Retired police officer A.J. Gillinger, 51, talked his son out of following in his footsteps.
“You’re out of your mind,” he told him. “Why would you take up this job right now when it’s so disrespected? It’s just being attacked on every level.”
“There ain’t nothing in this world that could make me put a gun and badge back on,” Gillinger told The Epoch Times. After 20 years of service in Texas, he retired from the police force at the age of 39 and now runs a barbecue joint in Dallas.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “I was equally worried out on the street as I was by the administration.”
Police have to make quick decisions and handle things with their best judgment, he said. But toward the end of his career, he felt that no matter what decision he made in the moment, he could be chastised later.
“You expect to be attacked on the street—you’re a police officer, you put yourself out there. … Then you have your administration complain about the way you handled something, and that just got really old,” Gillinger said.
Law enforcement agencies across the nation are experiencing a “workforce crisis,” unable to recruit new officers or retain the ones they have, according to a September 2019 Police Executive Research Forum report.
The number of officers per capita is down 10 percent since 1997, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data cited in the report.
While the loss is due to multiple factors, law enforcement insiders have told The Epoch Times that increased scrutiny and criticism of police is a major one. This scrutiny has contributed greatly to job dissatisfaction and decisions to leave the profession.
Gillinger’s son took his advice and became an Air Force mechanic instead, but Gillinger’s young brother-in-law, John Mitchell, was inspired by Gillinger’s example to become an officer. And it’s brought him a lot of trouble.
His brother-in-law, Lt. Mitchell of Blackwell, Oklahoma, is facing manslaughter charges—downgraded from second-degree murder—for killing an active shooter.
Officer Faces Charges After Killing an Active Shooter
“The district attorney is upset about how many rounds [he shot],” Gillinger said. Mitchell shot about 60 rounds at the shooter’s vehicle.
“She [the shooter] was driving around their city shooting in different locations. … She told him straight out that she wasn’t going to give up,” Gillinger said. The woman, Micheal Ann Godsey, had allegedly shot at her mother, at least one other civilian, and at officers.
Mitchell called Gillinger the day of the incident, and said, “We had to fire a lot of rounds … I couldn’t get her to stop, and I knew I had to get her to stop.”
Jason Smith, president of the Oklahoma Fraternal Order of Police, said of the case in 2019, “This would be the first time in American history that a police officer or anybody was charged with the crime of murder for shooting at an active shooter.”
Between an Axe and a Hard Place
Retired Seattle police officer Steve Pomper told The Epoch Times he got out of the force early because of the increased scrutiny.
He cited the example of Seattle police officer Nick Guzley, who was criticized and investigated in 2018 for allegedly not doing enough to de-escalate a dangerous situation without resorting to force.
A man had stolen an ice axe from a store and threatened a security guard at the store with it. Guzley arrived at the scene and followed the man for blocks, repeatedly ordering him to put the axe down, to no avail.
Guzley eventually cornered the man and tackled him, removing the axe from his hands and neutralizing the threat.
The Office of Professional Accountability recommended Guzley be disciplined for not doing enough to de-escalate the situation before tackling the man.
Though in the end, Guzley wasn’t disciplined, the criticism he initially received shocked Pomper and received national attention.
For example, the Omaha Police Association issued a statement at the time in support of Guzley: “Officer Guzley was faced with a tough decision. Should he continue to follow an armed and clearly mentally disturbed suspect hoping he doesn’t lash out and injure or kill someone? The other option, try and end the incident as quickly and safely as possible. He chose to try and end it.”
The statement noted that disciplining officers for these kinds of decisions is a quick way to deplete morale “and lose experienced veterans to retirement or other departments. It can even drive some to leave the profession.”
Pomper said, “[Guzley] could have shot him, but instead he put his own life at risk.”
Pomper retired from the police force in 2014 at the age of 53. “I would have stayed for 10 years longer if my department would let me do the job and if we didn’t have such animosity between the political leadership and the police department. It really affects how you can do the job,” Pomper said.
