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Police Officers, During Protests, Are Resembling Soldiers In War Zones


Former Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke out against his former boss yesterday. He said the president works to divide Americans and lacks mature leadership. Mattis says there is no need to use the military against protesters as the president threatened to do this week. Patrick Skinner has been arguing that policing is not a war. He's had an involvement in an actual war. He was once a CIA officer engaged in what was called, at least, the war on terror. Now, he's a police officer in Savannah, Ga. Mr. Skinner, good morning.

PATRICK SKINNER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why do you write in The Washington Post that you don't want policing to be thought of as a war, a war on crime or anything else?

SKINNER: Because it's not a war. It never should've been a war. And our rhetoric and our equipment and our training and our mindset is of a war. And just like the war on terror, we're losing it. And it's creating a lot of casualties on all sides.

INSKEEP: What was wrong with thinking of the war on terror as a war on terror?

SKINNER: Because it wasn't. It's just a handful of people. Granted, once it gets to an insurgency, it's a big issue. But the war on terror was almost collective punishment. We're looking for a group inside of a massive population. And so what we did was we just basically stop-and-frisked an entire country, and repeatedly, repeatedly. And it generates intense, you know - it's counterproductive. But it's also wrong.

INSKEEP: Now, you write in the Post that you made an interesting career choice. You didn't want to be in the CIA anymore. You walked away from that. You went home to Savannah. You became a cop. You're a cop now in your late 40s. What is the right way to think about policing, in your view, rather than a war?

SKINNER: I mean, it's just my opinion. But I think that instead of a war on terror, you change it. You have a neighbor mindset. And it sounds really cheesy. (Laughter) It is cheesy. But it's effective. And that's what I'm looking for. I'm looking for whatever is kind and effective. I believe that instead of calling people civilians, call them your neighbor because they are. I live here. I work here. I don't say that police should have to live where they work. This is a personal choice I made. But it really drives home the fact that the people I'm dealing with every day - it's not a metaphor - they are my neighbors. And so I have to treat them as such.

INSKEEP: What have you thought about as you've watched the protests unfold across the country in the last several days and also watched the police response to those protests?

SKINNER: I get very sad. Now, in a riot - we need to make a clear distinction between protests and riots. Ninety percent of what we're seeing are protests. The police should just sit back. They shouldn't have overwhelming force. Even just, you know, like an overwatch for a protest, that amps things up. Now, granted, a riot, when people are hurting - I mean, police officers have been attacked. People have been killed, a lot of damage. I get that. But the problem is we use that 1% and we treat the 99% like that. And that's exactly what police training does. Every situation is - not just can be dangerous, but it will be dangerous because we're in a war on crime. And anybody can kill you.

And so watching this this week is kind of disheartening because you see this. You see the mindset, except now you see it with riot helmets and pepper balls and tear gas and rubber bullets that we call less than lethal. But, I mean, (laughter) they can kill you. And they certainly do hurt you and maim you. I think that it's a knee-jerk reaction. I understand safety. I get that. I'm not dismissing the riot part. But I'm not working for that. I'm working for the protesters, who are 99% of what's going on. And an overwhelming show of force is wrong. It's what got us here in the first place.

INSKEEP: How does your thinking apply to the president's threat this week to send in the actual military that is trained to fight actual wars?

SKINNER: I mean, it's almost the logical, horrible conclusion of that train of thought, you know? We keep saying it's a war on crime. Police officers are dressed like soldiers. And now the president of the United States is saying, forget all that. Let's just have actual soldiers. And they're not trained - I mean, police officers sometimes are not trained properly for a neighbor mindset, to de-escalate at every single opportunity and create more opportunities. And then he's going to send in federal troops. And that is just - it's the worst thing that you could do on every level. You have this faceless - and they have no names. They have no badges. They're not accountable. And it's wrong.

INSKEEP: That's an interesting point. There do seem to be a lot of people around the capital that it's not clear what agency they're from or who they represent or anything else. That's just a fundamental - that's a violation, right? You just can't be a cop that way.

SKINNER: Yes. I mean, that's not being a cop. That's being a soldier. And you have got to be accountable. If you're afraid of, you know, what you're doing and you don't want to show your name, then you shouldn't do what you're doing.

INSKEEP: Patrick Skinner is a Savannah, Ga., police officer and a former CIA officer. Thank you so much.

SKINNER: Thank you for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.