Monday, December 15, 2014

The ACLU Challenge: Show Me the Tanks and Machine Guns

Being the libertarian leaning citizen that I am, I confess that on some issues the ACLU and I are on the same page. Those pages may not make up a large book, mind you, but I'm not in favor of unnecessary government intrusion any more than they are.

We differ on the issue of some law enforcement realities that the ACLU interprets as unnecessary government intrusion. Their recent screed against SWAT and "militarization" has been a loud voice in the chorus of anti-police rhetoric that has swept the country and plagued its public servants.

Since I am open to correction I am willing to donate $100 dollars to the ACLU if any American citizen can prove that tanks and machine guns and "militaristic" gear is a plague upon the nation. That's right, a crisp Ben Franklin for the first of any of the following brought to my attention and verified as having occurred within the last two years in the continental United States:

1.  The existence of any tank in the inventory of any local or county law enforcement agency. A tank is a tracked vehicle with a functional revolving turret on which is mounted a functional cannon capable of firing explosive rounds and with such rounds in that agency's inventory. Armored rescue vehicles do not count.

2. A documented use by any local or county law enforcement agency of an automatic weapon used in a tactically offensive (i.e. not defensive; not emotionally or socially offensive - I mean shooting at somebody) manner during a police operation in which no suspect was armed with formidable weapons, or against a citizen not engaged in criminal behavior.

3. A documented use by any local or county law enforcement agency where an item of protective headgear (helmet) or other personal protective item worn on the body (ballistics vest or gas mask) has been used in an offensive (i.e. not defensive; not socially or emotionally offensive - I mean used to hit somebody) against a citizen not engaged in criminal behavior

I would like to invite the ACLU or any other police critic to formally accept the challenge by donating $100 for each of the three issues to a cause of my choosing if no one comes forward.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ferguson Protestors' Rules for Police Inspiring New Era of Negotiation

The “Don’t Shoot Coalition” in St. Louis, Missouri has presented a package of requests to police officials on how to handle protests that will occur after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision on Officer Darren Wilson, investigated for the shooting of Ferguson resident Michael Brown.

Among the requests are no armored vehicles, no rubber bullets, no rifles, no tear gas, a safe house of refuge, advance notice of the grand jury decision, community-friendly policing, no mass arrests, hands off media representatives, allowing longer and more massive occupation of spaces than normally allowed, more tolerance of minor lawbreaking (such as throwing water bottles at police), no excessive force, and a few other details.

This is a great opportunity for others who anticipate criminal activity to jump on the rules of engagement bandwagon. Narcotics peddlers can begin requesting a no SWAT response to search warrants. Bank robbers should be allowed to get an ETA on responding officers to provide a reasonable lead time for their get away. Fraudulent check writers can negotiate for no prosecution unless they write a really bad check. As implied by the Don’t Shoot Coalition, all offenders should be allowed to throw things at police officers if they are sort of small things that probably won’t really hurt that much.

Sex offenders should negotiate being allowed one false identity to avoid the harassment associated with registering all the time. Arsonists, of course, would have to hold separate talks with the fire department officials to promise low water pressure on smaller fires.  Car thieves clearly would need to be assured a full tank of gas and insurance in case they crash when pursued. Unless, of course, pursuits are negotiated out of existence.

The real beauty of this expanding plan is that eventually police officers will be allowed to negotiate on some of these terms. For example, law enforcement could ask for a label on the thrown water bottles to assure that they aren’t filled with acid, urine, chlorine, or made of glass. Or we could just go with the honor system and hope the throwers stick to their principles of assaulting officers with relatively soft things.  The advance notice concept would be very helpful on all criminal activities. Even five minutes would be nice.

As for protective equipment, perhaps a provision that if one officer or more is killed or injured by that rare antagonistic, rule-breaking criminal, then a time out is called and officers can get into their gas masks or armored vehicles as deemed necessary by a standing committee.

Snarkasm aside, protests invite police attention, to be sure. But there is no reason to believe that law enforcement would interfere unless chaos and significant lawlessness break out, as happened during the initial riots. The coalition’s verbiage heavily implies that law breaking is anticipated and planned (but just a little bit). We used to call planning criminal activity “conspiracy”, not “negotiation”.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Brown, Wilson, and the History of Cop Hate

The collective pronoun "they" may be the most dangerous predictor of a tumble from impatience to harshness to hatred. "They always do that." "They need to get their act together." "They should be shot". The beginning of bigotry's hate is the convenience of category.

