Street Blues: Friends on the force are the hardest to leave behind

I’m with Portland Copwatch.  Why are you harassing this man?”

I looked up in disbelief from Mr. Jarmer, an elderly, homeless regular of SE Hawthorne whom I’d gotten to know during my summer patrolling the area on a bicycle.  A former college teacher, malt liquor was guiding his life now.  He usually sported a lucid, good-humored buzz, but today my partner and I discovered him lying on the sidewalk, highly inebriated and unable to walk because of some sort of leg injury.  I was trying to decipher his slurred account of his leg problem when the twenty-something man interrupted me with his demanding tone. 

It made me angry.  Not only was the young man interrupting my work, but he’d made a judgment that something was awry based on nothing more than the scene of a police officer bending over a man lying on the sidewalk.  If he’d quietly watched for ten seconds, he would have quickly realized that I knew Mr. Jarmer by name and was trying to figure out how to best help him.  In fact, it was hard to imagine what he could have possibly found lacking in the service we were providing.

My partner and I knew most of the regulars of the neighborhood because we had been out on bicycles much of the summer, building relationships with all of them. It enabled us to provide nuanced police service tailored to specific problems and people in the neighborhood.  This was some of the most intimate policing that modern, efficiency-driven (and therefore patrol car-driving) Portland had to offer, harkening back to the foot-beat officer of the 1950s. I’ve heard countless older Portlanders speak wistfully of those officers and the personal relationships they had with them.  Furthermore, it was a service initiated by a few interested officers in Southeast Precinct—we’d convinced then-Commander Rosie Sizer to let us ride bikes in this relatively small area, improving service here but taking manpower away from the precinct’s wider 911 response ability.

Of course this is a long, complicated story that the man from Copwatch knew nothing about.  He made his judgment based on preconceptions mixed with a brief, initial observation.  In this practice he is not alone, particularly in our world of instant media searching incessantly for items to fill the 24-hour news cycle.  It wasn’t until becoming an officer that I could begin to compare news accounts with personal experience and see that they often differ dramatically.

Media outlets are always on the lookout for dramatic or controversial stories for their emotional pull on readers, but they don’t have a lot of space to explain or time to research because of the pressure to be the first to report a story. Police events often fit the drama and controversy requirements, but it can take time for investigators to figure out what really happened, and police are often loath to quickly release information they have compiled for fear of jeopardizing ongoing investigations.  A result of this tension can be promptly produced, but incomplete or inaccurate news stories.

I now watch and read the news with an overhanging question, regardless of topic—is there more to this story?

I write this from Washington D.C., where I just finished my first day at my new job as a Foreign Service Officer with the United States Department of State.  After a few months of training, my family and I will be sent to the first of many yet-to-be-decided countries, where I will work as a diplomat in U.S. embassies and consulates. This opportunity came suddenly, and only a job of such potential service, growth, travel and education, for me and my family, could tear us away from Portland, our friends and the Police Bureau.

While I look forward to learning more to the story at the national and international level, I already miss the best part of being a Portland officer — my co-workers.  These men and women in uniform and their support staff tend to over 400,000 calls for service every year, many involving high-stress, swiftly evolving situations. We ask them to be mental-health workers, parents, law scholars, mediators, chemists, ministers, social workers, diplomats, protectors and sometimes warriors. We ask them to be tough and compassionate, balance the interests of victims and suspects, evaluate risk to themselves and to the community, and navigate criminal law and constitutional rights. Occasionally we expect them to make these judgments in a matter of seconds, and then accept as a matter of course the lengthy, intense scrutiny of courts, co-workers, media and citizenry that follows.

Of course, being human, our police are fallible, and imperfections are always spotlighted. What can get lost if we focus solely on critical stories, however, is the big picture:  while not perfect, Portland police officers are — in general — very, very good.  They routinely do patient, thoughtful, dangerous and occasionally heroic work.  Such daily habits rarely make the news.

During my final roll call as an officer last Wednesday, we debriefed an incident from the previous day where a suicidal man was threatening to jump from the Vista Bridge.  After speaking at length with the potential jumper, one of the officers was able to inch close enough to grapple the ill man to the bridge deck, where he was handcuffed and safely sent to the hospital via ambulance.  The supervisors of the shift were confronted with a challenging leadership problem—how to commend and respect the officer’s probable life-saving actions, while generally discouraging such actions in the future because of the grave risk of a suicidal person pulling an officer over the railing.  One-by-one the sergeant, lieutenant, captain and commander each did their best to delicately communicate their concern for their officers’ safety.

Left unspoken, however, was the reality that risking themselves for others is what officers show up to do every day. Asking an officer to refrain from such an act is like giving a lollipop to a child and asking her not to lick.  I am tremendously honored and thankful for the opportunity work among such people. The citizens of Portland can be proud of them.

Street Roots has enjoyed working with Robert in bringing you this column. While Robert is moving on, the beat will continue with a new writer from the Portland Police Bureau this summer.

