Join Jason and Amber for a different perspective, as they speak with Thomas Owen Baker, a veteran and former police officer who shares how his involvement in policing affected him, leading to his strong desire to convert his experiences into something of social value . He candidly speaks about life as a law enforcement officer and how his perceptions changed over time. After 9 years serving on the force, he decided to enter the academic sphere, focusing his research on police culture, use of force, and qualitative research methods. Tom believes that we must all work toward a society where citizens and their governmental representatives – the police – aren’t so terrified of one another. He hopes his research and outreach can be part of positive solutions.
Thomas is a PhD student in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St Louis, a Pat Tillman scholar and podcaster. You can follow him on Twitter @thomasowenbaker
During the show, Thomas mentions a project called Fatal Encounters - which describes itself as a "step toward creating an impartial, comprehensive and searchable database of people killed during interactions with the police." He also mentions: https://www.trainingreform.org
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Thomas Owen Baker
Intro: [00:00:00] Everyone has a voice; a story to tell. Some are marginalized and muted.
What if there were a way to amplify those stories; to have conversations with real people in real communities; a way to help them step into the power of their lived experience.
Welcome to Amplified Voices, a podcast, lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system.
Together, we can create positive change, for everyone.
Jason: [00:00:31] Good morning and welcome to another episode of Amplified Voices. I'm your host, Jason, here with my co-host Amber.
Good morning, Amber.
Amber: [00:00:40] Good morning, Jason.
Jason: [00:00:42] And today we have a guest. His name is Thomas. This one's going to be a little different and I'm really looking forward to the conversation.
Good morning, Thomas.
Thomas: [00:00:51] for having me.
Jason: [00:00:52] Thomas, could you start by telling us a little bit about your life before you were involved with the criminal legal system and then, uh, how you got involved?
Thomas: [00:01:01] Okay. So I was born in New Jersey. My dad was in the army at the time. He was stationed at Fort Dix. We moved around quite a lot when I was young.
And then I went in the Army soon as I graduated from high school. And when I got out of the Army, I started university.
My wife and I, we traveled abroad a little bit. We've lived in Asia for a few years. Um, in China.
Jason: [00:01:23] Tell us quickly about that. How did you end up getting married like right away?
Thomas: [00:01:28] I had just turned 19 when I got married and we've been 24 years now, almost.
Amber: [00:01:34] So, basically, you're living my life. I'm an Army brat. I went in the Marine Corps out of high school. Got married, very young to my husband. So, hey, we got a lot in common.
Thomas: [00:01:43] Yeah. And I think that's a lot of working-class families in the United States. That's sort of like a path that's available to you if you want to get out of your community, you want to travel, have some opportunities. So, I was just like, that was kind of what I was looking for when I joined the Army.
Jason: [00:01:56] Got it.
Amber: [00:01:57] Absolutely.
Thomas: [00:01:58] And it was before September 11th that I was in. I got out just before September 11th. So, that was like a totally different experience than a lot of my fellow veterans that I know. So, I always add that as a disclaimer, because it's not the same thing, I don't think.
So, we were traveling. We were over in Asia and then we were going to come back to the United States. And we wanted to have some security and I wanted a job that sounded interesting. Something that would provide some opportunities for me. Growing up, one of the things that I had always viewed as being a good job for someone from my sort of class and background, was being a police officer. So, I decided to look into doing that.
My dream was to be a diplomat. And I had gone and done the initial test with the state department and did really well. I didn't have a college degree at the time. I had a bunch of classes to take, but I did well during the testing process. And I remember the person after the interview, sort of taking me aside and say, "Hey, you did really, really well." I'd been learning Chinese. I, you know, was doing all these things. And he said something along the lines of, "Getting some more experience, maybe some type of like crisis management or something like that would be an interesting thing to add to your resume." And I thought, Oh, well. Later on I thought, well, I could be a cop for a couple of years. Finish up my degree and then reapply, and I would have this sort of interesting experience. Something to add to my resume that might make me stand out.
Jason: [00:03:30] Yeah, that's quite a resume. Between the military and having lived overseas and learning the languages and doing all that. And then being a police officer here domestically. I mean, all that together, I could see how that would be something.
Thomas: [00:03:44] Yeah, I thought it would make me an interesting candidate. So, I applied for a job with the police department out West and got a job and we moved there. And I thought it would be a short-term thing and it turned into about nine years.
Jason: [00:03:56] So, what was that like? Did you know people before that were police officers or were you the first?
Thomas: [00:04:02] Nobody in my immediate family, but it was sort of something that I would have growing up thought of as being, not just a regular job, but something where you could make a good living. You get a pension. You're respected in your community. So it wasn't people that I knew directly, but it was something that was.
I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was growing up. Um, we had some family instability when I was a kid. So, I would go stay with my grandparents and they grew up in the depression. You know, fourth-grade sort of education. When they talked about like a police job. Well, that would be, they don't fire the police when times get rough. You're always going to have work. You're always going to have stability. The idea of a pension. That was something that was very appealing to me.
Amber: [00:04:46] I think that in general, when you talk about people who have military service and service professions, which are all honorable professions, it's kind of a natural transition for a lot of people to go from military service to serving in law enforcement. Because at the end of the day, you're really talking about keeping people safe. And that's the perception of what these positions are, is keeping people safe.
Thomas: [00:05:15] That's what the goal, I think, for the vast majority of people.
I was a recruit, but then I also had a chance to train recruits at the Police Academy. And I got to see like a group of, mostly young people, come into this profession and they're like these idealistic people. And I was sort of the jaded cop at that point.
Jason: [00:05:34] So, what happened that turned a young idealistic recruit into a jaded cop.
Thomas: [00:05:40] Well, I think just the day in and day out consistently being exposed to people's worst experiences.
So, during the course of your day as a police officer, what for you is just another call where you may be having a conversation with your buddy while you're trying to process the call, for the person that you're managing and dealing with could be the worst day of their life.