Comes now Ferguson, Missouri police officer Wilson in the matter of the death of one Michael Brown. Facts and physics be damned, Wilson is carrying the weight of "they" on his shoulders. From the long dead lawmen who gathered up escaped slaves to the ones who let loose the dogs and billy clubs on the Edmund Pettus bridge, Wilson shares a badge tarnished by suspicion and cynicism.

Wilson's decisions are not allowed to stand alone in the court of public opinion. He stands with the "they" of the hatred of cops by some and the love and respect of cops by others. 

Questions of why the prisons are full of young black men stand on Wilson's shoulders. Suspicion of an ever increasing Big Brother government stands there, too. A generation of self-centered, sheltered Americans leap on him. Those who never vote but readily protest and opine climb aboard. Those who fear oppression and those who fear lawlessness comprise his stand.

Darren Wilson was not every officer any more than Michael Brown was every black teenager. The ghost of all of history may hover over every "they", but when two men make individual decisions, the judgment must be framed by those individual moments.

The law is quite settled on these matters. If activists want to change the law that is another debate, but the law as it stands is clear, should anyone care to look:

"The "reasonableness" of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments - in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving - about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation." [Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)]

Popular opinion fails in precisely the way that the lawmaker's predicted when courts and juries and the calm, rational systems of jurisprudence were designed. The law does not have a chip on its shoulder because a cousin was treated badly by the police. Jurors must not make any correlation between some SWAT team's error somewhere and Wilson's trigger. Those who really want justice wait for truth to be distilled from the chaos of public opinion.

They are few. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

What Brittany Maynard Wanted Us To Talk About

I know nothing about Brittany other than what the media reported and that she ultimately made the decision to die at a time certain rather than a time uncertain.  By making this decision public she apparently wanted part of her legacy to be some discussion about – presumably leading to agreement with – a person’s right to determine when to end their own life.  I won’t comment directly on that issue, but rather about how we comment about that issue.

What disturbs me about that discussion as I’ve seen it played out on Facebook is that the real freedom to opine about the matter doesn’t exist. Much has boiled down to diatribes against Christians for being judgmental, the same tired puff we heard about reactions to Robin William’s suicide.

I’m always fascinated by the biblical literacy of those who use the only Bible verse they want to quote: “Judge not”.  It is often quoted with the implication that we can’t judge somebody else because there are no moral absolutes. The moment this is said, the speaker is making both a judgment and a pronouncement of a moral absolute.

We do assess, calculate, discern, ponder, promote, reject, accept, agree, disagree, and rant and write. What part of this is judgmental in an unacceptable way? The overarching issue of the sanctity of life, the ponderings on God’s will and purpose, the calculus of hope versus despair are all quite legitimate and transcendent things to think and talk about.

A recent post ( was very insightful and compared Brittany’s plight with the jumpers from the World Trade Center. The writer’s point was that those who chose to jump to their death rather than be swallowed in the flame and poison of the exploding plane were no different than Brittany’s choice. The writer points out that the jumpers were considered homicides rather than suicides just as Brittany’s choice was not to die but how and when to die when faced with a certain terrible death. And I think that is a great point. But the author seems to think it important to say “Christians should be the people who are the least judgmental” in the typically sanctimonious not so subtle paraphrase of  “I wish Christians would shut up”.

I suppose, with the millions of folks commenting and claiming Christian affiliation, that there were some who said that Brittany’s choice was a choice that sent her straight down the garbage chute to hell (which would be a doctrinally unsound pronouncement). But what I heard was sadness, a desire for hope, and the very real and necessary discussion about the circumstances around a person’s right, ability, and capacity to end their own life and all of the potential social consequences attached. My mother made treatment decisions about her cancer and life expectancy. My father was on life support and we agonized over that treatment, too. I’ve assessed dozens of suicidal persons. All of us are touched by these kinds of decisions – even Christians.

Why can’t we discuss whether our hypothetical decisions to jump from the World Trade Center would be different if we knew that rescue was close, or that by suffering before we die would could lead someone else to safety, or if we knew we could actually survive but be disfigured? If we want zero suffering, the answer is pretty easy. Other than that, we need to agree that it is horribly complicated.

Let Christians campaign in extremism in favor of life over death with their worldview of transcendent and eternal consequences. Let those who favor suicide and euthanasia campaign in extremism for total individual determinism with their worldview that individual choice trumps social consequences. Why must the former be labeled hateful, the latter as open-minded, and anyone in between as anything else? 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Cause Turned Stupid

Jim Croce's ballad gave a good definition of wasted effort: You don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, and you don't try to make intelligent commentary about the St. Louis area rioting. And yet, here I go.

