This part is easy for any of us to get. You have a loved one, partner, spouse, kid, weird neighbor — somebody whom you love and count on to be a regular part of your life. You sit down to the dinner table, and that chair is empty because, as of a week ago, that person is dead.
This week there are two dinner tables with vacant chairs in Virginia, one at the home of state police Lt. H. Jay Cullen, another at the home of trooper Berke M.M. Bates, each of whom left behind a wife and two children after perishing in a helicopter crash while patrolling the Confederate statue riot in Charlottesville.
Please notice that I didn’t say whose fault the crash was. I don’t know whose fault it was. Maybe it was nobody’s fault. But if I had been in that crowd — or if you had been in that crowd — we would at least have to ask ourselves if there was a different way things could have gone. Could events have unfolded in some other way so that those two men would be sitting at their dinner tables with their families this week?
The New York Times website is displaying a piece this week about the Dallas Police Basic Training Academy, under the headline, “How would an ethical officer react?” Written by Sonia Smith, a senior editor at Texas Monthly who lives in Dallas, the piece includes an extraordinary series of photographs by Jérôme Sessini, a French photographer for the prestigious photography house Magnum.
I’m a lifelong newspaper person, so maybe I don’t read things the way other people do. My first question in looking at it was, “Why Dallas?" This is a national story about policing published in a national newspaper. What’s the Dallas hook?
Smith gets to that in her third paragraph. The first two paragraphs are about the five Dallas police officers shot and killed July 7, 2016, in downtown Dallas. That’s not a hook yet. Callous though this will sound, the nation and the world have seen a whole lot of police shootings in the last year. Ours was especially catastrophic because so many were killed, but the mere fact of cops getting killed here doesn’t quite explain a piece in the Times more than a year later.
But in the third paragraph, Smith nails it. She quotes David Brown, police chief here when it happened, who said at a memorial service days after the shooting: “We’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in, and we’ll put you in your neighborhood, and we will help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about.”
In the next two weeks, applications tripled. This is a story about people with courage and a sense of mission, heeding a call to action. The Dallas hook is that this is where that call was sounded.
Sessini’s photographs depict some of the men and women who are still responding to that call, struggling through six brutal months at the Dallas police training academy. He captures them rolling in the dirt, getting guns pointed at their heads, trying to handcuff people who fight back. Smith’s copy conveys the inner struggle the recruits must endure as they learn how to deal morally but effectively with a world that can be immoral, chaotic and life threatening.
Maybe the piece also grabbed me personally. Long before July 7, 2016, I had a sit-down with Brown in which he talked movingly about the academy. Brown, a lifelong cop from the street, told me about the difference between what the academy must teach and what it cannot un-teach.
The academy must teach morality, tolerance and empathy for the community. It cannot send cops onto the streets thinking their job is to protect rich people from poor people. That’s the formula for an inevitable social implosion.
If the policed community has reason to believe that the cops are the enforcement arm of an illegitimate regime, then the community is going to have the same relationship with police that the French resistance had with the Germans in World War II. As our president might say, bad! There has got to be a bridge of legitimacy. That bridge is moral. The community has to believe the cops are the good guys.
But here’s the part the academy can’t un-teach. Brown told me he knew that the first day a rookie graduate of the academy climbs into a car with an experienced trainer and partner, the trainer is going to tell the rookie to forget all that stuff about community policing learned in the academy. The first job, the hard one, the trainer will say, is showing up at that dinner table at the end of the day. Not getting killed.
Not getting killed, the trainer will teach, depends on not getting out-drawn, not getting fooled, not getting lazy, not taking eyes off the other guy’s hands. Brown said that part can’t be un-taught — should not be un-taught — because it is basic human survival instinct.
In a world that can be chaotic and wicked, there is at least a line and maybe a conflict between being an ethical officer and making it back to the dinner table. So what do you and I, as citizens, ask of them? In order to be ethical, are they supposed to suppress their desire to survive?
By the way, I have a much easier time asking these questions than I do answering them. Sometimes the cops like what I write about them, and sometimes they hate it. I am aware, from a lifetime of covering police shootings, that some white cops are so afraid of black people that they are trigger happy. But in other cases, the cop accused of being trigger happy was just a quicker draw, and that’s why he’s going home to dinner. There is nothing simple or clean in the land of violence, guns, law and lawlessness. Fine points get lost in the fog.
All of this was running through my mind when my wife and I went downtown last Saturday night to look at the anti-Nazi protest at Dallas City Hall and near the Confederate memorial at Pioneer Cemetery. We saw phalanxes of police officers moving through the crowds, including a company of officers on horseback.
Maybe some of those cops were wearing body armor. I didn’t get close enough to all of them to see. But the officers on horseback looked to me like they were protected only by their uniform shirts. Their heads and limbs were totally exposed. And they were elevated. Sweet targets.
They all knew that. You cannot tell me there was a single officer out there Saturday night who didn’t think back to July 7 and wonder when the bullet would come. There wasn’t a single spouse or significant other or parent or child who didn’t say goodbye before the shift and think, “Maybe she’s not coming back,” or “Maybe he’s coming back in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.”
Yet they went out there. They did their duty. They were disciplined. They kept the peace. They protected everybody out there, neo or not.
We left too soon. We thought it was over. After we got home, we turned on WFAA-TV (Channel 8) and saw reporter Jason Whitely at a tense scene where some subgroup of the protesters had decided to pick a fight with the cops on horseback, who were trying to do a final sweep of the cemetery area after the previously announced deadline. A bunch of these guys were getting off on standing in front of the officers, showing the TV cameras that they weren’t afraid of horses.
So that was what? The anti-horse movement? Antiho? Listen. Stupid as that may have been, that was the moment when a whole lot of police officers had to be thinking, “Here comes the bullet.”
The guy who murdered five cops last year was stupid, too. He was whacked out. He didn’t make any sense. That’s where it comes from. The guy who rammed the protesters with his car in Charlottesville has a history of beating up his wheelchair-bound mother. The people who do this stuff are not geniuses.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The mayor and the four black Dallas City Council members have decided to drag out the process of deciding what to do with the city’s most prominent Confederate monuments. Rather than declare themselves committed to tearing down the monuments and decide later how to do it, the mayor and the black City Council members think we need months to decide how we feel about tearing them down. Speaking of people not being geniuses.
The mayor’s course guarantees we will see more rallies, more protests and maybe some riots over this thing before it’s over. That will mean lots and lots of heavy police mobilization.
When that happens, the question will be: “How would an ethical citizen react?” And there really is no gray area here. If any of us is out there in the craziness and hears people talking or sees people behaving in a way that could be threatening to the police, we need to rat them out immediately. Don’t get into it with the person because … see discussion above. Go to a cop and report it.
No decent person wants to go home and have to wonder if what he did or did not do that night contributed in any way to an empty chair the next night at a police officer’s dinner table. You can’t be in it without sharing some degree of responsibility for how it ends.