My theater company is performing the 1976 Terry Curtis Fox drama “Cops” as we wind down this season after 20 years. I chose the show, and its companion piece in an evening called “Crime and Punishment in America,” William Saroyan’s classic one-act “Hello Out There,” in direct response to Ferguson, the growing controversy over police violence, the increased racial divide in the U.S. and the gun control debate. Both dramas, as cast, involve African American victims of violence in a law enforcement setting. “Cops,” in particular, features openly biased Chicago police (at least based on their choice of words) and the police execution of a disarmed and surrendering cop-shooter. As the lights fade, the police are discussing what their cover story should be.
I invited the Chief of Police in Montgomery County, Maryland, Tom Manger, to come to the production and field questions from the audience regarding its relevance to current controversies in Ferguson, New York City and across the nation. [Full disclosure: I have known Chief Manger and his wife for many years, and consider them friends] You might recognize him: he was a major figure in the apprehension of the D.C. Snipers, and has been seen and interviewed on the national news and on issue talk shows several times, most recently on CNN’s “State of the Nation” with Candy Crowley. Not only did Tom agree to come, but he let me schedule him twice, said the sessions could be videotaped, and that no question would be off limits.
The first of the talkbacks took place last week (I am moderating another this Sunday), and Tom was as good as his word—candid, blunt, open, and frank. He was quizzed, hard, by our diverse, astute and always combative audience members about police training, police force diversity, bad cops, police who lie and cover-up misconduct, and racism in the ranks, as well as the details of specific shootings including the local one I have referred to here more than once, in which an unarmed white man, John Geer, was shot and killed by police as he stood in his doorway negotiating with them over a domestic dispute.
Since the episode in Ferguson, Chief Manger said, he has been meeting with community groups two or three evenings a week, doing everything he can to bolster community trust. Among his comments in response to questions:
1. The end of “Cops,” in which the two surviving police officers (one lies dead on the floor) plot to invent a cover story for the accidental shooting of a civilian and the execution of the African-American perp, “hit him like a punch to the gut,” he said…and he was already familiar with the script. Manger said that cops are human beings with all the flaws of human beings, and that there is a strong instinct, when there has been misconduct or something has gone wrong that is sure to spark investigation, criticism or possible prosecution, to survive. He said that police departments can mitigate the problem by hiring qualified officers and by effective training and supervision that makes such misconduct and mistakes less likely, but that they can never be eliminated completely.
2. Manger said that police officers are trained to control their emotions, and to be able to function in the intense, sometimes violent situations like those portrayed in “Cops.” A police veteran of nearly 30 years, he said that as an observer of the play he found the speed with which the situation on stage escalated from a few officers talking into two shootings and a hostage situation stunning, but accurate.
3. He said that even the most egregious-seeming police shootings were more complicated than they were portrayed in the media. Placing himself in the situation of the officers in Cleveland, for example, in which Tamir Rice, 12-year-old boy brandishing an Air Soft pellet gun resembling a real revolver was fatally shot by an officer responding to a 911 call, he noted that…
- The fact that the dispatcher didn’t mention that the individual was a child and that the gun was “probably” a toy placed the officer and the suspect at a severe disadvantage.
- That an officer cannot be expected to immediately identify that a teen or near teen is not an adult in the span of a few seconds.
- That without passing judgment on the officer’s conduct in the actual event, he would say that if a suspect raises something that reasonably appears to be a gun, no officer should have to pause long before eliminating the threat.
4. The job of officers, he said, is to deescalate situations if possible. Pointing to the Eric Garner situation, Manger said that the situation obviously degenerated into excessive force—the officers knew Garner, he was not violent, and it was a minor offense. There was nothing improper about the attempted arrest, he said, but when Garner resisted verbally, “an officer should be trained to be an adult and resolve the situation without immediately resorting to force.”
5. The Chief said that police training instructs officers to fire at an approaching, threatening individual when the officer is in reasonable fear of his or her life until the individual is stopped. He described some incidents from his own experience and those of his officers, noting that what is reasonable fear depends on the officer. A 5’2″ 120 pound female officer under his command, he said, had been forced to shoot and kill a large pound man advancing on her with a knife when she was backed against a wall. “I would have probably used my club, ” he said (Tom is a big guy), but her response under the circumstances was appropriate for her.
6. Regarding the Ferguson episode, Tom said that a police force that accurately represents the demographics of the community is essential to building trust. He said his own force was having a difficult time recruiting sufficient numbers of Hispanic and Asian-American police, and related his experience at a recent meeting with an Asian-American group in Montgomery County. He was asked why there was not a proportionate representation on the force from that ethnic group. “I asked for a show of hands regarding whether they would encourage their children to go into police work,” Manger said. “Nobody raised a hand.”
7. He recounted a moment in his interview with Candy Crowley, in which he disputed her contention that ” a certain kind of individual” goes into police work. He said that he told Crowley this was a common misconception and untrue, going on to say that police are as diverse as any profession in their beliefs, biases and attitudes.
Tom Manger is not alone among police leadership across the country in performing the kind of outreach and education he provided to my theater’s audience and other local groups. Montgomery County is an affluent community and his department is well-funded, so it is not representative of all local police forces in every way. Nonetheless, Chief Manger demonstrates the dedication, openness and professionalism that is far from rare among police leadership. He and his fellow police do not deserve to be treated with the disrespect and suspicion now being aimed at them by pundits and activists, but he and others in his position understand why this is occuring, and are working diligently to address the very real problems underlying it.