There was a time, despite the distortions of the Michael Brown shooting, that the opportunity to really talk about justice and race in America was an open door. Although the premise that Officer Wilson shot Brown because of their respective pigmentation remains unsubstantiated, sympathetic minds saw the pent up frustration of a segment of Americans burdened by a legacy of discrimination. Prisons full of black Americans and reports of profiling are compelling.

Then it turned stupid, and thinking citizens are increasingly rightfully embarrassed by the whole affair.

Please take note that when I use the word "stupid", I am only borrowing from our President who has used the word in reference to the police. His endorsement of the word makes it clear that it is not a racist term and that it is appropriate among bright thinkers in discourse of sober matters.

The turning point for most observers was rioting after a black male attempted to kill a St. Louis police officer who shot the man after dodging three bullets. To think that Officer Wilson assassinated Brown at high noon on a Saturday for jaywalking was implausible to begin with, then the subsequent wild anger overshadowed any attention to potential facts. The latest rioting because an officer defended himself from a murder attempt is stupid in the first degree.

The important dialogue was lost early when leaders failed to lead. The discussion was framed by Missouri's Governor acting stupidly by sharpening the pitchforks of the mob and urging swift prosecution of Officer Wilson. Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Johnson acted stupidly when he inflamed the crowd by apologizing for wearing the uniform. Al Sharpton acted just as expected, so I can't say he acted stupidly. But he did fail to act wisely when there are bridges that need to be built and not burned.

And every citizen, regardless of color, who has failed to vote in his or her own back yard has no claim on the shape and color of their local government. Complaining about white rule when 77% of the voting population is black sounds more like consent than rebellion. We are still a democracy and one that was fought for at great, tragic price in the civil rights era by courageous black men and women, and allies of every stripe who should be the heroes whose voices are heard today. One vote is more powerful than any brick thrown through a window.

Protesters who wear shirts that say "Don't shoot me because I'm black" make a mockery of black murder victims where all but 200 of the 2,648 black homicide victims (2012) were killed by one of their own race. And nobody wants to hear that over 40% of officers murdered were killed by black offenders.

The blindness of the whole mess is in the implicit claim that racial disparity in the land is singularly because of the police. If black Americans get relatively poorer prenatal care, have less stable family structures, get lower quality education, worse nutrition, less quality health care, more inadequate housing, less mental health support, fewer opportunities for banking, and all of the host of seen and unseen differentiation in our society why is it that an encounter with a police officer is blamed for our prison population? Let the police be accountable for what is traceable to their discretion. Fixing the police - if indeed they are broken - will not fix the systemic problem that the protesters ostensibly decry.

The fixing that needs to happen will begin with real dialog, real data, and finding out who the real heroes are.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Obama's Hypocrisy on Mistrust of the Police

I try to be honest enough with myself to admit when I agree with something said by somebody with whom I usually disagree . When I saw the headline about President Obama's remarks on mistrust of the police I began my deep breathing exercises in anticipation of another blood pressure spike. To my surprise and delight, the President made several statements with which I agree during a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Mr. Obama spent a significant amount of time on the issue of justice, giving the topic highlighted attention among other sobering topics of war, disease, and the economy. The President, although entertaining applause for the parents of Michael Brown, declined to be accusatory and avoided referring to Brown as being "murdered". Obama accurately said that "the anger and the emotion that followed his death awakened our nation" to the "gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement" rather than saying the shooting was a direct result of racism as is declared by many.

Obama observed that "many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement", using restraint to acknowledge that the problem is one of perception that may or may not be sustained by reality. The President also made references to the perception of inequality in the criminal justice system as a whole rather than going for the easy applause of blaming the police only.

The President also acknowledged that government can't raise America's children, and called for more collaboration with private groups to meet the challenges young people face.

Most interesting is Mr. Obama's use of the phrase "strong policing". In declaring that mistrust harms "the communities that need law enforcement the most" and need "strong policing", this President, for the first time I can recall, acknowledged the value of police officers.

This from the man who famously referred to Cambridge, Massachusetts police officers investigating a reported break-in as "acting stupidly". The facts of the case are that the officers responded to a citizen report of a man attempting to break down the front door. The officers confronted an unknown person whom they asked for identification. The person was a friend of Obama, and is a prominent black scholar who was the homeowner. According to the police report, the man immediately started yelling "THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO BLACK MEN IN AMERICA!"

