In today’s op-ed, Hernandez addresses the journalist who uttered that nonsense, with far more couth (and far less profanity) than we could muster. Mad Duo
Combat-Veteran Cops: To Blame for the Baltimore Riots?
I’m sure you’ve seen it. During an interview in Baltimore with Congressman Elijah Cummings about police-community relations, CNN’s Brooke Baldwin mentions that military veterans who become police “are ready to do battle.” The context of the statement is a little fuzzy, and all I can find are short clips without the full conversation. But I’m pretty sure Ms. Baldwin believes combat-veteran cops like me are partly responsible for the Baltimore riots.
Cummings: “We really gotta look at our police department.”
Baldwin: “But in what sense? We talk about training, we talk about having officers… I was talking to a city councilman here last week who was saying, ‘Brooke, these people have to live in the communities, there’s no emotional, or there’s a lack of emotional investment.’ And a lot of these young people, I mean I’ve been talking about this so much, a lot of these young people, and I love our nation’s veterans, but some of them are coming back from war, they don’t know the communities, and they’re ready to do battle.”
Just about all my veteran friends are disgusted with Ms. Baldwin. Right-wing web sites have been incessantly trashing her all day. I’m pretty mad about it myself. But unlike some others who have written about Ms. Baldwin, I’m going to try to be fair to her.
Brooke Baldwin doesn’t seem to be consciously anti-veteran, and has expressed strong concern for veterans on at least two occasions. First, she broke down on air as a parent read his veteran son’s suicide note:
And she played in a celebrity softball game to honor fallen troops (note that she refers to them as heroes):
She’s also shown she’s not the left-leaning political hack many journalists seem to be, or at least she wasn’t on one notable occasion. During an interview with a Colorado representative who was recalled over her support for gun control, the representative blamed “voter suppression” for her recall. Baldwin immediately cut her off, bluntly brought up the representative’s low approval ratings and didn’t let her shift blame for her political failure.
And one thing Ms. Baldwin mentioned is correct: many police officers don’t live in the areas they police. This was true long before the War on Terror and will likely remain this way forever. Maybe Ms. Baldwin believes we cops don’t live in our beats because of arrogance or hatred for the people we police. Maybe Congressman Cummings does too. But the truth isn’t quite so simple.
When you police an area, you see things that residents going about their daily lives don’t. A resident who works all day and sleeps all night may never know that the guy three doors down was arrested but never convicted of beating his wife, or the vacant house two streets over was the site of a rape, or the neighbor nobody ever sees during the day sells crack between two and four a.m. The resident might think “nothing serious ever happens here,” and he’s not wrong; after all, he lives there and feels safe. The cop thinks “that neighborhood has way too many problems for me to live there,” and he’s not wrong either.
When I was a small-town cop, for a time I lived right on the town’s main road. Troublemakers in town knew where I lived, what I drove and what my wife drove. A few times while I was grocery shopping with my wife and daughter I heard people mutter things like “I could kick his ass” as they walked past. One drunk I arrested threatened to rape my wife. Another drunk, who turned out to be a drug addict and child molester, told me something very interesting while I booked him: “I’m a cook at the [town’s only] Chinese restaurant. I see you and your wife there all the time. You always order the pepper steak and she always orders the lemon chicken.”
Did incidents like that motivate me to move out of town? You bet. Ms. Baldwin doesn’t take into account my honest motivation for living elsewhere: I’m worried about my family’s safety. That’s not hyperbole. As we’ve been shocked to discover recently, there are people who hate cops so much they’re willing to kill us just for being cops. We’re all aware of the two NYPD officers assassinated after the Ferguson riots, and within the last two days a female officer working overnight security at a Houston Wal-Mart was stabbed repeatedly by a man apparently seeking revenge for the death of Freddie Gray. After Officer Darren Wilson was cleared by a Grand Jury a Nordstrom employee posted “Every time an unarmed black man is killed, you kill a decorated white officer, on his door step in front of his family.” Baldwin might be surprised to learn that this hatred of police officers didn’t begin when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
As I mentioned before, I and my family have been threatened because I’m a cop. I take that seriously. If Ms. Baldwin, or anyone else, thinks I’m somehow being arrogant/racist/generally bad because I don’t want my wife and children living among people who genuinely want to kill me, I don’t care. As a street cop and combat soldier I’ve taken more than my fair share of chances with my own life. I’m not going to take chances with my wife’s or children’s lives.
