before you start blaming the rail.
I feel for the officer; in his line of work sometimes you have to decide between bad and bad, in the blink of an eye, and you alone live with the consequences. I understand he volunteered for an occupation that demands a higher level of scrutiny, responsibility, and transparency than most are comfortable shouldering. He had to wait to be cleared for his actions, while his profession was pummeled by others who would never volunteer to shoulder the burden. If he had been found to have used unjustified or excessive force, I would want him prosecuted to the absolute extent of the law.
I feel for the vast majority of citizens in this country, who are caught in the middle, untouched by these events, and unsure of what to do. Most are afraid to say or do anything for fear of reprisal, being labeled politically incorrect, racist, or worse, so they choose to sit on the sidelines, quietly. There is no solution to be found there either, and it will only make these problems worse. I don’t blame people for wanting to sit on the sidelines, the violent loss of life can often be divisive and confusing, and it will always be emotional.
If you have no first-hand exposure, making sense of, and understanding why rushing to action in the aftermath of events like this is the wrong answer may forever elude you. I can only guess, but I would wager from a statistical perspective, less than .01 percent of people will ever encounter this type of violence. I have repeated exposure to both sides of this coin, and it has forever changed my perspective. Frankly, I have lost more, and killed more, than you ever will. I have taken an axe to family trees, and I have had them taken to my own.
The act of killing someone is a measuring stick inside of the modern military. You won’t find it in any guidance or manuals, but it is present in every single combat unit. There is no tally board, but the score is known. I would imagine it was more prevalent at the beginning of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, given our extended periods of relative peace, but I suspect it has been there forever. It is a line in the sand, and when I was young, I wanted to cross it as fast as possible.
My job involved killing, and I loved it. Not the act itself, but the stakes, the challenge, and the environment. More than anything, I loved winning. I loved training and sharpening my skills to the height of my ability, and then testing them. I loved being pitted against another human being in the highest consequence environment possible, and escaping victorious. It’s not for everyone, but it was for me, and I gave it everything I had. I made my living looking down the sights of a rifle for 17 years, and I am still here. Those who chose to square off with me, are not. I am left trying to make sense of those experiences and the impact they had on my life, and I am constantly trying to find a way to do something meaningful with them.
What I learned from that journey, among many other things, is that killing is not difficult. It requires sight alignment, and somewhere between 3 to 5 pounds of pressure from your index finger. If you want difficult, look to restraint and compassion. Unfortunately, it takes time, exposure, and experience to come to that realization. Eventually, you learn that a rush forward to action, often does not solve the problem you want it to. Generally, it creates more complex, and complicated problems. Controlling a nearly insatiable desire for action in an environment filled with anger and rage requires self-confidence, self-control, and the ability to not let your emotions dictate your actions – all learned skills. More often than not you will be better served by taking a knee, gathering information, and making an informed decision, as opposed to driving forward blindly into the unknown. The worst thing that you can allow to happen is to be swept up in the emotions of those around you. Time, thought, experience, and objectivity are your allies. They can make you deadly, or they can kill you, if you ignore them. War is perhaps the most difficult classroom to learn these lessons. When you do, you will never forget them.
It is these experiences that make the police shootings of 2016 stick with me. The shootings themselves are tragic, but what occurred after I consider far more dangerous, and far more senseless. It is what occurred after, that truly drove us farther apart.
When it comes to police shootings, perhaps it would be better to take the time to gather all of the facts, not just the snippets of an incomplete picture that modern news outlets provide, then churn in an attempt to drive ratings. Perhaps it would be better if we resisted the temptation to become emotionally involved and attached, because we have seen in others the degradation of objectivity that occurs. This may not be possible for the families, but it is possible for everyone else. Perhaps it would be better if we dug deep, and found it in ourselves to exercise compassion and restraint, before racing to violence against one another.
We have a surplus of the one thing I know each of those officers wishes they had more of. They had seconds, if not less to make decisions. That is not true for you and I. My actions, your actions, the actions of the families, communities, and the media are not bound by those restraints.
We have time.
We need to use it.