Training, Self-Doubt & Fatal Flaws: What Social Work Taught Me about Police Work

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"Police Violence in Oakland" by Brooke AndersonHave you ever restrained someone the size of Eric Garner?

I have, and it was one of the easiest, most quickly resolved crises in which I’ve ever intervened.

It was 2009 and I was working with severely emotionally disturbed teens in a locked residential facility. A young woman, weighing in at 300 lbs, had just tried to punch someone, so we moved in to restrain her. When you take someone down to the ground from standing, you always put them on their stomach, otherwise you risk smacking the back of their head – where the skull is weak – into the ground. The problem with that, with a person of great size, is that their own body weight starts to compress their lungs. And this is right after they’ve just struggled with all their might to resist the takedown, so they’re already winded.

This is a documented and well-known phenomenon called positional asphyxia that has contributed to a lot of deaths. Thankfully, everyone on my team knew about this risk, because we had all been trained in keeping people safe even while we need to physically manage them.

So we carefully rolled her onto her back. In less than a minute she had gone from trying to haul off on somebody to too tired to resist. She caught her breath in that supine position and everything was smooth from there. Like I said, one of the easiest crises I’ve ever had to deal with.

What you need to know is this: even without that illegal choke hold, Eric Garner’s life would have been in danger. And even though he never did anything to threaten the police, the second he was on the ground, he wasn’t even capable of hurting anyone.

Is it possible that the NYPD receives less training than I did for my $13.50/hr job at a group home?

Every single cop who was there has blood on his hands. Eric Garner’s death was not an accident.

I’ll tell you one other story from those days that illustrates the only time in my life I’ve felt that I understand the police mentality of total control.

There was this kid, this lovable kid, who had a number of bullshit cards dealt his way before he had any say in the matter: his mom’s drug use while he was in utero left him with intense ADHD and impulse control issues, he grew up in poverty, and when he was 12 he watched his dad get gunned down in the street. So when he lost control, he was scary: I saw him stab my friend with a pencil; I was there when he bit my other friend on the leg for ten full minutes. But that’s what we signed up for. And we knew his story, and we cared about him. We got to see all the great things about him as well: his silly drawings, the way he smiled like a little boy during moments of real connection, his tendency to kill jokes by repeating them too much only for them to get funny again.

So there was one time I was feeling really worried that we didn’t do enough to avoid a restraint. He had wandered in and out of his room, and was acting the way he always acted before assaulting staff. We placed him in an escort hold and asked him to walk with us to the seclusion room. He refused. I was leading this intervention, and I thought maybe I could do what had never been done before: get him into the seclusion room without a full-blown restraint. So I kept talking to him longer than protocol said I should have. I did everything right, I used my personal connection to crack through his adrenaline-fueled focus on violence, I stayed calm, I gave him clear options, I told him we all cared about him and would be really impressed if he could just walk. Just walk. And he refused so I made the call to put him down into a restraint.

It wasn’t a particularly rough restraint, and nobody got hurt, but, still, I had been the lead – had I really tried everything? Was I too quick to initiate the escort hold?

And then, per policy, we searched him before having him enter the seclusion room, and we found a huge broken piece of a hard plastic cup in that narrow isosceles shape that screams weapon.

My self-doubt was instantly erased and traded for a feeling of conviction and solidarity with my teammates. This is a dangerous job, I thought, and we all have to keep each other safe.

It was days later when I realized that this must be exactly how police feel. Except they’re not just worried about a half-assed shiv, they’re worried about knives and guns. When they see someone not complying, they’re not responding to the actual behavior, they’re responding to their fear of what could happen if they’re not in control. If you question for a second how terrifying that can be, then watch this (NSFW & disturbing) video of what happens when an inexperienced cop doesn’t keep control. It goes quickly from confusing to lethal. Every cop on the job is aware of such doomsday scenarios; that’s why they demand total control.

The culprit here, without a doubt, is perverse and systemic racism. Additionally, however, it’s important to acknowledge that ANY human experiencing the constant threat of danger will develop an affinity with their teammates and gravitate toward increasingly absolutist, us-versus-them thinking. All it took to start me down that path was a plastic shiv that never got used.

That kind of thinking simply cannot accommodate the ambiguity of crisis intervention… and yet the policing model of this country necessitates that kind of thinking. No amount of reform can change that – it is a fundamental consequence of pitting society against itself.

Racism is the iron sights, our policing model is the trigger.

Both preclude justice.

SorenTraining, Self-Doubt & Fatal Flaws: What Social Work Taught Me about Police Work

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