But the really inflammatory portion of Baldwin’s comment wasn’t about where we live, it was the “ready to do battle” part. And again, being fair to Baldwin, I am ready to do battle. I trained for combat for decades, experienced it overseas, and have done my best to maintain my skills and mindset since my return. That does not mean I view American police work as “battle”.
I’ve had this discussion many times before when people, usually not cops, say things like “Being a cop here must be just like being in Iraq.”
No, it isn’t.
Bombs aren’t routinely blowing up around us. We’re not under constant threat of sniper and machine gun fire. We don’t leave the station with the expectation of getting into a gunfight (in fact, one of the hardest things in police work is keeping officers from being lulled into complacency). The people we police aren’t “enemy”; in the very worst neighborhoods I’ve worked, I’ve met plenty of good, decent, friendly, hardworking people. And combat veterans tend to appreciate that difference. Rather than being keyed up all the time, many of us realize just how safe America is compared to other places we’ve served.
There has been an influx of combat vets into law enforcement during the War on Terror, just like there was an influx during and after the Vietnam War, and after the Korean War, and after World War II. But just in terms of raw numbers, even if every single young combat vet who became a cop really was “ready for battle”, how many would that be? Less than one percent of the population serves in the military. The entire military didn’t deploy, so a much smaller number served in a combat zone. And an even smaller number actually served in combat (no, serving in a combat zone doesn’t automatically equal hitting the beach at Normandy; some “combat vets” never left the wire, never heard a shot, never experienced anything like battle, went to weekly salsa dancing events, had wireless internet in their rooms, and even had fast food delivery available).
The conventional wisdom among many combat vets is that only .45% of the American population served in battle in Iraq or Afghanistan. I personally think that number is far too high, even if you include all the people who never left the wire but were exposed to incoming rocket or mortar fire. This generation of combat vet police officers is far smaller than previous generations, and can’t be blamed for issues affecting the entire nation. Maybe some combat-vet cops have been involved in questionable shootings, but I’ve also heard of cases like this one, where a former Marine wounded in combat in Iraq chose not to shoot a murder suspect even though he would have been justified. Painting us all with the “ready to do battle” brush doesn’t come close to addressing the truth. A journalist as professional as Baldwin should know that.
But what bothers me most about Ms. Baldwin’s statement is this: “I love our nation’s veterans.” This strikes me as the “pity not respect” mindset so common among one side of the political spectrum. The right tends to lionize all veterans as heroes; that’s objectively wrong and harmful, but at least it’s honest. The left tends to make empty, hollow professions of love for us; they don’t love us enough to actually serve with us, they don’t love us enough to want their children to serve with us, and they don’t love us enough to actually get to know us. But they do love us enough to pity us, they love us enough to think we’re all suicidal and PTSD-stricken, and they love us enough to distrust those of us who become cops because we’re “ready to do battle”. That’s a lot of love.
After her “ready to do battle” comment was broadcast, Ms. Baldwin responded to the backlash by tweeting, “Folks. Please don’t misunderstand me. Dear friends/family of mine are veterans. I was repeating a concern vocalized to me lately. That’s it.” Well, since she mentioned on air that she’s “been talking about this so much”, it doesn’t sound to me like she was just repeating other people’s concerns. But maybe she poorly expressed her thoughts. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, if she’ll do one thing for me.
Ms. Baldwin, I suggest you TALK TO AN ACTUAL VETERAN. No, I don’t mean someone traumatized by PTSD, or a veteran who survived a suicide attempt, or any other beloved victim story that journalists always gravitate to. Their stories are real and important, but stories from the rest of us are important too. So please, Ms. Baldwin, find a veteran who proudly served, doesn’t consider himself damaged, isn’t suffering from PTSD and isn’t a “hero”. Find one who believes his or her life was enriched by serving in combat. Maybe you could even find one who became a cop after their service.
You and other journalists might think a happy, productive, well-adjusted combat vet is a unicorn, but a lot of us exist. And you probably think a happy, normal combat-vet cop is as elusive as the Loch Ness monster, but plenty of us exist too. If you can’t find any such unicorns or Loch Ness Monsters within your circle of friends, please contact me. My email is [email protected] I’m more than willing to respectfully speak with you, one on one, unrecorded, whenever you’re free.
This isn’t a joke. I’d love the opportunity to show you that the average combat vet isn’t quite the threat you seem to think we are. Hit me up.
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!
Emergency: Activate firefly, deploy green (or brown) star cluster, get your wank sock out of your ruck and stand by ’til we come get you.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.