Crime & Courts

Wichita-area police officers face backlash after publicized killings

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At first, the driver insisted the police officer had picked out the wrong car to pull over for speeding.

The Augusta officer said his radar device had taken a photo of the car and logged its speed, so there was no confusion about which car to pull over.

The driver said, “I’m a veteran. Can’t you give a veteran a break?”

The officer told him he had been speeding, and he had to treat everyone the same.

Then the motorist said, “The only reason you stopped me is because I’m black.”

He would later file a complaint with the Augusta Police Department. A review of the traffic stop on the officer’sdashboard camera showed it was legitimate, Augusta Police Chief Tyler Brewer said.

“You look at the video, the officer handled it so perfectly,” Brewer said.

He remained professional even as the driver screamed at him. Nevertheless, the young officer “came back absolutely afraid his career is in jeopardy because that guy played that (race) card.”

“That’s the environment our officers are dealing with now, and I think that’s very unfortunate,” Brewer said.

Law enforcement officers in the Wichita area and around the nation are facing an angry backlash from the public after police killings of unarmed African-Americans, most notably Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City.

Some in the law enforcement community say the deaths – and the continuing protests that have followed – are a wake-up call that should spark soul-searching among officers and drive departments to revamp training.

But many police think they’re being stereotyped as racist and brutal.

“The idea that police wake up, strap on their guns and pin on their badges, and sit around thinking about how they’re going to make lives miserable in the minority community – that’s just at variance with common sense,” said James Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, a national labor union representing rank-and-file officers.

“Police officers are very, very upset at what’s going on now, and the way that 700,000 of us are being painted with a broad brush of racism and ill-intent and malevolent motivation – that we just want to go out there and hurt people, when it’s the exact opposite,” said James Glennon, a retired police lieutenant from Lombard, Ill., referring to the number of police working in the U.S.

“We pull people out of wrecked cars, we hold people’s hands when they’re dying, we talk to 5-year-olds when they get raped, and one cop puts a chokehold on somebody and all of a sudden we’re all racist killers,” said Glennon, who owns Calibre Press, a company that trains police officers in the use of force.

Frustration

In Wichita, Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter conceded “it is a little frustrating” to hear law enforcement officers in general criticized for the actions of a few.

Local protesters have pointed to more than a half dozen shootings by police officers in Wichita over the past few years – some of them involving people with mental illness – as a sign that the incidents that prompted the shootings were mishandled by police. But Easter and Wichita Deputy Police Chief John Speer rejected that notion.

“The general public needs to understand that if somebody tries to attack our police officers or citizens with weapons, the police are going to respond appropriately,” Speer said.

And that’s true whether the attacker is of sound mind or is struggling with mental illness, he said.

Easter and Brewer said people who view law enforcement officers as eager to pull the trigger are simply mistaken.

“There’s been times in people’s careers – including mine – when folks were engaged in shooting at people and I chose not to shoot at them,” said Easter, who rose to the rank of captain in a 23-year career with the Wichita Police Department before being elected sheriff in 2012.

One such time, he said, was when a man was shooting in a crowded bar. He chose not to return fire, Easter said, because the odds of hitting innocent bystanders were too high.

A law enforcement officer’s decision to pull the trigger is “probably the most serious decision anyone will make in their career,” Brewer said. Given the current climate, he’s worried that officers might incorrectly hesitate to pull the trigger in a life-threatening situation.

“Are they going to take unnecessary chances” to avoid pulling the trigger? he asked. “It doesn’t only put the officer in danger, it puts other people in danger” by potentially not eliminating a violent threat.

Glennon, who runs the police training firm, said few civilians understand what it’s like for cops to make split-second decisions when they felt threatened.

“People think we’re all karate experts, that we can use the Vulcan death grip and knock somebody out without hurting them,” he said.

“I was in a gunfight in a hallway,” Glennon said. “You have never experienced the kind of stress you feel when you’re in a real fight when somebody’s trying to kill you.

“You’re going to lose your peripheral vision. You won’t hear your partner yelling things. The higher your heart rate, the more you get cognitive deterioration.”

Loss of trust

Easter said he’s particularly troubled by the comments of people who say officers went too far in defending themselves.

“It’s as if our lives as law enforcement officers mean absolutely nothing: ‘That’s your job, so if you die, that’s just part of the job,’” Easter said. “We have the right to defend ourselves, just like anybody does.”

Easter’s younger brother Kevin, a Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy, was shot and killed on Jan. 8, 1996, by a 14-year-old boy during a vehicle stop where the driver had initially refused to yield.

Upper-level police and sheriff’s officials in the Wichita area have talked recently about deteriorating trust levels in the community for law enforcement, Easter said. It’s troubling, he said, because it threatens to unravel years of hard work to build trust between residents and the police.

He said he remembers what it was like working the streets as a beat cop years ago at a time when homicides and violent crimes were way up and solving them was difficult.

“There was no cooperation” between residents and the police, he said. “Part of that was the trust issue … there was almost no trust.

“Those barriers were broken down” over time, he said, and trust in the community “has gone up tremendously.”

Violent crimes are being solved because people are more willing to tell police what they know.

“Law enforcement has come a long ways” in the past 20 years, Easter said. “We are being more open and transparent.”

There’s room for improvement, though, and Easter said he welcomes community meetings such as those held at Century II last week and at East High in August.

“I understand some of the distrust” that has boiled up in the wake of recent shootings by police in or near Wichita, Easter said. “I understand we as a community have a long way to go to build that trust.”

But he’s optimistic that it can be done.

“There’s a lot of good dialogue taking place,” Easter said.

In response to some of that dialogue, he said, the sheriff’s office will explore adding more “less than lethal” options for its deputies.

Other dialogue, however, makes officials such as Easter wince.

One such example, he said, is the claim that law enforcement officers can break the law without fear of arrest. Two former Bel Aire police officers were indicted in federal court last week in an alleged scheme to buy and sell guns, following an investigation launched by the sheriff’s department, Easter said.

Sedgwick County sheriff’s jail deputies have been charged with various crimes this year, including theft of a debit card and unlawful sexual relations.

“They are held to the same accountability as any citizen that commits a crime,” Easter said. “That’s what frustrates me.”

Brewer said he’s working to keep up his department’s morale.

“From a leadership standpoint, I’ve just got to remind the people in my department that they’re doing a good job and to keep doing it the right way: treat people with dignity and respect,” Brewer said.

Speer said he has no doubt that the overwhelming majority of residents support local law enforcement officers. Then again, he said, “We didn’t take this job to become popular. …

“We are the police department, and sometimes policing is difficult. Our goal is to protect our citizens in our community and do that justly.”

Police officials welcome the opportunity to be part of the dialogue and the search for solutions to concerns that have been raised in the community meetings, Speer said.

“It’s difficult right now to be in law enforcement, but there have been other difficult times and we have weathered them,” he said. “We’re going to get through this just like we have the others.”

Contributing: Lindsay Wise and Katy Moeller, McClatchy Washington Bureau

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