3 responses to “Street Blues: Friends on the force are the hardest to leave behind

  1. congratulations on your new position this feels like a kewl opportunity for you. as to the article. you are a good writer and while i understand we all have different perspectives and all work in different ways, i think that it is vital in this community to realize that police accountability has been sadly lacking so those organizations that try to ensure that are as important to this community as police – its interesting to me that we havent been able to form solid areas where folks can come to gether and build relationship- i think if we took blame fear and suspicion out of the equation and introduced personal,proffessional accountability on all sides with a dash of trust- we might be on our way to creating more healthy community and police interactions. i came to the conclusion that nothing is ever one sided so police arent all bad and neither are the agencies that are engaged in holding them accountable to the community they serve.

  2. Snap judgments…
    We are not sure who approached Officer Pickett and accused him of harassing a man on the street, but it was likely not someone who was on an organized Portland Copwatch patrol nor someone who had taken our “How to Copwatch” training. If Pickett’s description is accurate, the person he describes didn’t even wait 10 seconds, got directly involved in the incident, and potentially escalated the incident. Our training instructs to come on the scene and observe, not interfere, and not to assume who’s right and who’s wrong. For those interested in receiving our training, send an email to trainings@portlandcopwatch.org.
    It is unfortunate that Officer Pickett, who has a good reputation on the streets, chose his parting article to take a swipe at our organization, and to focus mostly on the risks police officers take* rather than the reality that many officers engage in misconduct from rudeness to racial profiling to misuse of deadly force. We’ve always held that the best officers are the ones willing to blow the whistle on the bad ones. The recent lawsuit by a former recruit in which her claims were not validated by a court is only the most recent example of how cop whistleblowers are treated.
    We do appreciate those officers who are willing to talk down potentially suicidal people rather than shooting, beating, or hitting them with Tasers, and would suggest that an outcome where both the civilian and the officer can go home at night should be the goal for everyone.
    –dan handelman
    Portland Copwatch
    http://www.portlandcopwatch.org
    *Note that while policing can be dangerous, it is not one of the 10 most dangerous jobs listed by the Bureau of Labor and Industries:
    http://www.safetyservicescompany.com/blog/10-most-dangerous-jobs-of-2010

  3. Robert, I was a police officer decades ago and understand your situation and frustration. However, Google “bad cop” or do search on bad cops on YouTube or even return to the roots of why Copwatch was even formed and you have to admit, the 10-20% of cops who are aggressive, cruel, uncaring, corrupt or jerks ruin it for the 80-90% who aren’t. As a former journalist – the career I entered after being a police officer (briefly as that was), I can tell you that journalists don’t have to go looking for police malfeasance, corruption, aggression or wrong-doing. It’s everywhere. The only way people CAN fight it is to know about it. The only tool people have against what has become a militarized police force (black uniforms that are designed to intimidate etc) and not the “Officer Friendly” and community policing agendas I was taught, is the media.

    When police departments refuse to establish a working relationship with the media that involves explaining WHY they with hold information, or fail to immediately release results of investigations, it’s not hard to understand why the people and the media don’t trust them.

    Having also been homeless myself… and harassed by Denver Police,
    (http://www.ted.com/talks/becky_blanton_the_year_i_was_homeless.html

    I was once body-slammed into a wall in the court house for trying to pay a $15 fine for an expired safety inspection sticker. I simply asked a pair of officers where the window was where I need to go to pay the fine. I was a college kid, shy, polite etc. The officer asked me “Who the F**k do you think you are driving an un-inspected vehicle” while he had my throat in his hand. He was obviously having a really, really bad day! His partner pulled him off of me and that interaction was why I decided to attend the police academy and become an officer. I believed I could be a better cop. What I found was 20% of cops were like that guy and media coverage was not to blame.

    I can honestly say my first reaction would have been what this gentleman’s was. Waiting 10-30 seconds, let alone minutes, might have allowed a *bad* cop to do more harm. He was acting much like you would had you happened upon a similar scene – assuming harm was what his training prepared him for. Rather than react to his question, how would the situation be different if you hadn’t taken it personally and had said, “I’m officer Pickett and I know Mr. Jarmer personally. He’s hurt and needs help. Will you help me?” You got hooked by what you felt was an accusation. That happens to many of us – me included.

    There are good cops – but there need to be MORE of them. They do incredible work, but like everyone, they’re human and they get aggressive and reactive. But they’re in a job where that aggression and reactivity harms more than any other, and that becomes more visible. They carry guns, tasers and have the power to harm that most citizens don’t.

    Good luck in your new job. I think your exposure to new cultures where what you think is normal and reasonable behavior/reaction will land you in this learning situation again and again and give you many chances to learn not to take other people’s reactions personally, and to ask before acting or reacting. It’s hard. I sure don’t have it nailed! Best of luck to you!

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