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Mission Creep: The Danger of Blurring Police Blue with Soldier Green (Part 3 of 3)

06/04/2015 02:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2016

Coauthored by J. Berkeley Bentley

On Tuesday, May 26, police officers, friends, family and a respectful public lined the procession route for Omaha police officer Kerrie Orozco's funeral. Orozco was killed while trying to serve a felony warrant to a "convicted felon and a known gang member," wanted in relation to another shooting in Omaha. Orozco was killed just hours before her maternity leave was to begin, having delayed her leave until her prematurely born daughter could come home from the hospital. She was killed by Marcus Wheeler during a standoff in which he fired at least nine shots at officers from a 9mm Glock with a 50 round drum. Orozco was wearing a protective vest, but was shot just above it. Kerrie Orozco, in short, is a true hero -- someone who put her life on the line for the safety of others, trying to make her world and the world for her newborn a little better.

Two weeks prior to Kerrie Orozco responding to a call involving a convicted felon and known, violent gang member to serve a felony warrant for a shooting, two officers in St. Augustine, Fla., responded to a call to a non-emergency phone number involving an alcoholic threatening suicide who was holding a knife. That call center was designed to allow people to start a process by which friends and family members with addictions could be involuntarily committed to treatment centers. The officers who arrived on scene came with M4 assault rifles at their shoulders. They came without anyone with a treatment background to talk to the alcoholic who was threatening suicide. Minutes later, Justin Way lay dead in his bed, shot by M4 rifles in a very enclosed space.

The officers' and Way's girlfriend's, who made the call, stories differ significantly. The officers, though, reported that Way threatened his girlfriend and the officers with the knife. Detective Mike Smith who drafted the incident report told Way's parents that their son was shot when he refused to put down the knife because, "That's what we do."

The question of whether this was a "good shoot" is not the only important question needing an answer -- and one that can't be answered without more information. Indeed, at first glance it appears there is strong evidence that this was a classic suicide by cop situation. Rather, the question pondered here is why the officers decided that M4 assault rifles were appropriate when responding to a drunk man threatening to harm himself while lying in bed.

The officers' commander told reporters, "If the deputies feel that that is the appropriate weapons system to use, then yes," M4s were appropriate. Some details on the M4 are necessary to fully understand the situation. The M4 has a rate of fire of 700-950 rounds per minute and became popular in the military when the U.S. Special Operations adopted it as their "go-to" weapon system. The weapon was designed for long distance kills, with an effective range of around 500 meters (1,640 feet), meaning that a trained shooter could, without a scope, hit a human-sized target at that distance (almost 5 football fields). In addition, with a muzzle velocity of 2,970 feet per second, the 5.56 mm round that is fired by the M4 has significant penetration power, meaning that a single round can, and has, gone through multiple people and walls.

What do these numbers mean? First, the M4 is an effective weapon for a soldier in combat to maim and kill his target. Second, the M4 is a particularly clumsy weapon for a police officer to use in a closed room at short range. To fully understand this, one has to keep in mind that a police officer, according to the Supreme Court's 1985 Tennessee v. Garner decision, is not permitted to use deadly force unless the "officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others." Thus, an officer may use deadly force only in self-defense or in defense of others against a particular suspect in a particular set of circumstances. The M4 assault rifle, by its very nature, is designed to engage and destroy the enemy at long range. It is a good offensive weapon, a poor choice for the tragic events that played out in Way's bedroom.

So why did the officers decide that it was the appropriate weapon when going into a small, enclosed bedroom to talk a man down from killing himself and get him into treatment (as just the facts seem sufficient to carry that point). It is impossible and unwise to Monday morning quarterback every decision by officers who have to make split second judgments. However, in this case, the department gave us a glimpse into their decision making process after the shooting. The statement that should raise alarm is the choice of language. "Weapons systems" are not what police should use. That is military terminology -- plain and simple. Such language, first, assumes that a "weapon" is, in fact, necessary in every situation. Second, it assumes that every individual police officers deal with is a target, to be dealt with by this or that weapon. It also demonstrates the mission creep of the police. When police start thinking like soldiers, it's not surprising that they act like soldiers.

