Monday, November 30, 2009

Tensions and Law Enforcement

My heart goes out to the families of the police officers who were gunned down Sunday morning in Lakewood, Washington, not far from where I live. It was a terrible crime and many lives will never be the same. I feel for the officers' colleagues, especially knowing that they suffer the burden of having to be professional and reassure their own loved ones - all the while mourning for close friends and knowing that for a twist of fate, it could have been any one of them.

Many years ago, my summer job involved working dispatch during the night shift in a national park. I was the last person to talk to a patrol officer before a car stop - which also meant I was the first person to talk to the officer after a stop was made. It was a time when databases were not connected and the law enforcement officers were often seasonal rangers like myself with limited training.

Every stop was potentially life threatening. We never knew whether a car stop would involve a drunk, belligerent driver, an apologetic tourist with family in tow, or someone or something more sinister. I worked alone in a dark administration building, and felt the tension intensely. If an officer took more time than I thought they should, I could feel my heart race and I was always grateful when he or she would get on the radio and calmly communicate that the stop was done and had been routine.

Once, on a shift I happened not to be working, a car exploded just after the patrol officer had radioed in to say she was going to make a stop, and we later found out the driver had accidentally blown himself up while trying to throw a grenade out the car. That driver turned out to be on the FBI Most Wanted List and the officer involved was someone I'd come to know as a friend. I don't know how long it took her to get over it, but it's always stayed with me.

Another time I was alone and in uniform when I ran into a group of armed gun enthusiasts in the back country. Carrying guns like that in a national park was clearly illegal - and I was not an armed officer - so I assessed the situation and for whatever reason let them pass without saying a word.

Now, whenever people casually criticize police officers or belittle the pressure or tension they feel, my own gut starts to get tight. I've become the sort of person who feels it's always my job to put law enforcement at ease which sometimes means doing the dog submission equivalent of rolling over and baring my belly. A few years ago, when I was crossing over from Canada into the US and the Customs officer asked if I had anything to declare, I cried out "We've got bacon" as though it were a capital crime. It wasn't even on the list of restricted products.

Of course some people have their own strong reactions to law enforcement for entirely different reasons. In the late 80s when I worked for Microsoft as a product manager, one of my colleagues was black, and he would tell me stories about how often he was stopped because he was young and black and drove an expensive Porsche and was therefore subject to what he described as the ever present offense of "driving while black."

I also know from experience that just being out of sorts can raise suspicions and make everybody tense. Once, when I was catching a flight unexpectedly from Seattle to Nevada, I was put through intense security. The security officers pulled me aside because I was acting stangely - I was sweaty, pale, and could barely pull together a coherent sentence. I'd just found out my sister was dying and I was still in shock as I traveled down to see her for the last time. None of their questions addressed my situation and I couldn't say anything without bursting into tears, so I watched somewhat dazed as they went through everything in my bag and everything on my person. They were clearly puzzled, but couldn't find anything specific and my paperwork seemed to be in order. After what felt like an endless search, they sent me on my way. As I ran to catch my flight, I muttered a tearful thank you and I knew I'd left them wondering if there was something else they should have probed.

We''ve come a long way since the days when I worked at Crater Lake and my friend from the Word product marketing team was pulled over several times a year for merely driving an expensive car while audaciously young and black. Databases are connected, law officers have better training and people everywhere are more sensitive to issues of prejudice in matters of race and authority. Nevertheless, the system and we are still imperfect, and as I write this, the police nearby are in an intense search for the person they believe murdered four of their own.

A terrible crime has been committed, people are grieving, and a suspect is on the loose. Because we're human and fallible, all of us have a duty and responsibility to do what we can to help ease the tensions that accompany such an extraordinary situation.

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