Vargas: What was the officer thinking

By Joe Vargas

In the past few months, there have been tragic situations involving police officers captured on video. The videos have become part of conversations across the nation.

I’m not talking about the front page of the newspaper or pundits on television. I’m talking about conversations taking place in coffee shops, barbershops and at the dinner table.

People are trying to make sense of the violent imagery.

The vast majority of these conversations are taking place without input from everyday police officers.

It seems almost every time I am in a group and tell them I am a retired police officer I inevitably get asked, “That’s great. I have some questions.”

I wonder how many people have the opportunity to speak with a police officer one on one and get their assessment of these videos.

First and foremost, when a police officer sees the use of force on the news, their first response is often the same as most people.

Mine is sometimes, “Damn, that looks bad.”

Given all my experience, if I feel an encounter looks bad I can only imagine what somebody who isn’t a police officer must think.

Policing is experiential – that’s where my evaluation of these events may start to differ from those who have never contacted an armed suspect.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana two officers fought with an armed suspect. At the time the decision is made to shoot, I wonder, “What was the officer thinking?”

I also ask myself several other questions:  What happened before the physical confrontation? What was said? What was the subject’s response? I am curious about physical and verbal responses.

What was the information the officers received from dispatch before and as they got out of their car?

What was the officer thinking when he heard his partner yell, “Gun!”

Did the shouting of the word “Gun!” change the response? How?

How much can we discern about what the officer was thinking from the video alone?

In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the aftermath of a police shooting is caught on a cell phone by the shot man’s fiancé and broadcast to the world.

The emotional state of the officer is evident when he says, “”I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand off it.”

The tragic imagery is powerful and moving. Once again I ask the question, “What was the officer thinking?”

What did the officer know before he approached the vehicle? What were the words exchanged? What was the subject’s response – both physical and verbal?

Did the officer’s experience and training adequately prepare him for this type of contact?

Let’s face it, experience and training make a difference in how a police officer processes events.

These two incidents and others are now under intense scrutiny – legally, procedurally and tactically.

Investigators, prosecutors, and department staff will be asking the same question: What was the officer thinking?

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.