Obama refused to back down from his "stupidly" comment, to which he had added an angry polemic about racial profiling, but did make a sideways apology for adding to the "media frenzy" over an issue that is "still very sensitive". The President stated two days after the remark that his words had "I think, I unfortunately, I think gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sgt. Crowley". The closest to an apology that I can infer is that, as the President said, "I could have calibrated those words differently", which was perhaps an apology for not finding an acceptable replacement word for "stupid" to refer to the police.

Befitting the low status of a police officer, the President, Joe Biden, the professor, and Sgt. Crowley were invited to talk over peanuts and beer in the Rose Garden of the White House. There was reportedly no apology that arose from that condescending photo op.

While I have yet to forgive the President's harmful remarks in favor of his professor friend, I liked Obama's remarks to the Congressional Black Caucus last week. With a small hope that the inflammatory anti-police sentiment might be turned down a notch by the White House, I'm still waiting for a full statement that America's law enforcement officers, and therefore the public whom they serve, have been put at greater risk by the frenzy of criticism from spineless politicians patronizing black citizens for headlines and votes.

Mr. President, at the time of this writing, seventeen police officers have died in the line of duty since Michael Brown was shot. Seven of those were murdered. Did any Department of Justice representatives attend their funerals, or are words of condolence and support reserved for anyone else but those in blue?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Blue

If you dislike all police officers because you dislike one police officer, you are a bigot by definition (look it up). If you like the policeman you know, but you don't like the ones you don't know then you have token tolerance, just like the prejudiced man with one black or gay friend who proclaims them to be credit to their kind. If you dislike police because you got a ticket, then you are no better than an angry 13 year old who hates his parents for enforcing house rules. If you hate the police because you hate the government, then you are like the peaceniks of the 60s who hated our soldiers because they hated the war. To all those who want justice, support the first line of blue. To all those who love peace, support your peace officers. To all those who question every decision we make, walk our beat for a week and tell me if we are really paranoid or if we do have real enemies. Tell me if you can trust when all we hear are lies. Tell me how to stop acting like I might die any day when a police officer is killed every other day in our nation. When you post that video clip that has been edited and you have no context, experience, or training to interpret that event you have fueled those who hate us for what we do. This is getting police officers killed as the number of ambushes and random murders of police officers increases as hate increases. You may think law officers have position and privilege and power. We have power over your life in a given moment, but very little power over our own. If you want to criticize, that is your right and responsibility to hold us accountable. But I would ask you first - have you encouraged support in equipment , staffing , and training for your department? Have you said "thank you for your service"? Have you prayed for them?

Don't hate me because I'm blue.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Dear District Attorney

Position Statement: Police officers have no obligation to ignore and disregard threats made by arrestees that are a prosecutable "influence" under  CRS 18-8-306 merely because of the defendant's emotional state.

One of the most common means by which arrestees attempt to change a police officer's mind about an arrest is to threaten to cause the officer to lose his or her job.

It is obvious that a police officer has a financial interest in keeping his or her career. It is also true that job protections for police officers are slender. A police officer has a pecuniary interest in his credibility and reputation, as evidenced by successful tort actions on grounds of slander. Internal investigations, regardless of their outcome, based on citizen complaints result in greater scrutiny, lower evaluation scores, reduced opportunity for promotion, and lower credibility in court testimony. Therefore, spurious and groundless complaints have a very real and deleterious effect on a police officer's career. It is to this interest, and to the greater sense of the community which the officer represents, that the prohibition defined in CRS 18-8-306 is made.

CRS 18-8-306 does not intend to prohibit the Constitutionally protected speech of criticism, mere rudeness, or emotion-laden personal insults. However, given the great value of a police officer's reputation and a police officer's responsibility to the public, there is a point at which the "thick skin" of an officer is no longer a defense to an arrestee's conduct. An officer's bruised ego from an arrestee's disrespect is no longer the issue when a defendant crosses the line to articulated threats that are severe enough, in the mind of the defendant, to be uttered with the expectation that a police officer would give thought to altering his or her enforcement decision in order to avoid the consequences of the outcome of the threat.

Members of the public, including members of the criminal justice system, often toss off police officer's complaints of ill treatment by saying that it is just part of the job. In a survey this author conducted, the results of which have been presented in several national forums, the lack of prosecution in cases where police officers are victims is a rampant weakness in the criminal justice system with serious effects on officer conduct, retention, and morale.

Anecdotally, police officers believe that conduct of offenders that would get them severely punished if the victim were a member of the prosecution staff or a member of the judiciary, are given little attention if the victim is a police officer. A fair rule of thumb then, might be whether a defendant's conduct would be regarded as criminal if directed toward a judge or prosecutor.

