In 2005, I joined the police department in Phoenix, Arizona. I became a police officer for the health insurance and economic security, and because the people I’d looked up to as a working-class kid had told me being a cop was a respectable career. I was married with two small children and saw policing as one of the few remaining paths to the middle class available to an army veteran without a college degree.
Becoming a police officer was an easy transition. As a former Army Ranger, the training, male-dominated culture and paramilitary structure of the police academy felt like home. I loved it, and became completely engrossed in police culture. I viewed myself as a member of a special brotherhood, protecting sheep from wolves.
I wanted to be respected by my new peers, so I worked to be perceived as a hard-charger. In patrol, I responded to as many dangerous incidents as I could. When nothing dangerous was available, I searched for suspects on an active list of people to arrest or conducted pretextual stops on suspicious vehicles. I was known as a “shit-magnet”: someone who was always finding stolen vehicles, guns and people who wanted to fight with the police.
There’s no feeling quite like entering a dangerous encounter and asking for your fellow officers to “step it up”, then hearing sirens in the background, knowing that your brothers and sisters are racing to danger and will do anything to protect you. I’ve never felt that way before or since. But my perceptions about my job and my identity began to change after something that happened about four years into my career.
At the time I was working a regular off-duty security job, which is common among cops. My partner and I were providing security for an apartment complex that had been experiencing a lot of crime. One night, about four in the morning, we received a domestic violence call from one of the apartments. We had been to the same unit the night before and had resolved a verbal altercation between a man and woman. While we were expecting something similar to the night before, we also knew there was a potential for violence. During our previous investigation we had discovered the man had a long history of violence and had fractured his victim’s arm during a previous incident.
When we arrived in front of the building there was screaming coming from the second-story apartment. As I ran up the stairs to the landing I could see blood on the floor. At the top, a man was yelling, “He has a knife,” and pointing to an open apartment door.
I drew my weapon. Inside was the man I had dealt with the night before. This time he was holding a large, bloody knife. Screams were coming from somewhere farther inside the apartment. I pointed my gun at him and told him to drop the knife. He yelled, “Let’s go, motherfucker,” raised the knife, and ran toward me.
I shot him twice in the chest. He hit the floor at my feet. He breathed heavily for a few moments, and then became motionless.
When I fired my weapon, it was like watching a movie of myself; I felt slightly outside my body, and I remember feeling relieved that I was responding the way I’d been trained. I kept my gun trained on the man’s body while my partner smashed a bedroom window and evacuated the family.
I was placed on three days of paid leave, required to visit a psychologist, and re-qualify with my gun before returning to work. The shooting was investigated by our version of internal affairs, by the homicide bureau, and by the county prosecutor’s office. All agreed that the shooting was justified: what many cops call a “clean” shooting.
After the shooting I felt, for the most part, fine. I’m ashamed to say that; it doesn’t feel like the response you’re ‘supposed’ to have after killing someone
Following my return to work, someone in my chain of command pulled me into their office and played the radio transmissions from the shooting. He told me he was impressed with how I’d handled the situation and was going to fast-track a transfer I’d previously requested to an investigative position. The news made me uneasy; it felt like I was being rewarded for taking a human life.
However, in the days and months after the shooting I felt, for the most part, fine. In fact, I was proud of the way I’d performed under pressure. I’m ashamed to say that; it doesn’t feel like the response you’re “supposed” to have after killing someone.
At that point, I viewed the man I’d killed as being solely responsible for what had happened. He had made a series of moral decisions, on that day and in his life, that led him to his encounter with me. On a logical, purely intellectual level, I did not – and don’t – regret the decision I made that night. I don’t think I had much choice.
But about a year after the shooting, something began to change. Where I had previously accepted what had happened with relative calm, I now began to have a more difficult time dealing with the fact that I had taken a life.
One day I received an innocuous-looking interoffice envelope. Inside was a computer disk with the results of the investigation into the shooting. The first file I opened contained high-definition autopsy photographs. They showed how one of my bullets had pierced the man’s heart and the other had partially severed his spine. There were also close-up photographs of the extracted bullets, lying on a metal tray, with small scraps of human flesh still clinging to them.
I started to have bad dreams and anxiety. I was hyper-vigilant bordering on paranoid. I made things worse by self-medicating with Captain Morgan after my shifts ended. I gained more than 60 pounds. I continued to work hard and produce the type of results expected of me, but something had changed. I started to question the idea of individual culpability. As I investigated burglaries, robberies and homicides, interviewing thousands of suspects over the years, it became clear that a myriad of social forces drove people to behave the way they did. The man I’d killed wasn’t completely autonomous but also a product of an environment we’d all contributed in creating.