Jason: [00:06:03] Right.
Thomas: [00:06:03] Someone did something horrible to them, or they did something horrible to somebody else, or maybe not the worst day of their life, but it's a bad day, you know? So, you're just constantly dealing with people's worst experiences. People at their worst, you know, people who are in crisis. And that becomes the normal for your everyday work.
So, I think for me, a way to defend yourself against something like that is, and this is me psychoanalyzing myself, is to just develop a thick shell, um, and to become sort of jaded, you know.
Amber: [00:06:37] Right.
Jason: [00:06:38] You have to, in order to survive. I mean, you've got so much negativity surrounding you all the time, and now you've got to. I mean, it must be really hard to go from an environment where you're seeing people at their worst and now you got to go home and you you're seeing your bride of 10 years now at this point, right? And you're like, "Hi honey, I'm home." How do you transition from one world to another? So you have to put up an exterior that says I'm just not going to let anything affect me.
Thomas: [00:07:04] Right. And I remember driving about 30 minutes into work and undergoing a transition in your thinking. And then making the drive back and having to make a transition between the two roles. Because you can't talk to your family the way you talk to people at work and you can't talk to people at work the way you talk to family. You have to be two different people.
And as time goes by, it can become, I think, more difficult for people to make the distinction between the two worlds.
Amber: [00:07:33] Right.
Thomas: [00:07:33] What a jacked-up world we live in where police need to make such a sharp transition in the first place.
Jason: [00:07:40] That's a lot to carry every day.
Amber: [00:07:42] That is a lot to carry. And I think it's an important perspective for people to really understand. When they think about the system and the way that everything is set up and all of the things that people in law enforcement are asked to handle.
Thomas: [00:07:59] They're subject to the same system that they're a part of.
Amber: [00:08:03] Yeah. So, you talked about seeing people in their worst moment or the worst thing that's happened to them and how that affected you emotionally. Talk a little bit more about, how did that affect your family life? How did that affect you as the days went by and throughout the job?
Thomas: [00:08:23] Well for me, initially, it was, you rely on this idea of culpability. So, you say, well, these people are making decisions. There are logical consequences. And that's sort of how you rationalize the things you're seeing. Because you're interviewing people. You're learning about what led them to the point where they're, where they are now.
And everyone tells you what happened in the form of a story. So, you get to hear these stories and then you look at people's backgrounds and you see this person was a victim themselves. This person, you know, had this slow process. They were raised in a family where, Oh look, now dad's in prison.
Initially you tell yourself, well, there's a decision. People are responsible for their actions. But then over a period of time, you come to realize, well, they didn't make a decision. They were like conditioned and put in an environment where this was the logical outcome. And it's not them that's individually responsible, but it's more of a system that we've created where this is the logical outcome.
And then that creates a cognitive dissonance. like I'm enforcing rules where we hold people accountable for things that they've done. But as time goes by, you come to realize it's not them that did it, but it's us that did it. So that becomes difficult.
Amber: [00:09:39] Right.
Jason: [00:09:40] You made quite a transition there. And I think that's a hard one to make. That's just amazing. It says a lot about your own humanity and what you've been able to do. I mean, it's so easy to just keep up that exterior that you built and just say, this is a shell nothing's going to penetrate me. But it sounds like something got through.
Thomas: [00:09:57] I wouldn't give me too much credit because I think a lot of it is me trying to find a way to make sense of my own inability to deal with it anymore. It got to be too much for me as an individual. So now, maybe, I don't know, because in our heads we come up with explanations for Laura doesn't mean they're right. But for me, part of it is not wanting my own culpability for my own role in this sort of system.
Jason: [00:10:24] Sure. As you're talking about it and now you're no longer a police officer. We had all this police accountability news. Even before you had the George Floyd incident, you know, we had people who were recording police officers, doing things. And now we're seeing that on social media. You have George Floyd, you have Brianna Taylor, you have, we could list them all. But how does it affect you now when you see that and when you're watching this? What does that do to you as a person?
Thomas: [00:10:55] Half of my friends are still to our military law enforcement community. And then half of my friends are in this academic world. So, when these things happen, they view them like they're two completely different events. Like their perspectives on the world are so different that they're seeing these, like, they're just not the same things happening.
And as a person who has a foot in both worlds, I'm trying to like maintain relationships with one group and the other. And neither one of them are making sense because they both have these black and white views on these very. Like, all of my liberal friends are like, well, cops are murderers and they're super racist and they just go murder people for no reason. And then my police friends seem to be like, almost anything goes sometimes. Like, like they're incapable of receiving any kind of criticism on the topic and it's complicated.
So, I sort of feel in a position where I can't have conversations sometimes with either side without getting frustrated.
Jason: [00:11:57] Do you feel the weight of the responsibility to try to educate others and bring them to some sort of neutral ground?
Thomas: [00:12:04] I wouldn't say neutral ground, but I do feel like a responsibility to try to engage in a process where we learn about these things. Cause I worry about where it can go. I'm really worried about where we're heading right now in terms of violence. So, I do feel like when I see them spreading apart and unable to communicate with one another, I worry about the real implications for people's safety. Yeah. I do feel a responsibility to try to close that distance.
Jason: [00:12:30] Do you think that when people listen to this podcast that it might help bridge some of that gap.
Thomas: [00:12:37] I hope so. That's why I wanted to do this because I want to like humanize people that may be difficult to humanize. I understand that. It's difficult for me sometimes. Like when I saw the George Floyd thing. That's inhuman. But that's always complicated.
Jason: [00:12:54] Right.
Amber: [00:12:56] And that's actually a perfect segue into the comment I want to make.
You use the word complicated. I think that humanity in and of itself is complicated. The issues that we're dealing with are very complicated. And we have a tendency when we talk about these things to have a very zero-sum thought process on it.