People v. Janousek, 871 P.2nd 1189 (1994) is a leading case on the statute. In Janousek, a judge received a letter from defendant Janousek that stated, in its relevant part: "You must pay up now or face a much pricier levy, as I'll tolerate your crap no longer. One way or another, I'll GUARANTEE that you pay. You could make it VERY expensive for yourself, if you insist. In fact you might give up everything, just as you would have me do, all for the perversion you cooked up in your mind. . . .We know you're a CROOK. You DAMNED BA*D! How many other innocents have you screwed: Bet you lost count years ago! Does a dork like you think he can get away with MURDER? You might just end up your own victim!. . . Of course, I'll make sure you pay for all of the torment you've caused. I wouldn't want you to do it again. . . .Next time you abuse someone, if there is a next time, consider that not everyone has the same tolerance for abuse. When you get around to [**4]  screwing someone it just may be his survival instinct to pummel you back. Shaming someone can cause violent results; just ask any psychiatrist. Pointblank, you must lie in the grave you dig. You should never pervert reality in order to drive someone crazy; they may end up sharing it with you in a way you never intended. Remember, everything you say can and will be used against you. Everything you do can and will be used against you. Better look over your shoulder. Look at all the damage you've done."

The challenge in the case was that the language of the statute was so overbroad that it impinged upon Constitutionally protected free speech. The final ruling was that "The forceful language of Janousek's letter goes beyond a mere expression of criticism and does not lie within the area of protected speech. Therefore, Janousek has no constitutionally protected right to make threats of violence to a public servant."

Testimony at trial from Judge Allen, the recipient of the the Janousek letter, included these statements: "It made me wonder whether it was worth the [**15]  continued aggravation to be looking for the remaining $ 55 fine. In analyzing it further, though, I realized that the integrity of the justice system means that you can't be bending to threats of this nature.
On a personal level, it made me do some serious, serious consideration as to whether I want to continue being a judge." Janousek maintains to "that his purpose in writing this letter was merely to criticize Judge Allen's ruling", but as to the defendant's intent, the court took note: "The tone and language of the letter evince a threatening manner. The language suggests conduct that is squarely within the statute's proscriptions and is not protected by the First Amendment."

The Janousek case:
A) examined the elements of the crime of attempting to influence a public servant as (1) an attempt to influence a public servant (2) by means of deceit or by threat of violence or economic reprisal (3) with the intent to alter or affect the public servant's decision [**14]  or action;
B) took into account the "tone" of the communication and:
C) accepted testimony of the subjective response of the threatened public servant, Judge Allen, in considering the offense.

I urge prosecutors to give due regard to the seriousness of an arrestee's threats to a police officer's employment and reputation, as well as to threats of violence or offers of  bribes toward officers, in charging defendants with violation of CRS 18-8-306 .

Dear Diary

The value of a  personal written debrief (PWD) is well established in research. PWDs reinforce positive learning opportunities, reduce stress, and can improve performance of physical and mental tasks. The key to these benefits is the way the brain receives, processes, and stores information. To be most effective, PWD requires 15-30 minutes of focus with minimal distractions. This usually means that doing PWD on duty is less than optimal, but possible.
The basic tools, other than time, are a notebook and good pen. Yes, PWD is writing stuff down. In education it's called reflection, in therapy it's called journaling, and to teenagers with a denim covered book inked with doodles and containing tear-stained secrets it's called a diary. I'm painting it Spec Ops camo and putting it in a black nylon tactical combat holster so cops won't worry that reflecting on their day is too "touchy-feely".
PWD works because it helps wire the brain by creating and establishing a memory file that will be used in future decision making. We know that bad experiences and traumatic experiences are imbedded more deeply than good experiences. The brain is much more invested in avoiding extinction than it is in making you feel happy.
What that means to you is that if you do something good or have a good experience, the brain notices it less than a bad or threatening experience.  A bad experience is more likely to be forever recorded (even if inaccurately) for use in future decision making. Think of the old management rule that it takes a bundle of positive affirmations to overcome one morale-killing criticism. PWD helps cement those positive attributes of your encounters and, most importantly, can help you correct any errors or less than stellar performance on a given call. If you've screwed up, using reflection to replay and repair the scenario in your head can help minimize hesitation or avoidance in the next encounter and create new habits and responses.
How does PWD change behavior? A study showed that performance of a group of non-piano players that practiced a piece on a keyboard, and a group that practiced only mentally by visualizing practicing on a keyboard, had similar performance outcomes! In other words, mental rehearsal has real value.  
Another reason that recalling and replaying an event is helpful for memory is that the act of writing uses the sense of touch, watching the words flow onto paper uses the sense of sight, and both ignite a replay of the event in your mind's eye. Multiple sensory engagement plus intentionality means increased retention. Asking yourself what you learned today might get the same response that your kids give when you ask that question at the end of the day: "nothin!". It takes intentional reflection to sift the value out of your day's experiences.
Another value of PWD is gaining emotional control over the events of the day. There are many days when the last thing you want to do is to think about your shift. You want to just relax and forget it. Perhaps on an awareness level you can do that, but there is often a part of your brain still churning things over and creating tension and anxiety at a sub-awareness level. Writing things out provides a way to process and contain those events, resolving them to some degree so that you can get them "off your mind" by getting them on the page.
Finally, because much of our routine daily activity is on autopilot, we assume that we're operating optimally if we have a normal day. The opportunity for self-improvement in our job performance, relationships, eating habits, fitness routines and other areas of life comes from a self-awareness that can only come from intentional reflection.
We like to talk about the warrior spirit and a survival mindset. On a shallow level, many interpret that kind of character as one in which we must ignore and deny our imperfections and pretend to be tough.  A more honest and mature definition is a confidence that comes from mental fitness and self-awareness. PWD is a great work out for top performers.  Just don't tell anybody you're keeping a diary. They will snoop.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Surviving Columbine - One Teenager's Story (1 of 3 Columbine articles)