One of these authors was a police officer and when we went on patrol or on calls, we had "tools." A firearm was only one of our tools. And just as a hammer is not appropriate for a screw, we knew that a gun was not always appropriate for a given situation. There is a saying: "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." To an officer using "weapons systems," everything looks like a target. But not everything is a nail, and not every citizen, even suspect, is a target.

One of the many jobs police officers have is to deal with the dangerous and sometimes deadly situations inherent in stopping violent people from harming others. But police do so much more in our communities than dress up in SWAT gear and catch truly bad guys. Police investigate suspects who are innocent until proven guilty. Police help lost children find their way home. Police comfort victims of crimes. Police ensure that even the bad guy's rights are protected. They are social workers, peace officers, and cops all rapped up in one -- what may seem as an impossible mission. Police are members of the community. They are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and husbands and wives. They are heroes who deserve our respect and admiration.

In short, police do more than serve felony arrest warrants to gang members who are known to be violent, as Kerrie Orozco was doing when she was killed. When they do serve such warrants to such suspects, maximum care must be taken -- backup or SWAT called and weapons drawn. When police are responding to other types of calls, though, like those involving suicidal addicts lying in bed, different tools should be used as the first response.

That cops are speaking in militaristic terms is only a symptom of officers thinking in militaristic terms. The change we need is a change of mentality. As this series has developed, that change in mentality needs to start with hiring officers of more diverse backgrounds and not limiting the applicant pool by such arbitrary measures as intelligence caps, fearing officers will get bored and quit for greener pastures. One of the officers involved in the Justin Way shooting had posted on Facebook, "Most people respect the badge. Everyone respects the gun." That mentality, itself, needs policed. And the best way to police it is to hire more people who think in different ways. We need more women on the force, more minorities on the force, and, just as importantly, more diverse backgrounds on the force, both educationally and experientially.

So how do we, the citizens our representatives are supposed to be accountable to, make sure this change actually happens? We actually hold our representatives accountable. That's how. We write. We speak. We protest if need be. We don't let the issue fade into the next news cycle.

When "community policing" was first rolled out, the idea sounded great to politicians and the public, alike. What happened, though, was that grant money doled out to hire officers to do that community policing went toward building bigger and more intimidating police forces, toward SWAT budgets and weaponry. This happened because no one watched the watchmen. The police were made safer -- most definitely a worthwhile goal -- but the point of the grants was missed. And politicians got the dual benefit of seeming more community-minded and overseeing police forces seeming to do more to fight crime.

This time, we need to watch. We need to make sure that what we have heard from politicians actually makes it to our streets. If we truly want our police forces to change how they interact with the communities they serve, it is up to us to see that who gets hired changes. There is a bill before Congress that will make reporting police-involved shootings mandatory -- including reporting of race, situation, type of weapon, and individual officer involved. This is a necessary step that we hope becomes law. Another part of this process of changing mentality, though, must involve serious conversations about police officers' pay.

For all that we want police officers to do in our communities, we need to pay our police accordingly. It is a dangerous job and no amount of money can truly compensate for the risks police officers like Kerrie Orozco take. Police officers should be seen as honorable members of communities who sacrifice for the good of the community, and most often they are seen that way. Because of the actions of a few, however, the reputation of the profession is tarnished.
If we hold our politicians accountable to change just who gets hired to protect and serve our communities, these authors hope that those few bad actors won't feel as comfortable displaying the mentality that has led America to the conversation we've been having for the past year. We hope that by forcing this difficult part of the conversation, America's police and America's communities will interact toward the greater good. If this mentality shift is truly recognized and change is sought, we hope that all Americans will again respect the badge, but know to fear the bully (especially the ones that carry weapons).