So what you're describing in terms of, you know, your academic friends and your friends who are police officers, or have served in the military, it's very true that there's a lot of polarization there.
And again, you know, thinking about that harm reduction, in terms of what we all really want. Like, what do we all really want as humans? We want to live in a society where we can thrive. And we want to live in a society where we feel safe and safety means different things to different people.
And then to your second point about humanizing individuals who are just trying to do their job in a system that they've kind of been placed in.
So, it's important to understand some of the trauma that police officers go through that can lead to some of the things that happen. We've got to look at the system and say, why is this happening?
One of my questions to you is, how did you see that as you interacted with other officers? We often hear about this idea of like the blue line or what happens is secretive or things like that.
Let's unpack that a little bit.
Thomas: [00:14:31] So, this idea that policing is a secret society and that you can only get an accurate picture of what happens on the inside, I think is very accurate. I remember going to a squad. I don't want to identify any individuals or anything like that. But I remember going to a squad very early on and feeling as though people were very suspicious of me, that I wasn't getting the full sort of picture of what was happening, that people were having conversations that I necessarily wasn't involved at all of those conversations. And then over time, coming to realize that you have to earn the trust of the people around you. And they have to feel confident that you're not going to judge them on their behavior - you know, that you're not gonna, you're not gonna go saying things about them. You're not gonna snitch them out - before they feel comfortable being themselves in front of you.
So, that does exist and it's, it's a dangerous thing in policing. That's one of the reasons I'm a huge proponent of cameras. Because let's be honest, no matter where you work, you're going to develop personal relationships with the people you work with. And you're not going to want to be the person who says something negative about them or calls them out on misbehavior. You're just not because there's going to be consequences that your workspace, in any workspace. In policing and certain other career fields, that's something that becomes accentuated in the culture.
So that's definitely there. There's a secretiveness. People don't snitch each other out unless it's something crazy. That's why, when I hear police officers come forward and call out other police officers on their bad behavior, like say, well, this person engaged in police brutality or did X or Y, I tend to believe them because it takes so much within that culture to snitch out your buddies.
Amber: [00:16:26] I appreciate you sharing that.
Do you think that police officers should be held to a higher standard when it comes to that? Because, I know like, yes, in a workspace, you don't want to snitch out your buddies and there's a culture and this and that. But I'm just going to say it. We're dealing with people's lives here.
Thomas: [00:16:45] Absolutely. We're giving individuals an extraordinary amount of power. The power to use violence, to compel other people to do whatever the state wants them to do or what that police officer is going to get them to do in that moment. So we're giving people this extraordinary amount of power. So, if you do that, you need to be super careful. You need to put in mechanisms to prevent that type of secretiveness and people not being honest or reporting things that they see when their fellow officers. But I don't think we can just say, as individuals you need to be honest, because I don't think that'll work.
That's why I'm like, we have to have police officers equipped with body cameras. We need to do everything we can possibly do to recruit people who are not going to behave that way and figure out how we can do that, and all those things.
Also, I think, no matter what we do, if you put people in a situation where they're using violence against other people to compel behavior, and they have that much power, I think it's human nature, there's going to be corruption and secretiveness and abuse. So you need to have robust mechanisms in place to defend against it. Like really strong oversight through internal affairs or investigations, body-worn cameras, reviews, and has to be very rigorous because power corrupts. I think we can agree with that.
Jason: [00:18:04] So, you were a police officer for nine years. Did something happen that made you change or was that always part of your plan to then move on to something else?
Thomas: [00:18:16] I was planning on just doing it for a few years, finishing up my degree, and then moving on, but I really took to it and I really enjoyed the work, especially early on. Like investigating things and putting together cases and. There's a lot of BS, like the drug war and a lot of ridiculous stuff that goes on, but there's also important casework that gets completed.
You know, we need a crime control mechanism in our society, the way it's structured right now.
Jason: [00:18:45] Were you in a city or a small town? What type of...
Thomas: [00:18:48] I was in a big city. When I worked in a high volume sort of area and patrol, it was call to call to call. Then in investigations, there was, you know, our city, we had everything from kidnappings and homicides. It was a pretty busy place.
Jason: [00:19:02] So, at the end of a shift, you're exhausted.
Thomas: [00:19:04] Yeah, some nights. It depended on the night, but like on a Saturday night, you know, where I worked, there's a good chance there'd be a shooting. You know, or maybe a few. Lots of officer-involved shootings. Lots of foot pursuits and stuff like that. It was a very, very busy place. You know, sort of call to call. Um, and you got exposed to, you know, everything you can imagine in a short period of time.
Jason: [00:19:27] Was your wife worried every time you went to work on a Saturday night?
Thomas: [00:19:30] I think so, a little bit, yeah. But it becomes part of your routine and that became our life. You know, the conversations center around policing. Your group gets smaller and smaller. So this trust that you have in each other, this fraternity that you are a part of. So it's work and then it's, you're having barbecues. Cops come over and it becomes this really insulated sort of community.
So she was fully immersed in that life as well.
Jason: [00:20:02] And when you left, did you keep those friends or did that change?
Thomas: [00:20:05] I think I kept. Just like, you know, any sort of workspace, your people in the wider orbit are gonna fall off, but most of my best friends are still in law enforcement, actually. Yeah, so I have a lot of close friends that are still in police work. The circle grows, but it's a different level of closeness.
Developing an interpersonal relationship now is going to be very difficult to develop a level of closeness that you're going to have being in a patrol car with someone for a couple of years or going out and investigating cases. It's a very intimate place that you are with somebody. You're experiencing trauma together. There's danger together. There's adrenaline dumps and exciting things happening together. There's long periods of monotonous boredom together. So they're amazing relationships that you can build in that environment.
Jason: [00:20:53] Are there experiences that you had where you look at now through the lens of history where you said, I wish that had gone a different way or knowing what I know now, I would've handled it differently?