Normal stopped for Keith at 11:19 a.m., April 20th, 1999. Memories of Columbine visit him still, like "an old, unwanted friend". It was lunchtime and the scene could not have been more typically American for a 15 year old boy in a suburban school on the infamous day known as the Columbine Massacre. The modern cafeteria was bustling with nearly five hundred students with a view of the parking lot and the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. The library one floor above shared the expansive glass windows. Taking a seat at a table near the stairs, he took no notice of the duffle bag set against the pillar as he dropped his own backpack nearby.

    "I remember a janitor and Mr. Sanders running through the cafeteria. People were getting on the ground and under the tables. There was no room under the table for me, but the boy under the table was asking what I could see."

    What Keith saw was the unexplained look of distress on the faces of students in the parking lot outside. Heavy smoke drifted. An unprecedented attack had commenced, planned and carried out with calculated ruthlessness by two young men who we have called monsters and psychopaths. Keith knew them as Eric and Dylan. Dylan had played roller hockey in neighborhood games with Keith and other friends.

    Less than ten minutes before, the killers had planted bombs in the cafeteria that should blow any second, but failed. Eric and Dylan waited for the fleeing students who had not been killed by the blast to become moving targets or to be killed by other bombs planted along the hallway. Too impatient after the failure of the explosion to kill and maim the people in the cafeteria, the two self-appointed commandos murdered Rachel Scott and wounded nine other teenagers outside then, loaded with weaponry, they entered the school.
    The students nearest the cafeteria windows seemed to become aware of the threat at the same instant. "I'll never forget the wall of people moving toward me. Like a flock of birds rising on cue" Keith said.
    It was 11:24 hours. "I wasn't sure what I was running from. For some reason when I heard the pop pop pop pop pop I wasn't really in fight or flight mode. It wasn't until I heard the shotgun shots that I got up and ran to the stairwell. A cacophony of people shrieking and slamming into chairs and tables. I still didn't know what was going on. I waited for my friend, found him, and half way up the stairs I heard gunshots inside the building. A person fell on my legs, I fell on another. I tried to stand up and persons behind me were pushing against my back trying to get over me. I wrapped my arm against the banister and braced my other arm to the floor and let the people go ahead of me. As I moved I heard another burst of gunfire - short bursts." The attackers were near.
    Keith and his friend, with others, were running fast. He saw buddies running down hallways with no exits and tried to call to them to move out to the exits that Coach Sanders had urged them toward. Keith eventually got outside to a grassy area, looking for friends, relieved to be outside, and talking about what happened. Quickly came a grim realization that not everyone had escaped. "There were still people inside. The whole field got quiet and we heard shotgun shots and every so often heard a loud boom." Shots shattered the doors and the field cleared as students ran into the neighborhoods nearby. Only later did he realize those were bombs going off. And only later could he associate the gunfire with the deaths of Coach Sanders and the other victims from the library and hallways.