During the 2009 financial crash and the recession that followed, a lot of people who had lost everything washed up in my beat, often in the back of my patrol car. Some had lost their jobs, some their homes, and many found themselves living on the streets, doing whatever it took to get through to the next day, legal or not.
In 2011, I was asked to provide crowd control at a conference held by the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), which was being protested by Occupy activists. Alec is a conservative political organization primarily known for writing “model legislation” for state legislators. I felt sympathetic to Occupy. I began to wonder if I was a sort of state mercenary, protecting the interests of the same oligarchs who had put so many people out of their homes and jobs.
I decided to leave law enforcement. I was tired and felt dirty. I wanted to convert my experience into something of social value
During a shift one day, the radio dispatcher announced that a man had stolen a woman’s car at gunpoint from a nearby restaurant parking lot. I responded and soon found myself in a long train of police cars following the stolen car down the highway. Rather than be arrested he exited his vehicle and shot himself in the head.
I didn’t know it during the pursuit, but I’d dealt with the same man before. Several years earlier I’d sent him to prison. His family members later told investigators that he was about to be sent back to prison for a parole violation and had indicated he preferred death to further incarceration. The robbery itself, they said, may even have been a ploy to commit “suicide by cop”. It was notable that after stealing the car he appeared to wait for the first patrol car to arrive before fleeing.
In 2014, I decided to leave law enforcement. I was tired and felt dirty. I wanted to convert what I had experienced into something of social value. I returned to school to do a PhD in criminology at the University of Missouri-St Louis – a little over a mile from where Michael Brown was killed the same year.
My research looks at police culture and police use of force. When I began this work I was shocked to learn that there is no comprehensive national government database documenting police killings in the US. Furthermore, reporting by local law enforcement to federal agencies is voluntary. According to the FBI, only 40% of the approximately 18,000 police agencies in the US shared their 2019 use-of-force data.
Some news organizations, such as the Washington Post and the Guardian, have created police violence databases. Even these, however, probably undercount police-related deaths. Many databases, for example, wouldn’t document the killing of George Floyd because they only include incidents where police kill people with guns.
The organization I feel collects the most comprehensive data is a project called Fatal Encounters. The vast majority of its data is collected by volunteers and funded by donations or grants.
Fatal Encounters not only documents homicides by police but also includes civilian deaths that occur while fleeing from police; deaths by suicide during or immediately following contact with law enforcement, such as the one I witnessed; and police-related accidental deaths, among other causes.
Although the Washington Post database estimates that slightly over 1,000 people are killed by American police every year, Fatal Encounters estimates the number to be closer to 1,800. And even the Fatal Encounters database has missing or incomplete data. I was initially unable to locate my own killing in their files. This is probably because Fatal Encounters’ data is sourced mainly from online news reports; I was only able to locate one news report of my shooting on the internet and it was buried behind a paywall. I killed a man while wearing a police uniform and it’s almost as if it never happened. I later contacted Fatal Encounters directly and they were able to locate the incident in their database. The file did not contain an address, the victim had been listed as “unknown”, and the date was slightly off.
Perhaps the only thing the left and right agree on, regarding police, is that we ask too much of cops. They’re correct
I’ve spent the last year reading over 1,700 accounts of police-related deaths. There is usually a complex combination of race, class, guns, violence, capital and other social forces that lead to the fatal encounter. Merely identifying a handful of bad officers and sending them to prison is not a sufficient solution. We must work toward a society where citizens and their governmental representatives – the police – aren’t so terrified of one another.
While I’m very critical of policing, it is worth acknowledging that things are improving, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Police departments across the country are far more professional than in the past and many have made considerable progress in reducing the number of police-related deaths. In 1971, the New York police department shot and killed 93 people. In 2009, the NYPD shot and killed 12. This decline is the result of better training and more restrictive departmental policies, as well as the fact that American society has become less violent over time.
Perhaps the only thing the left and right agree on, regarding police, is that we ask too much of cops. They’re correct. Decades of deindustrialization have pulled the rug out from under a lot of Americans, and our social safety net is shamefully weak. Our society’s failings inevitably fall on to the police. Recently there have been calls to defund police agencies. It is critical that any attempt to do so coincide with a refunding of the social safety net that will be required to fill the void.
Thomas Owen Baker is a PhD student in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St Louis, a Pat Tillman scholar, former police officer and podcaster. Follow him on Twitter @thomasowenbaker