Thomas: [00:21:03] Oh yeah, absolutely. Lots of things. Ways that I handled things and spoke to people and behaved and decisions that I made. Where the older you get and the more you learn about the world, I think, I don't know if I'm getting better or not hope so, but I like to think so that I would have made a lot of decisions differently. And there's a lot of decisions that I wouldn't have changed.
Amber: [00:21:28] So, I think that the benefit of getting older and learning more, and meeting new people, and research, and all of those kinds of things are helpful. In the time that you served, did you encounter either within the department or witness or anything having to do with what you would characterize now, knowing what you know now, as police brutality?
Thomas: [00:21:55] Sure. Yeah, I think so. I think there are lots of times where I think there were people who, and it's difficult to pin down what is that? Like, what does that mean? What is police brutality? Is it extrajudicial violence, where it wasn't reasonable and necessary for the officer to effect an arrest? I think that that's something that happens I'm sure quite a bit. At the end of foot pursuits and bailouts of cars, and then also blatant abuse that takes place. I think that's something that's going to happen when you give people extraordinary power over other people.
Is that something that is as common as people might think it is? I don't think it's anywhere near as common as. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of contacts that people had with me and my fellow officers were innocuous. But I think there's a small segment of the population that are exposed to policing at a very different way than the regular citizen might be.
Amber: [00:22:58] So, tell us kind of what you mean, particularly by that. Is that a racial divide? Is that a socioeconomic divide? Is it a combination? What do you mean by that?
Thomas: [00:23:08] So, I think there's a racial component. I don't think it's an overt sort of 1950s style racial component. I think it's more of a wider system that we've created where race is a component that determines outcomes for people and the possibilities that drive them into situations where they become criminalized. They become part of the system. They become, they become institutionalized and they become viewed by the police as almost like a class of people.
Like we had a word, people would say, "Chud". Have you guys ever heard that term?
Amber: [00:23:46] I haven't, but you can feel free to explain it.
Thomas: [00:23:50] So, it's like, Like a shitbag. Like a person who's always in and out of jail in and out of prison. They're always breaking in houses. The career criminal. There's this image that exists and I think that in policing, you begin to view this as almost like a group of people that are out there that we're at war against. You know, like, it's this other.
Amber: [00:24:14] Right.
Thomas: [00:24:15] And I think that it's racialized, but I don't think it's like, Oh, this person is black or this person is Hispanic, so they're, you know, part of this group. It's how this person is dressed. The car they're driving. When you run them through the computer, what does it say? Who were they associated with? Do they have tattoos? How do they engage with the police?
And when you encounter people there's a class of people in our society that I think a lot of police officers look at as being not full citizens. They're "chuds". They're part of this criminal class of people. And I think that that's where extrajudicial violence is directed by police in our society.
That's sort of my experience anyway.
Amber: [00:24:58] And so, you used the term, like you start to kind of rationalize in your mind that you're at war against this criminal class. And perhaps that's a mechanism to feel better about what's going on. To justify the system or something like that.
We have this, especially, you know, kind of now with current events and things that are going on, this idea of the police being very militarized. Using military equipment, you know, having that feeling of being at war with the public. What are your thoughts on that?
Thomas: [00:25:31] Well, I think it's totally understandable why people don't want to see militarized police. I know when we were watching, like in Portland and we see these men out in camouflage. Doesn't make any sense why you're wearing camouflage in a city in the first place. And you're seizing people and putting them in unmarked vans.
We need people to have trust in our law enforcement institutions. I mean, that's, if people lose trust in law enforcement, homicide rates go up. People's lives can be damaged by all this diminishing trust. And I think that projecting a military image in today's day and age, it can undermine public trust. But I don't necessarily buy the idea of a militarization taking place.
I think that, in order to militarize something, they would not have to have been militarized in the first place. Because I, I don't look at them as separate institutions. I look at them as they're institutions that are designed to use violence or threaten the use of violence to compel people, to behave a certain way. Whether that's in Fallujah or it's in Los Angeles. You have armed men and women who are using the threat of violence. I'm going to pull you over and put you in handcuffs or in Iraq, I'm going to put you in rip restraints or whatever. It's the same thing.
And it's the same people. It was me, you know, I was in the army. I got out. And then I was a police officer, pretty much every squad that I worked on, there were people who were in the national guard still. So they were going to Afghanistan for a year and working in a military police unit. And then they were coming back to my city and working for a couple of years and then never going back overseas. And that's been going on for decades.
I mean, who shaped the policing following the Vietnam war, were Vietnam veterans. Who shaped it in the 1950s? They were world war II veterans. The things that they learned, the techniques going back all the way to when metropolitan police departments were formed in cities like London. The people in power were worried about creating them because they recognize that they were a military force. Like, that's what they. Are armed men organized in a military structure...
Amber: [00:27:43] Or women
Thomas: [00:27:44] Or yeah, now it's, now it's women. I use gendered language when I talk about policing because I think it's a gendered institution. And when I say that sending armed men out into the street, I'm doing it intentionally. It's...
Amber: [00:27:54] It's very patriarchal.
Jason: [00:27:55] Yeah.
Thomas: [00:27:56] Yeah.
Amber: [00:27:57] I get it.
Jason: [00:27:58] So, Thomas, do you have kids
Thomas: [00:28:00] Yeah. So I have a 21-year-old and a 16-year-old.
Jason: [00:28:04] Now, would you encourage them to go into police force?
Thomas: [00:28:07] No, that wouldn't be, or the military or, yeah, I wouldn't.
Amber: [00:28:12] And why is that a personal toll that it might take on them or a disagreement with the system? Combination?
Thomas: [00:28:22] I guess all of the above. So, the personal toll it would take. The danger that's involved. The changes that they would undergo. And then also, they've just been raised in a way that I don't think they would fit in or assimilate well. Ideologically, they wouldn't fit in. It would just be a terrible, terrible fit for either one of them.