    The killers' bullets were shooting up the hallway, now firing at arriving deputies through broken glass, now shooting up the display case, now randomly shooting toward fleeing students, now shooting Coach Sanders who will die despite the efforts of students to stop the bleeding. The two continued to kill, shoot, toss explosives, and attempt to detonate their cafeteria bombs until 12:08, when their last trigger pull is for themselves. The intensity of the event for survivors, the wounded, and emergency responders would last many more hours.
    Much later Keith would get his backpack returned to him. It was charred from the attackers' attempts to ignite the bomb they had planted where Keith had rested for lunch. Yet, it is not his proximity to death that day that occupied Keith's thoughts during the ensuing months and years, nor even the question of why he lived and others didn't. It's the darkness of it all. "I still can't grasp the darkness. I'm glad I can't comprehend it, but it's frustrating. It's like staring at an alien artifact. While we were playing roller hockey he was planning to blow me up. The deeper you get it's just more dark. The void seems to get bigger and bigger."

Surviving Survival - A Columbine Story (1of 3 Columbine articles)

Keith, now 30, married, a father, and still living in the Denver area, was just 15 when the nation reeled from the horror of Columbine. He escaped the cafeteria, then the hallway, then the grassy field outside the school, all to the sounds of gunfire and explosions, and the shrieking and stunned silence of his fellow students at Columbine High School.  He did not escape nightmares and fear, but he is a survivor, not a victim. These are his own words.

"I still can't grasp the darkness. I'm glad I can't comprehend it, but it's frustrating. It's like staring at an alien artifact. While we were playing roller hockey he was planning to blow me up. The deeper you get it's just more dark. The void seems to get bigger and bigger." 

“You go to school with these people then you go home and plan mass murdering them. I don’t have the headspace to understand it. The magnitude of what they planned – it wasn’t a crime of passion, like they were upset and decided on a whim to do this thing.  They weren’t righting a wrong or standing up for some perceived injustice. Not robbing a bank to buy a Lamborghini. The very act was just intended to victimize. It’s the means, it’s the ends, it’s the act. Their suicide is similar. It was very cowardly. They chose a bunch of kids in the cafeteria. Every step of the way was cowardly. It’s just another facet of the darkness”.

“Two or three days after the incident the FBI came to the house. He was great. Very professional. He explained what he knew. It wasn’t hard to talk to him about it. He made it clear that he wanted my help. I had talked to my Mom and Dad about it, and that was very different. The agent put me at ease. “

“The rest of the school year was bizarre. We worked it out with another school to share half a day. Everyone had my best interests in mind, but when you’re living it – that you had a neighbor that tried to blow you up and killed your classmates, but your Algebra is due Friday - it was a strange world to be in. “

“There wasn’t a day that went by without seeing an article or hearing a conversation. The empathy was incredibly helpful but the outrage industry was incredibly hurtful. It has contributed to the whole overblown stranger danger mantra. The message is you have to be fearful of everyone. I think that’s incredibly damaging to a people. I don’t think society fundamentally gets it. Every time something similar happens we keep coming back to the same answers – music, guns, video games, society. A human being did this. Maybe this makes me a horrible person but I am glad they are gone. And yet there is something bitter about the fact that they killed themselves. Justice fits in somewhere. That didn’t happen. There’s just an unfairness about the whole situation. “

“For me the godsend was my school counselor. I went from an A, B student to a D student. She saw that and knew that I was in the category of sensory victimization. She reached out to me and recommended I talk to somebody. I had no idea what a psychologist would do. I saw a guy for six months. It was the first time I was able to ask specific questions. I do think that it helped me to process at that time.  I didn’t want to burden others, didn’t want to relive it, but didn’t want to be alone with it. I felt very isolated in trying to find people that had made it over the mountain.  I did research on how others had dealt with violence from other people, but there were always differences. It’s a very small club. There was no School Shooters Anonymous. “

“I was diagnosed with PTSD.  Before about seven years ago I was trying to figure everything out. I’m so used to it, I’m not hung up on it.  It’s not anxiety or worry – just a feeling of readiness – like I’m in enemy territory.  It’s like living life with an entire side of the house missing.  There’s relaxation and peace, but there’s this reality that at any moment safety can be compromised in a way there is no rhyme or reason.  Whenever I’m in a crowded room and the decibel level reaches a certain point my brain kicks on overload and I begin processing information. It’s exhausting. (The sound of) multiple helicopters, too. There are things I’ve chosen to research to try to understand my enemy. Because I know there are people out there. I’ll probably never face a person like that again, but…”

“I definitely questioned God. I questioned my faith. I questioned the truth of the Bible. I never lost my faith, my belief in Christ – oh man, I wrestled with it though! I can say now I wasn’t wrestling with the truth of the Word or my belief in Christ as my savior. I absolutely wrestled with what people would call the Christian Church in America. There was such a huge disparity between what had happened to me and what had been preached to me. I should have been blown up, shot, and blown up again. Then on Sunday to hear a sermon on how we are not supposed to be jealous of our neighbors – it seemed so insignificant in the light of this darkness I had just lived through. I’d been through a dark valley and was going through more dark valleys. I didn’t need a self-help book, I needed a castle and a weapon to defend myself against the things I’d been besieged with. I was very angry. The Bible does talk about warfare and darkness. I hadn’t seen it there before. I realize now that they not only couldn’t provide those spiritual tools to me but they probably had not acquired them themselves because they’d never sat next to a propane bomb.”

