GUEST COLUMN — Cop’s fear: ‘Vilification for something I do’

By Capt. Timothy Wagner
Kearny Police Department
Special to The Observer

I recently gave the following response to a friend on Facebook and my comments seemed to have a perspective-changing impact on many of the people who read it. In light of recent local and national news articles, I am submitting it to give a glimpse into how quickly and iniquitously a good officer can be transformed by the traditional and social media into a “racist murderer” who must be brought to “justice.”

I hope this passage allows the reader to step into my shoes and feel the fear of officers who want to serve honorably, but know that they can be swept up in a story of half-truths without being allowed a voice to challenge their accusers.

Quietly, one of my biggest fears as a police officer is that I might have to do something ugly for the community and then suffer vilification by America without an opportunity to explain myself. My family, on the other hand, fears more that this will create hesitation in me that will lead to my demise.

Years ago, I chased a guy alone, on foot, into the Kearny meadows. He was running from a serious head-on crash for reasons unknown at the time. I caught up to him as he was beginning a bad job of hiding among the weeds. I got him out at gunpoint into a clearing and put him face down on the ground.

I was a very new officer and had a million things running through my head. I was also out of breath, dripping sweat and feeling the sickening weakness and stomach drop of a post-adrenaline dump. I had just run in the heat in all my gear, polyester uniform, and a vest that feels not unlike a lead vest a dentist throws on your chest before your teeth get X-rayed.

Recalling police academy training, I thought it best to hold the man at gunpoint until a backup arrived before handcuffing him. I was afraid that if he fought or pulled a weapon while mine was holstered to facilitate handcuffing, I would be at a disadvantage. To head off any confusion, I calmly told him to stay where he was and that I was awaiting a second officer before we did anything else.

All of a sudden, he starts getting up — mind you I’m 10 feet away pointing a gun at him — and now I’m screaming for him to get down. I was even motioning down with my free hand in case he didn’t speak English and trying to remember if I knew how to say “get down” in Spanish.

In this split second, I couldn’t fathom why a person would not listen to a cop pointing a gun at him. Was he going to come at me, run away, grab a weapon? I didn’t even know who he was or why he ran.

The man doesn’t listen to me. He gets to his feet, makes eye contact — but totally disregards me. He reaches behind his back with his left hand as I’m screaming at him not to with my gun pointed at him.

In a second’s time, I’m thinking, “This is it. Do I wait to see the gun before I squeeze the trigger? If I wait to see the gun will I be too late?” I know from watching countless cop-killing videos in the police academy that criminals often create confusion like this just before launching an attack.

I actually squeeze the slack out of the trigger (and there isn’t much slack to squeeze) as the man pulls out a flash of black from behind his back.

It’s his wallet and he holds it out in front of him.

Just then, my sergeant runs up and tackles the guy, snapping me out of intense tunnel vision.

Why would he do that? Why wouldn’t he say anything to me? Why was a wallet so important as to risk death?

I made the right decision that day because of the outcome, but had it been a gun, I might not be here today.

This was a young black man in his late teens or early 20s. When we got him inside the police station, we found out he was a minister’s son and had been driving the church van. He ran, and didn’t listen to me, because he was drunk and had crashed head-on with a family in a minivan.

He cared more about getting away than about his safety. He gave me his wallet because in his drunken haze, it made sense to him to produce his license.

I was a white cop who almost shot a young, unarmed black man for giving me his wallet. Moreover, he was a church-going person whose father was the pastor.

When we had the young man handcuffed, I turned around and realized that there was a group of construction workers behind a building taking in the whole scene. I had such tunnel vision from adrenaline and fear that I hadn’t even seen them right near us.

This was before cell phone videos, but I’m sure it’s plain to see that above and beyond the tragedy inherent in any killing, this could have been a perfect storm for me. I would not be able to tell this story to the media due to public information policies and the legal constraints of the active investigation that would immediately follow.

The news could have said that a white cop killed an unarmed black youth for having a car accident and I wouldn’t be able to stand up and scream, “No, it was because he wasn’t listening to me and I thought he was going to kill me!”

Would anybody care what I said anyway?

When I was a paramedic, people used to ask me how I could function around such blood, gore and sadness. My answer was that I really didn’t think about it at the time it was happening. I looked at the situation in a sterile way, very technically, and acted as trained.

What are the signs and symptoms? What quick actions do I have to take to help this person in a hurry?

There was no time to dwell on the rest of the details.

It’s the same with being a cop.

I never thought about race for one second until well afterward when the perfect storm scenario was realized. All I saw at the time was a person who ran, started complying, and then inexplicably stopped complying, did not speak and reached behind him to a place where people conceal weapons.

I was focused on the threatening elements of the situation and trying to translate it through the lens of my training. I would have done that whether it was a black man or a white woman — both could have hurt me.

Many people around Kearny know me and what I’m made of. I’m not a racist cop or a bad apple, but if I had squeezed a sixteenth of an inch more that day, the world would have branded me as such. I’d have no recourse despite doing exactly what I was trained to do and breaking no laws in the pursuit of a man who broke many.

This situation could happen to me again today and today I might not wait to see a wallet. This is what scares the hell out of me.

If you know and trust me or any other police officer, please continue to support law enforcement by giving the same benefit of the doubt to other officers that you would give to us. Those officers do not have the luxury of telling their side of the story on TV just as I wouldn’t. Yes, we have bad apples, but just because a white cop shoots a black citizen, it doesn’t automatically make him one of them.

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