Jason: [00:28:38] Yeah. You talked about putting on the different personalities. Now that you're removed from that, do you still feel that that's the case or in what you're doing now are you able to be the same person at work as well as at home, as well as with your friends?
Thomas: [00:28:55] So, I think there's still some code-switching that you need to do. And some, and I think this is true for everybody.
Amber: [00:29:02] I think it's true for every profession. You do have to compartmentalize a little bit.
Thomas: [00:29:06] Absolutely. And the way that I would have a conversation about policing with people who are still on the profession is going to be different than people who are activists.
Amber: [00:29:17] Right.
Thomas: [00:29:18] It's going to be different. Because what's going to be an effective way to communicate with a group of police officers is probably not being super hypercritical about the institution of policing, but maybe trying to identify some of the more positive things, and then find a way to be constructive.
Amber: [00:29:34] Yeah. So, in my experience with the criminal legal system, which has been on the other side of it. Like my family, having been harmed by the criminal legal system. I was extremely traumatized by the police officers coming to my house at 2:00 AM, conducting a search. And even to this day, when I see a police car, or just driving, I pull over because I don't want to get pulled over by the police. Like if they're following me or just driving down the road. And that's a real trauma that I live with every day.
Are the police aware, in your experience, are you aware of the kind of trauma that is inflicted on people through things like raids and arrests and all of that?
Thomas: [00:30:28] So first, I'm sorry that you have to deal with that.
I think now at this point in my life, I recognize that. And when I think back on serving search warrants, and pulling people over, and arresting people, and all of the different things that you put people through, So I'm like, well, obviously that's going to have the long-term impacts on people.
But at the time it would be nothing for me to come into work, find out some info. You know, we ended up getting probable cause for a search warrant and you know, I have X, Y, Z things going on. So we called the SWAT team and they serve the search warrant the next morning or whatever. And I would go in and be collecting evidence and there's people being taken out and put in handcuffs and lives are being turned upside down.
And these are these crazy experiences that people are going through. But for me, it was Tuesday.
Amber: [00:31:23] Right.
Thomas: [00:31:24] I remember having a girl who was like 12 years old. It was a search warrant for heroin and her mom had been selling heroin with the guy who was living there. And we ended up taking mom, and the little girl had a little brother, and her saying, "Hey guys, I need to ask my mom something." And we're like, no, you can't, can't go talk to the mom. But it was, "I need to ask him about the medicine for my little brother." She's like having this adult conversation. You know, did you get the albuterol or something? And you could tell that this little girl was taking care of this little boy. And she had created this little precarious network to take care of him and help him survive. And then now it was being completely thrown into chaos.
Me and my partner were heartbroken by the experience. You know, most of the time you just go on about your, but I remember this one, and trying to do everything we could to like, make sure that we had a good talk with the social worker that came in. And we're like trying to make sure that this person, this little amazing kid, but she shouldn't have had to have been amazing for us to take notice, but you know, maybe that's what made her stand out. But doing our best to make it as right as it could be. But also knowing. It was a terrible situation for her to be in, in the first place.
Amber: [00:32:41] Right. So it was a terrible situation all the way around. But enough that even though you had this wall as a police officer, it was enough that you recognized and remembered that.
Thomas: [00:32:53] Yeah. And went home that night and probably had a little more to drink than I should have kind of a thing. And you encounter those on a regular basis. But it's not every one of them because if it was every one of them, you'd probably go nuts pretty quick, I would think.
Amber: [00:33:06] Right, right.
Thomas: [00:33:07] Some of the horrible things that you encounter, people do things to each other that... so most people during the course of their jobs, they don't encounter some of the horrible things. And not every police, like a lot of police officers in this country, it's not a busy job. There's not a lot going on. It's not anywhere near as dangerous as people think it is. But there are also lots of times where you're encountering just horrible, horrible stuff.
So, I think it's perfectly natural to like, turn it into work product. Like, to just say, well, that's a case, that's a number, those are... cause how would you...
Amber: [00:33:49] How would you cope otherwise? Like you couldn't cope otherwise.
Thomas: [00:33:54] Yeah, I wouldn't think so. It's messy. It's complicated. And I think about these things differently one day than I do the next. And frame it differently as life goes by and make sense in different ways. There's no clear-cut answers.
And there is culpability sometimes. It's a mix of circumstance and culpability, and some people have more culpability than others. Like, I would argue the police has more culpability because they are in a position of power than the person who, but then they're also subject to power and it's just so complicated.
Amber: [00:34:26] Do you think about in terms of training, in your experience? What did training look like in terms of how to deal with people who were in crisis, people who were experiencing these worst days of their lives? What was that training like for you?
Thomas: [00:34:46] So, there's a lot of variability in the United States. And I would argue that the training that I received was better than most. And the institution that I worked for did a better job of drafting restrictive policies and implementing training to control officer behavior. And had a better, a system of accountability in place than most police agencies, like in terms of oversight and that sort of thing.
But the training, if you think about how much is at stake, It's pretty minimal. So, it was like four months of a Police Academy where a big chunk of it is physical fitness. There's a firearms component. And then there's the classroom stuff and some practical exercises. And then you go do your field training, where you get with a, an experienced police officer who then sort of like gets what you learned during those four or five months and tries to show you how it works on the street.
And then for the first year or so, you're just sort of trying to figure things out, do the best you can. But then after that, you're largely left to your own devices, when it comes to training. You need to seek it yourself. There's no time during the week that's allotted to ongoing training.
And as a person who has researched deadly force encounters. So, I've read thousands of accounts and I've viewed hundreds of hundreds of videos and tried to break them down. And I see consistently, situations where I recognize that the person who ends up killing somebody or shooting somebody, it's a lack of training and it's a lack of discipline. And it's an institutional problem.
