Cops Fearing for Their Lives: “Go Home to Mommy or Get another Job”


Recent YouTube videos have treated us to the sickening spectacle of police again shooting unarmed black and brown men – one with hands raised, the other lying on the ground. The one with raised hands was shot 17 times by police in Pasco, Washington. The one on the ground was shot 5 times by 3 Los Angeles police officers with several others standing nearby.

Couple that with what we know of Ferguson and our government’s donation of military equipment to local (even rural) police forces in the name of fighting terrorism, and there’s ample cause for concern about U.S. policing. The names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others, reveal the swift and easy transition from “protect and serve” to “harass and dominate.”

Why are trigger-happy police officers so easily excused by simple invocation of their favorite mantra, “I feared for my life”?

Is it that the officers caught on tape are essentially cowards? Dangerous situations emerge when fear-filled men are given license to kill unarmed people with raised hands, or those lying on the ground, even when the latter are surrounded by five or six men in blue with guns drawn.  If the surrounding men were not uniformed, most of us would find their actions contemptible.

Of course, no one denies that policemen are on the whole good people and have very dangerous jobs. African-American and Hispanic communities themselves need and want good police in their neighborhoods, regardless of the officers’ skin color. And besides there are plenty of non-white officers on the Los Angeles and New York City police forces (though not on their Ferguson counterpart).

In any case, it is clear that there is something dreadfully wrong with police training. Obviously, their weapons instruction teaches them how to fire guns. It is evident however that officers need even more training about how to avoid firing those weapons. Backing off is not cowardly; neither is shooting to wound rather than kill.

As for the hazards of policing, it doesn’t even rank among our country’s ten most dangerous jobs. Those belong to loggers, fishermen, pilots, roofers, steel workers, garbage collectors, electricians, truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers.

That list puts into perspective the “I feared for my life” defense inevitably invoked by police allegedly mistaking wallets, pens, candy bars, and sandwiches for lethal weapons.

As retired NYPD detective, Graham Witherspoon puts it: if policemen are that afraid to put their lives in danger, they’ve chosen the wrong profession.  It would be better, he said, to “go home to mommy,” and find some other line of work.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Cops Fearing for Their Lives: “Go Home to Mommy or Get another Job””

  1. The man who was killed yesterday (March 1st) in Los Angeles had a history of mental illness. The situation was tragic and leaves viewers wondering how the killing could have been avoided or handled differently, defused. I sometimes work with people who are mentally ill, and I have been asked to take training for safe restraints. I have not done this yet; I’m no spring chicken and wonder if I am too old/too much osteoporosis to even venture into this territory. I do know of one recent Berea graduate, a young person whose leg was smashed and broken while she tried to restrain a demented person at her job. A recent supervisor told me that something similar had happened to her, and it took her months to recover from a leg injury inflicted by someone who was not rational.

    In college Sociology classes, instructors often emphasize that most people with mental illness are not violent.

    In real life, it is not rare to encounter people who have had violent encounters with mentally ill family members (or strangers). This does not change the fact that a person with mental illness is not necessarily violent — but being naive about the nature and handling of mental illness (which is a big factor in homelessness) does no one any favors — not families, police, or communities, and not afflicted people who fail to receive effective help that respects their autonomy as much as possible.

    May the man who was killed rest in peace, and may the police involved find peace as well; and may more people become educated about best practices for handling mental illness in responsible ways. If you google “NAMI” and/or, there is advice for family members.


    1. I recently saw the Broadway production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” — a coming of age drama about an autistic young man who had a phobia about being touched. In two of the play’s scenes, he responds energetically to policemen who touch him. At one point the young man waves his pocket knife at a cop. I couldn’t help thinking: “In the U.S., the poor kid would be shot — probably five or six times.” Instead, in the play, the policeman backed away with his hands in the air and talked the kid down. As I just mentioned in the comment above, it seems U.S. cops have no training in how to deal with the mentally challenged.


  2. Like most people I have read and seen much through the media about the escalating use of police brutality, especially as perpetrated against young African Americans and Latinos and others, including the homeless and those with mental disabilities. These events, each one individually and taken as a whole, portend a direction in which our nation seems to be heading. It frightens and discourages me. I will defer to the sociologists and other trained professionals to grapple with the root causes of this stain upon our nation.

    One thing I have done is to speak with relatives in law enforcement, including, local police friends, and state troopers to try to understand the cause(s) from their point of view. All gave different answers. Some were defensive and justified such actions. Some just fell back on the party line(similar to how many politicians react when they cannot face the truth). Not surprisingly, many were self-serving. However, one young policeman, new to the job and a veteran of several tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan stunned me with what he thought was the reason. He said that police departments are hiring many of these returning veterans who have been brainwashed and dehumanized to prepare their minds and hone their survival instincts for combat. He said that, as a result, when they try to integrate back into civilian life, they are unable to ‘turn off the kill switch.’
    He added that the unrest and violence (domestic and racial) that he has confronted on the streets automatically trigger the frustration and self preservation instincts that he experienced in combat.
    A part of this reasoning is emerging as we confront the increasing statistics on PTSD.


    1. A very thoughtful and valuable comment, Alice. The Anthony Hill killing the other day is yet another example of that “kill switch” that apparently is easily tripped. I wonder if police officers receive serious training about how to deal with the mentally ill?


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