Why Did He Shoot?

October 11, 2018

Last week Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for the fatal shooting of knife wielding Laquan McDonald. The 16 counts were related to every bullet the officer fired at the man. All rounds came out of his service weapon in two bursts of gunfire, the second of which occurred while the teenager was lying on the ground.

Van Dyke faces a minimum 10 years in prison.

Living in the Chicago area, though this was a national story, it was impossible not to feel the tension during the past two years. People lost their jobs, the mayor decided not to run again, one man died, another’s life is shattered, families continue to suffer.

Never once in press coverage did I not hear or read a prominent mention of the race of the two men involved. Laquan McDonald was black. Officer Jason Van Dyke, white. The implication clear: Racism was the primary reason Officer Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald.

No matter your race or ethnicity, watching the shooting of McDonald, which was captured on dashcam, is difficult on most any level. The officer, prior to any semblance of an investigation, was called “calloused,” “cold,” and “murderous” countless times by media commentators and social justice pundits. And I can totally understand their visceral reaction.

I’ve been a police officer and/or trainer for more than 38 years, and I cringed every time I watched the footage. But my experience—both on the street and in the classroom—led me to conclusions I haven’t seen expressed elsewhere.  Hence, this column.

Critical Thinking; A Lost Art?

Emotions and agenda drive opinions and influence what people see and hear. In other words, our biases impact our observations and assessments. This holds true for everyone.

One of the most memorable things about my earliest days in college was a political science course. Going to a small college where no class had more than 35 students and sometimes as few as five, student discussion was a regular and encouraged thing. My freshman year the students were assigned to argue a political point assigned by the instructor. The professor told us something like, “If you plan on winning the argument with a person who has the opposite opinion, you had better learn everything you can about their side of the issue so you can prepare for their counters to your reasonings.”

That stuck with me.

Details being lost to the years, what I distinctly remember as we arrived for the day of arguments after weeks of preparation was this: At the last minute, the professor switched our poitions to the opposite side. He explained, “My job is to teach you critical thinking. Look beyond what you believe, beyond the obvious. That’s what college is all about.”

Being a cop, specifically an investigator for a large part of my career, only reinforced the need to look past the superficial and search for the truth of the matter insofar as that is possible. Convenience, politics, ego, and so forth be damned. You let the facts speak for themselves.

I don’t know what was in Jason Van Dyke’s heart the night he shot Laquan McDonald any more than the pundits do. But let’s examine the evidence, what we do know.

The Reasons Behind It

Van Dyke was a cop for 17 years in one of the most violent cities in the United States. He worked with black people virtually every day, encountering some who, no doubt, were violent, angry, and uncooperative. And he never fired his weapon at any of them. So why on this day did he let loose with his handgun?

I’m not saying—and this is critically important—that the shooting was justified. I defer to the jury, which heard all the evidence; something I clearly did not.

My point here is that, by repeatedly playing up the race of the officer and the victim, the media creates an impression that this single variable explains the officer’s true reason for firing his weapon. Commentators have claimed unequivocally that Van Dyke is a racist. While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I think this vast oversimplification hinders opportunities to fix any actual problems that certainly do exist in law enforcement.

Oversimplification is my greatest objection about much of what I hear from would-be criminal justice reformers. If we ascribe racism to all examples of policing gone wrong, if we pin the blame on the “culture of policing” or “systemic violence,” then you avoid true examination and thus correction.

True Systemic Problems

Here’s my view of what happened that night. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. Officer Jason Van Dyke closed the distance, which, in turn, intensified the encounter with Laquan McDonald. This action lead to sudden onset stress that affected the perceptions of all involved, most especially Van Dyke. Like most police officers in America, Van Dyke probably didn’t routinely experience real acute stress in his training. I will elaborate more on all of this in my next column, but suffice it to say: The bureaucratic systems, in too many departments, especially large ones, look at training as an aside to the job. There are many valid reasons this happens: money constraints, low manpower, contract restrictions, liabilities, and so forth.

I doubt many cops and bosses would disagree with that statement.

In addition, many, many state requirements for minimal training hours at the police academy level are less than the minimum for people training to be hairdressers and cosmetologists. As for continuing education? Meet the minimum requirements by law and/or check the box to prove you attended a short course meant to satisfy some politically charged subject matter.

I doubt many cops and bosses would disagree with those assessments.

If law enforcement had competition, if it could go out of business, if officers could get fired easily, and if bosses would lose their jobs for failing to accomplish missions and tasks, the attitude about training would be completely different. We would focus our training on the areas where our employees and our clients (citizens) were the most vulnerable to injury or death. We would concentrate on any situations where we could lose the trust of our customers.

The three areas that we ignore and don’t recognize as essential are:

1. Stress which comes in two forms: Acute Sudden Onset Stress (the type Van Dyke experienced) and Chronic Cumulative Stress that affects our paradigms and our assessments of situations, people, and even our personal lives.

2. Communication: true, real life, two-way processes of communication skills that involve reading people and learning how to deal with them in pressure filled moments.

3. Leadership: Learning how to actually lead others rather than learning how to manage people as to avoid failure.

Conclusion: Van Dyke

My evaluation based on what I saw and know is that Jason Van Dyke overreacted to the sudden stress of an intense moment. Perhaps chronic stress contributed to this reaction.

In my article next week, I will explain exactly why I think what I think. You don’t have to agree with me after I make my argument. But I thank you for considering it. My views aren’t presented in order to excuse a perceived wrong or apologize for the profession, but rather to explain.

And the explanation is one that can be assigned to many events where police officers do make mistakes. Rather than assigning evil intent or malevolent motivation to an officer’s actions immediately, we need to examine what is, in my opinion, the systemic problem in this profession I so dearly love: That controlling the self, managing acute and chronic stress, is the necessary first step to avoiding unnecessary outcomes.

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