The training is almost nonexistent once you leave the Police Academy. And then that Police Academy is a lot of times, they're not training and emphasizing the right things.
Jason: [00:36:38] I just want to point out that you, you know, you mentioned before, you're really close to getting your Ph.D. in this topic. You've spent a lot of time in this area under an academic situation.
Thomas: [00:36:50] So, I'm in my fourth year of a Ph.D. program. So, I've experienced it. I've been in deadly force encounter. And then I've also studied it sort of in a systematic way. And I would argue that there are a significant number, a non-insignificant number of deadly force encounters in the United States, where if we had a more reasonable level of training for our police officers, that would never have happened.
Jason: [00:37:15] You said you were in a deadly force encounter?
Thomas: [00:37:19] Yeah. That's one of the reasons that I sort of ended up leaving policing. I killed someone while I was a police officer. And then I stayed at work for a few years after that. But that experience was sort of something that helped influence my decision to leave. Yeah.
Amber: [00:37:37] And so, a lot of people, when they think about deadly force encounters and police brutality, what it's like to make a decision in a snap moment under duress is something that we hear a lot about. So, could you talk a little bit about that?
Thomas: [00:37:55] Yeah. So, I think that for me, I had maybe like a second or two to make - I don't even think it was that long - to sort of make my decision to shoot somebody. And even looking now sort of back on knowing what I know now, and evaluating things, and thinking them through, which I've done over the year. And when I think back on it, I don't see anything that I could have done differently at an individual level.
I sort of like was called to a location. I heard screaming. I was under the impression that there was domestic violence. So, I thought that there was a woman who we had met the night before, was being beat up. And that's what I thought was happening, so I ran up some stairs to try to help somebody not knowing. And when I got to the top of the stairs, I was confronted by someone with like a large knife, like a carving knife, and they were covered in blood. I pulled my gun and pointed it at them and told them to drop the knife. And there was a victim behind me and some stairs. I had nowhere to go. And the person said, let's go mother#&$%*&er. And they raised the knife and started like charging me with the knife to stab me.
A lot of these shootings when I see them, I'm like, oh, well, they shouldn't have been that. There was this factor. I don't like this decision. And there's lots of those. But there's also a huge portion of them where I watched them or I read about them and I'm like, well, what are you going to do?
Jason: [00:39:27] Yeah.
Amber: [00:39:27] So, do you think that the police in some instances are asked to do too much or asked to get involved in things that could be handled another way?
Thomas: [00:39:39] Absolutely. So, like mental health calls. So, we send our police officers to manage our mental health problems in the United States. We've created all of these problems and we have all these people who are suffering and not receiving treatment. There's a lot of people that just don't have medical care. You know, it's ridiculous. Like, jails and prisons are our biggest mental health care providers in this country.
And so, we send police officers out to handle these, and they're not trained or equipped. We know that a lot of instances that sending armed men might make things worse, but we haven't built any sort of other mechanisms to do that job.
Jason: [00:40:19] So, if you were granted the power to build a better system and you were told here, just go do it. Go build a better system. What would your top priorities be? How would you go about doing that?
Thomas: [00:40:32] Well, it wouldn't be focusing on the police. It wouldn't be as much saying well I want to change the way police do business. There's tons of things that can be done there, but that would be my secondary concern. My primary concern would be what can we do that we prevent people from becoming involved in the criminal justice system at all.
And it's not by saying, well, we're going to start sending counselors to domestic violence calls or to people in mental health crisis when they call 911, and someone says, "Hey, they're about to shoot themselves." It's five years earlier. 10 years earlier. Creating institutions where people can thrive, where people can flourish, where people can develop and grow, and face problems and adversity, and have supporting networks of people that help guide them through those challenges. It should be handled that way.
Amber: [00:41:25] So, you're talking about more of a proactive approach as opposed to a reaction when somebody has already gotten to the point of violence. So, it's like, okay, let's send a social worker. Yes, in that moment, that might be better than an armed person, but how did that person get there? Right?
Thomas: [00:41:42] Right.
Amber: [00:41:42] How did they get to the point where the only thing that they saw was, I have to resort to violence because I don't know anything else?
Thomas: [00:41:51] Right. And when you look at our society, the way that we've structured things, and there's no other way to deal with it. Then we should expect that, well eventually this person is gonna have a crisis, and someone's going to feel threatened, and they're going to call the police.
So, it just seems shortsighted to say, well, it's the police's fault, I don't like the way they handled this mental health call, when we haven't done a damn thing to help this person in the first place.
If I were the dictator for life in America and had all the resources, I would be saying, well, how do we stop people from getting into that crisis moment in the first place?
And it's not by reforming the police and making them better at handling mental health calls. They shouldn't be dealing with those things in the first place. Well ahead of time, we should have created, and there are always going to be people who fall through the cracks, but now it's not people falling through the cracks. There are no cracks. There's just big gaping holes. You don't have a system in place to help people.
Amber: [00:42:47] I just want to give this caveat. I'm not an expert on the idea of what defunding the police means. I have my own idea on all that. And obviously, that's a hot topic and everybody kind of has their version of what does defending the police mean. Do you think that resources that are poured into the police, the prison industrial complex, all of those systems could be diverted for some of those? I don't necessarily love the word defund. I kind of like divert, but what are your thoughts on that?
Thomas: [00:43:22] So, I think that we're always going to need a mechanism, like an institution, where the state has a monopoly on violence and they can you use that violence to intervene, to prevent other people from using violence. If I'm scared and my spouse is beating me or abusing me, or I'm getting robbed on the way home from school, by some other kids, I should be able to call the government and have them send someone who can intervene and have the capacity to use violence on the citizen's behalf. But I would like to see that mechanism be really, really, really, really small and tightly controlled. And only utilized when it's absolutely necessary.