“Civilian disrespect, that comes from the political leaders’ disrespect—it starts there,” he added. He feels politicians have thrown him and his fellow officers “under the proverbial bus.”
He said he sees officers retiring sooner these days. In the past, he worked with many who had been on the job long after they could have retired, with one of his colleagues working into his 70s.
Shetali Patil, an assistant professor of management at The University of Texas–Austin, has studied how law enforcement and health care professionals cope with public scrutiny, misperceptions, and high-risk decision making.
“Public scrutiny is supposed to get people to behave better,” Patil told The Epoch Times. “[But] a lot of my research finds that public scrutiny is actually really detrimental in terms of shaping officer behaviors and kind of backfires.”
She and her team surveyed about 200 officers across six agencies in the southern United States.
They found that officers are less likely to be proactive when they feel the public doesn’t understand or appreciate them. Being less proactive includes engaging less in training and professional development, being less likely to get out of the patrol car, and being less likely to advocate for the community when they see problems.
“The less they [police officers] engage in basic safety behaviors, the more problems you’re going to have in communities, so it’s essentially a backlash,” she said.
Impacts of Ferguson
Police scrutiny reached new heights after police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot a black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
The shooting sparked weeks of protest. It was one of several high-profile shootings of black men in the United States, which many denounced as motivated by an ingrained racism. The protestors also expressed concern about police use of force in general.
“Since Ferguson, we’ve seen the number of students wanting to come into our program decline,” said Duane Wolf, a full-time instructor for the law enforcement program at Alexandria Technical College in Minnesota.
“I think there’s a lot of concern right now with people wanting to go into law enforcement about the possible repercussions,” Wolf told The Epoch Times.
Regarding Ferguson, Wolf said, “Despite the fact that there were three independent investigations clearing the officer of any wrongdoing, that officer still has to live in hiding for fear of all the death threats because of the false information that was given out [by the media] regarding the shooting.”
Between 2013 and 2016—roughly the period following the Ferguson tensions—the number of officers in U.S. law enforcement declined by 3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Wolf has heard concerns from students, and parents of students, about how officers’ names are published in the media immediately after a shooting, before investigations have been completed.
The experience of an officer in Chicago stands out to Wolf as an example of how this immediate public scrutiny impacts police. In 2016, the Chicago officer was attacked by a man allegedly high on PCP; she was badly beaten, but didn’t shoot her attacker.
“She [the officer] looked at me and said she thought she was going to die, and she knew that she should shoot this guy, but she chose not to because she didn’t want her family or the department to have to go through the scrutiny the next day on national news,” then-Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said during a press conference at the time, as reported by CBS News:
Christy Allen, a sergeant in the recruitment division at St. Louis Police Department, spoke to the impacts of the Ferguson events. The city of Ferguson is part of the great St. Louis metro area.
“It was local for us, but every police department across the nation … felt the wrath of that incident,” Allen told The Epoch Times. “Now we have this portrayal in the media that police officers are bad police officers, the mean police officers, the killers, [and] police officers are not held accountable for their actions.”
“That’s where I started to see the major decline,” Allen said. It used to be considered an honorable job, something to be proud of, but that changed, she said.
Some officers relocated to police agencies further from the ground zero of Ferguson. Some left the job altogether, and it’s been hard to fill the spots.
In the St. Louis Police Department, Allen said, “we’re 147 police officers short right now.”
Public misperception of the police extends beyond the issue of how officers use force, said Jeff Shannon, a retired police officer who now works as a mental health professional in California. He is an expert on police stress and resilience.
“The general public has a fairly one-dimensional view of what a law enforcement officer is and does,” Shannon told The Epoch Times. It’s not just about patrolling the streets and arresting people, he said.