“Victims constantly define themselves by their sadness or their anger. You can’t get through a conversation without them reliving their experience at Columbine as though it was two minutes ago. The survivor still feels these things and they understand Columbine changed them. A survivor says Columbine happened to me and I’ll carry it with me all of my life. A victim says Columbine is something I’ll never get over. The survivor can get around, over, or under the mountain. The victim says I’ll never be able to get from point A to point B. Some of my friends saw Dave Sanders die, and they are walking all over the mountain. I would like to think that is a choice.”

“For all the good things – the friendships, the camaraderie, the heart I have for others, I’m very thankful, but the other side is so dark and bitter. I don’t’ want it to define me, but I know that it does affect me. It informs everything. I know somewhere, sometime in the US, something similar is going to happen again. That’s not a prophecy or an omen, just that there are people out there and that they look exactly like us.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A suburban American Tragedy (1 of 3 Columbine articles)

There are some words that chill the heart. Pearl Harbor. Nine eleven. Columbine. They are not preceded by explanation or description. They become descriptors of other events and a standard by which  evil and destruction are measured. Pearl Harbor set us off to war. Nine eleven reordered our government. What did Columbine do?

When Harris and Klebold invaded their school as teen commandos the nation responded viscerally in a way that, fifteen years hence, still defies the cool reflection of logic.  It is, in fact, not possible to merely quantify Columbine because should we do so, that emotional scar that is at once national and very personal, is insulted as though mere numbers would diminish our reverent horror.

Everyone wanted a connection to the drama played out on CNN. Friends of my two kids knew that we had moved from Colorado in late 1997. Some heard that I had applied for a job in Littleton and postulated what might have been had we moved there, as though we had escaped the attack by the skin of our teeth. My daughter married a Columbine survivor. When the subject is raised, he doesn’t add his voice to the discussion. The event was so pervasive in everyone’s vicarious experience, it hardly mattered that he had lived it and they had only gathered around the television to watch the iconic images it produced.

Our national narrative must repeat that crime and violence were out of control in 1999 even though the UCR shows homicide and firearms deaths dropping dramatically. Commentators routinely used phrases like “yet another school shooting”, and “increasing school violence” when the reality is that 1999 was part of a downward trend in the already small number of school shootings.

An analysis of 45 school shootings from 1996 to the writing of this article shows a death tally of 77 youths and 22 adults.  The loss of those lives and the grief of family and loved ones is immeasurable. Dispassionately, the number of bodies pales in comparison to the other quarter million murders over the same time period. In 1999 alone there were 964 murders of school aged children in the US. What pricks one’s conscience the most is that of those child killings, 440 were black – a number far out of proportion to the racial balance of our schools.

The panic about how unsafe our schools are infuses the minds of nearly every parent, and certainly occupies significant brain space in the minds of police administrators and school officials. SWAT teams have formed, drills are conducted, buildings are reinforced. All for an institution consisting of about 130, 000 public and private schools that are, by far, statistically the safest places in America.  We invest not only dollars but mental energy in preventing and planning for an event less likely than a lightening strike, a lottery win, and literally one in a million according the Secret Service and US Department of Education.

Finding a pattern around which to design prevention is elusive. Of the 45 shootings I reviewed, six occurred outside the school building. Four assailants were non-students. One shooter was six years old. Many shootings were not random, but motivated by gang conflict, planned fights, or domestic entanglements. While some shooters brought multiple weapons, a killer with a rifle shot ten of the murder victims, 32 by a killer with a handgun, and 3 with a shotgun. Analysis of the perpetrators may show that many were medicated, alienated, or had other dysfunction but those challenges pervade American youth. No policy or legislation could address even half of the unique circumstances of school murders.

No one can advocate a do-nothing stance on the issue of school murder. The real question is whether our political, social, and personal capital is being wisely invested. Fifteen years after the unspeakable memories of young bodies hitting the floor at Columbine, we know something of why this hurts so much. I just wonder why the hundreds of dead in neighborhoods that don’t look like mine hurts so little.