Monday, March 16, 2015

Being Safe Out There

We may never know exactly what happened when a Madison police officer shot and killed Tony Robinson earlier this month. Too much has already been said by people who know very little about what happened. All they needed to know to spout off was one of two things: an unarmed black kid was killed by a cop; or, a cop was assaulted by a crazed kid and what you’d expect to happen, happened.


As a nation, as a state, and in this case, even as a city, we are too divided to really listen to each other. Too many people insist on being heard, yet they have no time to listen. For too many people, there’s no middle ground; it’s all black or white. For some, the President is a Kenyan Muslim who’s going to declare Sharia Law and appoint himself President for Life; for others, he’s doing the best job possible under extremely trying circumstances. Scott Walker is either the antichrist, or the reform Governor the Badger state needed.


And now, among too many people in Madison, it would seem that anyone who “questions the manner in which police services are provided” (to paraphrase a meme from the movie “A Few Good Men” that’s going around a lot) is automatically a cop-hater. No middle ground, no rational discussion. Either you support the cops and never question anything they do, or you’re a cop-hating anarchist who doesn’t deserve the protection they provide.


When NBC Reporter Ron Mott and other national TV people did their damndest to paint the incident in Madison as “another Ferguson”, the local reporters told them to look around. Madison and Ferguson have nearly nothing in common.


The Madison cop who shot and killed Tony Robinson will not face criminal charges. I base that opinion on the FACT that in the entire history of Wisconsin as a state, in only ONE incident where a cop shot and killed a person did the police officer face criminal charges. And there are dozens of such cases every year. We can debate how cops should be trained to react in these instantaneous and extremely tense situations, but, it’s not going to affect the outcome of the Tony Robinson scenario one bit.


My bona fides as a non-cop-hater are solid. My grandfather was a Wisconsin State Patrol officer. Two close family members are cops. Another is an FBI agent. From childhood on, I was taught that the cop is there to protect you, someone to seek out when there’s trouble. No one in my family ever told any child “the policeman will come and put you in jail if you’re not good”.


But my experiences are not the same as a lot of other members of society.


What’s it like to be a cop?  I don’t know, and never will. I have opinions and attitudes about what it must be like to be a cop, suppositions formed from impressions gleaned while talking with my family members who are cops. But I know about as much truth about what it’s really like to be a cop as most folks know what it’s really like to be a tuba player.


Let me share one story with you. On a hot day last summer, I drove my giant gas-sucking SUV to the Octopus Car Wash on Park Street. It was a busy day with lots of cars in line. Right ahead of me was one of those Madison Police Department TEST (Traffic Enforcement Safety Team) cars – a big, black, unmarked Crown Vic bristling with antennas but carrying regular Wisconsin auto plates.


The uniformed Madison cop who was driving the unmarked cruiser was just ahead of me in the line at the cashier’s station, and as he stood in front of the huge glass widows that let you see your car being washed, I came up and stood next to him and started talking to him about his Crown Vic. How many miles on it, was it comfortable enough to be his “office” for an eight-hour shift; did it perform and handle well; did he get to take it home - small talk. He politely answered all my dumb questions.


I asked him if he knew another Madison cop, a cop who had been my daughter’s varsity basketball coach at LaFollette High. He did (no surprise); that led to more small talk. One of the other girls from that basketball team is now a Madison police officer. Just conversation, passing the time as the guys at Octopus dried and polished our cars up. Just a few minutes of inconsequential communication.


Our vehicles were both finished about the same time, and we walked out of the customer waiting area and headed toward our cars. The officer, who was a step in front of me, stopped and turned and said “hey – thanks for the conversation.” I gave a somewhat quizzical look and said “sure, why not?”  He said “nobody just talks to cops like that any more unless they know you personally. They either have an angle and want something, or they just plain don’t like cops. It’s pretty rare when somebody treats us like another guy just waiting for his car in the car wash, and passes the time by just making conversation."


That’s pretty sad.


Cops, be safe out there. Not all of us hate you.


  1. Excellent, Colonel. That grateful response from the officer was, indeed, triste.

    I've had far less contact with police officers than you -- not having any family members that are cops -- but 15 years ago when I was a Cubmaster for a local Pack, one of the parents was a captain of the police force in Neenah. He was always very helpful to me and the Pack. He pitched in on camping trips with the Cubs and never stinted when there was work to do. He supported the mission of the Cub Scouts and steered his son to go through all of the work to advance. He even got all gussied up in his dress uniform and gleaming shoes to do uniform inspection of the Cubs in the Pack, and its Cubmaster. He always managed to find something wrong with my uniform, somehow!

    Later on he became Chief. He was at the center of the imbroglio involving a former officer's conduct while on the force. He became more insular as a result, I think. He retired from the force soon after. The current chief is extremely adroit at PR and managing.

    In any event, here's another non-hater saying nicely done!

    The Town Crank

  2. Context, you provide context, Tim. Rare.

  3. Wow...a piece that is nothing short of...HUMAN. Thanks Tim

  4. Good post Tim. I've had good and not so good experiences with cops over the years, and there are many cops who are very good at what they do and others who are not. Of course, I most vividly remember the cop at an outdoor music concert who said something to me as I walked by with a tray of food & beverages. I couldn't hear him, so I said "I'm sorry?" and tilted my ear toward him. He then let me know he would "take me down" if I ever came at him again like that. What the hell was that about?

    Too many of us forget that people mostly are mirrors....they reflect back what we project. Too many cops project the wrong things. My friend was a cop for 30 years. He was friendly and outgoing, unless he went into "cop mode" where he became stern and an impassive rock. He proudly told me that he never drew his gun in 30 years, although there were a few times that he came close. I guess my point is that many of my friends tend to avoid cops because we think that more bad things can happen to us than good things. It may not be true, but that's how we feel.

    There's one thing I support if Madison is rethinking how police operate in light of the recent shooting. The officer involved had been involved in a previous fatal shooting. I don't know the facts on that case either, so no comment. My issue is this. The department awarded him a commendation in that previous incident. A smart policy going forward would be that nobody ever gets a commendation when someone, citizen or cop, gets killed. Commendations for incidents that ends in death send the wrong message to everyone. A small but symbolic change that is needed.