Officers have to be proficient in using multiple software programs, Shannon said. They have to multitask and be able to prioritize their work in a matter of seconds. They must be able to perform at a high level physically and also function mentally under “an enormous amount of stress,” he said.
They have to have good interpersonal skills, and be able to interact well with people from all walks of life. They have to be able to work well independently, and also as part of a team.
They have to know the law practically as well as a criminal attorney.
“All these skills are highly desirable in different industries. But they decide they’re going to work for a fraction of the salary they can get in other industries to do this—protect and serve their communities,” Shannon said.
“So they’re really heroes in that sense. And they do that at a great price.”
He gave an example of a common scenario for officers.
It can take five hours to do the paperwork for a juvenile arrest, Shannon said. “You have to write the whole criminal case against the juvenile and submit it right then and there.”
Then, more often than not, the juvenile would be released the same day or a few days later. And reoffend.
“I’d see really, really violent people over a period of say 10 years that had been arrested three, four, or five times for serious, violent crimes. And they’d serve, you know, six days … [then] the case was dismissed,” Shannon said.
“So it’s very frustrating to feel like you’re doing a good job in taking a violent person off the street—it’s deflating to then see what happens with them in the criminal justice system.”
Many officers also suffer from mental health issues, he said. But they’re used to being the helpers instead of the helped, and many find it hard to talk about their problems, Shannon said.
He is, however, seeing an improvement in this regard, with mental health being talked about more openly in the forces.
Police Stress and Suicide
“Most police officers in the first three years on the job will see more human tragedy than most people will see in their lifetime,” said Betsy Smith, a former sergeant who now trains law enforcement agencies across the country.
“We die two and a half times [more often] by our own hand as we do by felonious assault.” Smith told The Epoch Times.
It’s a job that requires you to be on constant alert, because you never know what you are going to encounter on a call, Smith said. “When we stop doing that, that’s when we get killed … That’s a difficult way to live.”
She gave a hypothetical example. A police officer stops a speeding minivan, and the driver is a mother with three toddlers in the car. “Most citizens will say, well, what’s the big deal? Give her a ticket and get on with your day,” Smith said.
But the officer doesn’t know her, doesn’t know who else is in that vehicle, if she is armed, or if she hates police. So a well-trained officer would remain alert and watch out for any suspicious behaviors, said Smith.
David Klinger, a criminology professor at University of Missouri–St. Louis, told The Epoch Times that a good way for the public to understand officer-involved shootings is to put themselves into the officer’s shoes. To judge it from that split-second moment instead of in hindsight.
At that moment, the officer could feel a genuine life threat; but in hindsight, it could turn out the suspect had a look-alike BB gun instead of a real weapon.
Klinger cited the Supreme Court decision of Graham vs. Conner. That decision read, “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
How civilians understand the police becomes increasingly relevant as many cities across the country decide how to structure their civilian oversight of police departments.
Civilian Oversight Boards Gain Power
Advocates of police oversight by civilian boards say the boards are necessary for accountability. Opponents say they hinder effective police operations.
The amount of power these boards have over police operations differs from place to place.
Professor Sharon R. Fairley of the University of Chicago Law School published a paper earlier this year titled “Survey Says?: U.S. Cities Double Down on Civilian Oversight of Police Despite Challenges and Controversy.”
Fairley has first-hand as well as academic experience with the subject; she is the former chief administrator of Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority and Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
While civilian oversight systems have been around since the early 20th century, they were long considered radical. However, they may “now be considered a normative element within the police accountability infrastructure,” Fairley wrote.
“Looking across the broad array of models and systems nationwide, it seems that civilian oversight systems are like snowflakes—no two are alike,” she said. “But despite civilian oversight’s increasing prevalence, its success nationwide is often the subject of debate.”
Update: A previous version of this article stated that Lt. John Mitchell shot Micheal Ann Godsey 60 times. He fired about 60 rounds, but didn’t shoot Godsey 60 times. The Epoch Times regrets the error.