So, I see plenty of other functions like traffic control, the drug war. There's just so much fat that you could trim. But then the people that remain, that are carrying out that really sensitive function on behalf of the state, need to be super well-trained, super well-equipped, super well-funded did, supervise. So you need to have a robust institution. So, the idea that we just wholesale defund the police doesn't appeal to me. But a systematic restructuring of the institution where you trim just tons of fat and then reallocate those resources to other institutions that could more effectively address the social problems.
So, if your social problem is homelessness and people who don't have homes are creating these other problems, you shouldn't be spending the money on police to police the problem, you should be using those resources in a more effective way.
Jason: [00:44:59] Where do you see your life headed? So you're going to get this Ph.D. Is your ultimate goal to be a faculty member somewhere? Are you going to be writing books? Speaking? What's your plan?
Thomas: [00:45:10] before the economy collapsed again, I was hoping for an academic job. In all seriousness, I'm really worried about being able to find work now with all it's happening.
Jason: [00:45:21] Well, you know, you talk about academics, but what I've heard people saying is, it's a horrible time to get a job. Go to school.
Thomas: [00:45:26] Yeah.
Jason: [00:45:27] So.
Amber: [00:45:28] Well, that's a whole other podcast, think.
Thomas: [00:45:31] Yeah.
In a functioning world, the goal is to finish, get a faculty position at a university, and then teach, do research. But then also, I think for the next several decades, there's a lot of reforms that need to take place. And one of those things is in policing. So, I would hope that I can take part in that and use research and experience to help shape the future of policing.
And one of the reasons that I have been trying to like be public about it is because I think that we need credible messengers. So, in the desistance literature, so like people who are trying to desist from crime, they want to change their lives. One of the most effective things is credible messengers.
So, people who've had experience in the criminal justice system and that they're living their lives more in line with the way they want to live the now and seeing that as a, as a role, you know, somebody who can credibly message that. I hope that I can fill that same role in policing where maybe like you guys go into a room and you identify problems in policing, it's heard one way. But by saying, "Hey, I spent nine years, you know, in policing and I can frame it and it can be accepted by police in a way that's less threatening. So I'm hoping that I can sort of help influence.
Jason: [00:46:45] There's a need for that. And you've done the work and the research, so I hope you're really successful.
Amber: [00:46:51] I think you're filling an important gap. Because, as you described before, there is that us and them. And being able to bring people together to have discussions like we're having today to really say, "Hey, we're all in this together." How do we create something that works and creates a safer society where people can thrive?
And so I'm really thankful that you were willing to speak with us today and for the work that you're doing. It's very exciting. And I'm really excited to see how it evolves as well.
Thomas: [00:47:26] Yeah. I wish I could say I was more optimistic. I'm not feeling very optimistic right now, to be honest. I worry that if the split in this country gets to be too much, that it may be, if it becomes like irreconcilable and too many people's minds, that could lead us all to some very dark places.
When I look at how violence works. Violence begets violence. When people lose faith that the government can handle their disputes in a fair way, they take matters into their own hands. And then people who feel like they have violence inflicted on them, now they need to respond, and they also don't trust the government. And it could very quickly spiral out of control. And when I see this happening, I see armed militia, quote-unquote groups in cities, you know, and people killing each other, and, uh, yeah I'm really worried.
Amber: [00:48:20] Do you think that some of that is small factions of people that are kind of the loudest in the room?
Thomas: [00:48:30] Yes. But the problem is, is that the way we communicate has changed and those small voices are able to be amplified. The perfect example for me is, and this is an example of someone whose voice would have been snuffed out in the past that shouldn't have been.
So, if George Floyd had been killed 20 years earlier, it's the year 2000. I don't know what would've happened, but my guess is, is that the people who witnessed it would have complained and there would have been an internal affairs investigation. The officers would have explained it one way. And the citizens that observed it would have explained it another way. And whose accounts would have been given more weight? Well, obviously it would have been the police accounts.
And then the coroner or medical examiner, I'm not sure what they have in Minnesota, would have said, well, we found this X, Y, and Z in his system. And they would have said, well, this is an in-custody death. This person resisted arrest and they didn't get beaten in the face and their head bashed into the curb. They got some pressure, but that was from him resisting and they had to restrain him and he died in custody. This is terrible, but no one did anything wrong. This is just what happened.
But fast forward, 20 years and a 17-year-old girl has a cell phone in her pocket and she pulls it out. And she's able to record it and high definition and send it out over these social networks. And it's shared with millions of people within a few hours. So, you've unleashed something that before was filed away in a filing cabinet. And now it's a reality that we all have to deal with. So, the mom in the suburbs, you know, the white, upper middle-class mom in suburban Minnesota or wherever, she has to see this. Whereas before all it was was just some poor black and brown people saying something was happening and they weren't believed.
Amber: [00:50:23] I love the point that you're making that the way that we communicate is completely different. And I, in many ways think that's a really good thing because it's kind of exposing things that should have been exposed long ago. These types of things absolutely were happening 20 years ago.
Thomas: [00:50:40] Oh yeah.
Amber: [00:50:41] We have so many families who have lost loved ones in this way and you can't keep up with all of the names and the hashtags. And these are real people's lives and real people who've been affected by this, and have been since the beginning of policing, right?
Thomas: [00:50:57] Since before the beginning of policing.
Amber: [00:51:00] Right.
Thomas: [00:51:00] And I would argue that 20 years ago it was worse than it is now.
Amber: [00:51:06] Agreed.
Thomas: [00:51:07] And if you go back further. If you go back to like the seventies, it was million times worse. Go back to the fifties, it was even worse, the way the police treated people. So, like this idea that this is some new phenomenon.
And then there's no way to know for sure because we don't keep proper records of who gets killed by the police in the United States. But I would argue that the police are far more judicious in their use of force now than they were in the past. But those names, the George Floyd who died in 2000, no one's ever going to know his name.
Jason: [00:51:37] Right.
