Killer Cops Aren't Heroes: We Need Police Who Think Like Firefighters, Not Like Soldiers in a War Zone

The tragic slaying of troubled eighth-grader Jaime Gonzalez in Brownsville, Texas by trigger-happy local police illustrates the sad an dangerous state we have arrived at as we turn our local police forces into SWAT team soldiers up-armed with assault rifles, black facemasks and stun grenades.

The reason Gonzalez, who had no hostages and was just armed with a pellet gun, was killed by police bullets was because the primary concern of the officers confronting him was to eliminate the threat to themselves, not to rescue a troubled kid.

To analyze this situation, we need to step back and consider firefighters, that other group of uniformed public employees (or often volunteers!) who also have to rescue people and whom we simply expect to face life-and-death situations on our behalf. As my cousin, a retired urban police officer, once pointed out to me, police don’t face anywhere near the risk that firefighters face. As he explained, police officers in truth rarely face life-and-death situations on the job, and when they do, they generally have the upper hand, given their guns and their training. Firefighters, on the other hand, know that they could die every time they respond to an alarm.

When a firefighter arrives at a burning building, her or his first thought is whether there might be someone trapped inside, or unconscious inside from smoke inhalation. If there is any possibility that this might be the case, they just rush into the burning building, obviously as safely as possible, but always aware that the whole thing could come down on them at any moment.

 a firefighter going into a wall of flame to rescue someone or an up-armed SWAT kill team in their armored car?Who is the hero: a firefighter going into a wall of flame to rescue someone or an up-armed SWAT kill team in their armored car?

I’ve actually witnessed this kind of selfless heroism. When I lived in a large apartment building in New York City, years ago, there was a fire in another apartment several floors down. The building was considered “fire proof,” in that each unit was all surrounded by concrete–the walls, the ceilings and the floors — so theoretically the fire in this apartment, which was sending angry flames and smoke billowing out of the windows, could have safely been allowed to burn itself out. But instead, what I saw when I went down to the hall that the apartment was on, was two NYFD firefighters rush up the stairs and walk up to the door, which was so hot the paint was blistering out on it like melting lava. Then, incredibly, without even stopping to cross themselves or say a little silent prayer, they just kicked in the door. As the flames rushed out towards them, to my astonishment, they just walked into the inferno!

I talked to one of them afterwards. As it turns out there was nobody in the apartment, but he said they had rushed in right away because they were concerned that someone might have been trapped inside.

Now that is selfless heroism, yet they just saw it as all in a day’s work.

If they had been acting like many police officers, these guys would have waited outside in the hall, while fire trucks outside sprayed water through the window to quell the flames. Of course, had someone been in the flat, that person would have been toast had the firemen waited outside until things were safer and the fire was under control before going inside.

The parallel situation is young Jaime with his pellet gun in the hall of the Brownsville middle school. The cops had all the cards in this incident: they were marksmen, they had body armor, and there were several of them. The kid was clearly not a marksman, was carrying a pistol which is a notoriously hard thing to hit a target with, would have no time to aim if he tried to take a shot at a cop, and would in any case have had to manage a head shot to do any serious damage. Furthermore, the police were in no hurry. Since Gonzales had no hostage, since the doors to the classrooms were in lockdown so he couldn’t rush into one and take a hostage or shoot someone, and since the halls had been cleared, there was plenty of time to try to talk him down.

But the cops, clearly, were not there to save a young kid from himself, as a firefighter would have been doing. They were there thinking, first and foremost, of how to protect themselves. And so they took the easy route and shot and killed a boy. End of problem.

That is what is wrong with our police in America. Of course there are good, heroic cops, but as a group they are trained and encouraged not to be selfless public servants, but to see themselves as soldiers in a war on crime. Everything in public policy works towards this end: the provision of billions of dollars’ worth of deadly military equipment to police departments, the glorification of cops who shoot and kill perps, the caving in to police unions by politicians who fail to establish serious civilian review boards empowered to monitor police violence, the unwillingness of prosecutors and courts to punish cops who do use excessive violence, and of course the media glorification of police brutality and police violence, both in the news and in Hollywood.

Instead of urban commandos, we need in America police who see their job as saving lives, including the lives of those who are mentally unbalanced. We need police who are trained to see all people and all lives as precious. We need police who seek out the job of cop because they want to help people, not because they were in the military and have experience with handling weapons and thus have an advantage in the hiring process. We don’t need domestic soldiers as police. We need people who think like firefighters.

If our firefighters thought and acted like our nation’s police, there would be a lot more people burning to death or dying of smoke inhalation as the firefighters, protecting themselves, just stood back and watched buildings burn down.

The thugs we have been witnessing enthusiastically beating up peaceful protesters of the Occupy Movement around the country, and merrily spraying them with pepper spray and teargas, are the same people who would shoot a troubled kid instead of trying to save him (and by the way, how come cops are so quick to deploy their nonlethal weapons, including rubber bullets, bean-bag guns and flash-bang grenades, against peaceful protesters, and then they don’t use them when they could have saved a troubled kid and instead turn to their sidearms and M-4s?) . These people are not heroes, they are not civil servants, and they do not belong in a police uniform. We need a wholesale revamping of the nation’s police departments to convert them from urban combat units to protectors of lives, promoters of social harmony and defenders of liberty and democracy.