Good cop, bad cop, and the Starbucks incident

I married a cop.

Well, he’s a retired lawyer now, but he was all cop when I met him. And as a young reporter at the time, I learned a great deal from this police supervisor and SWAT team commander that would prove useful in my career as a journalist.

I learned that — while relatively rare— there are bad cops, poorly-trained cops, power-hungry cops and careless cops. I even covered a case in Florida in which an auxiliary police officer turned out to be a serial killer. He shot the tires of women’s cars as they traveled on desolate Florida roads at night, did unspeakable things to them, cut their bodies into pieces and buried them in 30-gallon drums in the orange groves of Indian River County. I spent many days reporting from those groves as police dug up remains.

ADVERTISEMENT

I also learned a lot from my husband-the-cop about police restraint. I learned that, while the use of force by a police officer may be deemed justifiable under the law, the ideal situation is for police to safely control a situation without using force, if at all possible. The goal should be defusing a dangerous situation, rather than inflaming it.

One of the most memorable stories my husband told me decades ago while he commanded his SWAT team had to do with a young man holding his elderly mother hostage at gunpoint. Instead of the story being about the excitement and heroism of the SWAT team bursting into the house and taking down the suspect, this story was quite the opposite. A quick, professional assessment concluded that bursting into the house, while a justifiable police action in the eyes of the law, stood a pretty good chance of resulting in the suspect getting hurt or killed. The assessment further concluded that such a use of force wasn’t necessary. The SWAT team had established phone contact with the mother, and she was not overly fearful of her son; she said he was drunk. My husband decided it was safe to deescalate; he sent the SWAT team home, and the situation was handled calmly and patiently by the uniformed patrol. Nobody was hurt.

There were more lessons about police restraint over the years. When I was a reporter in Tampa, Fla., in the ’80s, I covered several incidents in which police shot suspects fleeing the scene of crimes. While such use of force may be technically justifiable in the eyes of the law, I learned from my husband that it may not be responsible in practice. If a suspect is not immediately endangering other lives, shooting him in the back may be neither reasonable nor necessary. 

A high-speed police chase through a community may be excessive, I learned, depending on the circumstances. Sure, a suspect shouldn’t flee from police. But the police should have the training to assess when a chase might endanger more innocent people than just figuring out how to capture the crook on down the road.

In short, I learned that — as a profession — law enforcement officers are constantly evaluating and improving their practices. And I learned to have high expectations for the behavior of professional law enforcement officers.

ADVERTISEMENT

But that’s not all I learned. 

I came to believe, through my experiences, that the vast majority of cops are good. The ratio isn’t even close. The average police officer is well trained, respectful, honest, brave, tireless, patient, empathetic and restrained, even in the face of some of humanity’s worst.

And, of course, I learned a lot about the perils that police face. The cliche is true: They put their lives on the line every day, while earning modest salaries. 

One of the most dangerous situations a police officer will face is the “routine” traffic stop where a subject isn’t cooperating. Cops are murdered during “routine traffic stops” in the blink of an eye. A second extremely dangerous situation for police is responding to “domestic disputes.” 

For outsiders, it’s easy to say that a cop shouldn’t take down a citizen who simply won’t show his hands, respond to questions or follow simple requests and commands. But you might not feel the same if you’d seen videos of the police officers who were murdered when they hesitated for just a second by someone who wasn’t cooperating. You might think differently if you witnessed the superhuman things a suspect who is on meth can do. You might not be so quick to accuse police of overreacting if you knew a good cop — a good man— who was gunned down by a murderer when he faltered for a mere fraction of a second. (Rest in peace, Deputy Rudy Raczkoski.)

ADVERTISEMENT

All of this brings me to the recent case in Tempe, Ariz., in which a Starbucks employee told six law enforcement officers to leave the shop because a patron was said to feel “unsafe” in their presence. While a sad commentary on today’s politics, I’m confident that the vast majority of Americans see the whole incident as unacceptable fringe behavior. Most people aren’t married to a cop, yet they understand the challenges of the job of policing. They haven’t bought into the anti-police rhetoric. They’re not ignorant of police abuse when it truly occurs, but they know that the norm is police who demonstrate great restraint, day in and day out. Most people know that one of the safest places to be is in a room where police are present.

So, as the wife of a former cop, I say: Let’s not get too bothered by the Starbucks scandal. The backlash has prompted an apology from the coffee chain and the promise of a correction. 

And, in the end, I’m confident that disruptors who claim to feel threatened by nothing more than the sight of a cop are about as prevalent as the truly bad cop. In other words, both exist but are far rarer than we may be led to believe by some media narratives.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”