Thomas: [00:51:38] No one's ever gonna hashtag him because he was a nobody and no one gave a shit. Because people didn't have to watch video of it. But now we can't hide. Because even when it's mine, no one said, Oh, you engaged in police brutality, but it was brutal. It was me as a police officer, an agent of the state killing a human being. And no one knew about it. It was one report in the newspaper and then it went away, and that was it. No one cared.
Amber: [00:52:03] It was a Tuesday.
Thomas: [00:52:05] It was a Tuesday, no one cared.
So, now people do care. People are starting to pay attention. And that's definitely a good thing, but it's also a dangerous thing because we, as a society, have not taken the serious steps necessary to solve the problem.
Reforming police is not going to do it. Police shoot and kill about a thousand people or more a year and then it's about 1800 or so closer to 2000 people that died during police encounters. It's a lot more than people know. People getting run over by police, fleeing and crushing during pursuits, you know, these types of things.
If we, if we want to deal with it, we need to figure out how to reduce those. And it's not by just performing police. It's by fundamentally changing the way we handle the social problems, like addressing them at their root cause.
I don't think that we're ready to do that. And the technology has created an environment where we need to confront those things, but I don't see the mechanisms in place or the willpower in the American people to actually take them on.
Jason: [00:53:05] Excellent points and hopefully, you know, with some of the work you're doing and some of the work that advocates are doing, we'll get there.
Amber: [00:53:12] Obviously, this is a very complex issue. If you had the opportunity to say one thing as a former police officer, to somebody who's been impacted by the criminal legal system, and then one thing to a police officer, what would that be to the person impacted and then the person who is serving in law enforcement?
Thomas: [00:53:37] Let me start with the police cause I think I could have something to say that it could be constructive. And that would be, to try to engage your sociological imagination. So like, the idea that you don't just look at people as being culpable or having done something, but to try to think about what were the totality of the circumstances. What were all the things that went into creating the situation that you're encountering? And thinking about how the problem could be solved. Because there are opportunities where maybe using the power that you're given as a police officer is not the best solution, but trying to identify some other resource to address the problem.
That space is limited for police. The policies, the procedures, the mechanisms that they have at their disposal, lead them to use handcuffs as the solution to nine out of 10 problems. And that's all they have to use a lot of the times. But there's that one and 10 where there is an alternative, um, and to try to identify it, be aware of what resources are available, and try to think things through the best you can and deal with the shit show that you're dealing with.
And then in terms of someone who's been adversely affected by the criminal justice, which is most people, I think that enter it. And we recognize that as police officers. Like, I remember working on a case, it was a homicide task-force kind of a thing, where there were several homicides in our city that were related to a prison gang. And they were killing people who were part of the organization that they thought had snitched to the police.
And those people were all harmed by the system. Like, we would talk to somebody and then look at each other and say, Oh yeah, he's totally institutionalized. They've been in for so long that I don't know what to do, how to reach this person on this regular sort of level.
So, even the people who I would like, Oh, wow, that was a bad dude. That guy was killing folks or he kidnapped this person or did this. Even those people, they had like a story. You know, like they had a lot of times been f#$%*ed up by the system. They'd been put in a prison where the only option was to affiliate with, for protection sometimes, was this person or that person, and they got sucked into this system.
So, I don't think I would tell them anything. I think maybe the best thing for me to say would be to say that, I recognize that you have a different perspective and a different experience, and it might be better for me to listen to them. Because I don't think there's anything that would be productive for me to tell them.
I dunno if that makes any sense at all.
Amber: [00:56:08] Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. So, basically what you would like to say to people is," I would like to hear you."
Thomas: [00:56:15] Yeah. I mean, one of the things I would like to do more of, and I think we can all do more of, I know I could definitely do more of, is stop telling people things and maybe listen more to what people have to say.
Amber: [00:56:27] I like that.
Jason: [00:56:29] So, is there anything else that we didn't cover that you want to cover? And, do you have anything that you want people to know about, like a cause or a website you've got or a podcast you're doing or whatever you want people to know about? This is an opportunity to share whatever you'd like.
Thomas: [00:56:46] So, I'll plug organizations: The Pat Tillman Foundation, first of all. They fund my research. Pat Tillman, he's sort of this icon in policing and in the military. When you think of sort of this right-wing culture, but he was a person who questioned things. He came from that culture, but he questioned it. And I'm proud to be a part of that organization because I hope that I'm carrying on that tradition of asking questions about it. So, check them out.
If you're interested in reducing the use of police deadly force in this country, fatalencounters.org. They document all the police-citizen encounters that end in a citizen fatality in the United States. I think they're the most comprehensive data source in the country and they rely on public support. So, check them out. They do amazing work.
Thetrainingreform.org. They are dedicated to ensuring that police officers have the training that they need to do their job effectively. Because like I said, there's going to be police, whether people like it or not. And so, the police that remain after all this is over, I want them to be professionals. I want people to be able to call 911 and feel as though a fair arbiter is gonna arrive at their house and settle their dispute if they need the help. And the only way that we're going to do that is by training officers the way that we want them to behave.
And if anyone wants to hear me ramble more, you can go to thomasowenbaker.com, and I got some writing and I've got some podcast stuff and all that. So, check me out there.
And thank you guys very much for having me on.
Jason: [00:58:20] Awesome. Yeah, thank you. It was great. And I think that people will listen and come away with a little bit different, uh, perspective than they had before they heard you speak. And I'm glad that you're in the field that you're in and I think you're going to make a real difference.
Thomas: [00:58:33] Thank you, guys. And I really appreciate what you're doing. This is a great idea, so thank you.
Jason: [00:58:39] Until next time, Amber.
Amber: [00:58:41] We'll see you next time.
Outro: [00:58:51] You've been listening to amplified voices. A podcast, lifting the experiences of people and families impacted by the criminal legal system.
For more information, episodes, and podcast notes, visit amplifiedvoices.show.