A warning: This episode contains a graphic description of gun violence.
TOM BAKER: Every police-related death - I mean, it's like the person dies, their family is devastated. It screws with the police officer that ended up doing it. It changes the culture of that squad, that whole community. And then now, as we've seen with these videos, it can impact, you know, the stability of the country.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
In the past few years, Tom Baker has spent hundreds of hours reading about police shootings…and watching videos of them.
TB: If anything trends on the internet in terms of officer-involved shootings, I've, I've, uh, I've seen it. So I've, yeah, I've spent a lot of time watching these videos.
Tom is a PhD student at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He's studying criminology and criminal justice, and he's focusing on police use of force. He recently combed through every police-related death in the United States in 2017… more than 1800 incidents… some of which were on camera.
TB: And the goal is to identify patterns and maybe things that police are doing that could be changed in some fundamental way, or maybe just tweaked in a, in a slight way so that you reduce the number of officer-involved shootings and police-related deaths.
This research is personal for Tom. Because in 2009, while he was a police officer in Phoenix, Arizona, Tom shot and killed someone.
TB: I've already spent so much time thinking about it. And a lot of times it's not a choice to think about it. You just, it's something that is always going to be something that you're going to think about, you know? Like, so when I, when I watch these, I'm like, uh, I find it, um, like I'm doing something productive.
ANNA SALE: Is it hard for you to watch them?
TB: Um, no. So, I - 'cause when I see them, I - when I watch them, I find myself just very focused on finding, identifying things that went wrong or identifying things that could be changed, or identifying, trying to identify patterns [chokes up]. Hang on for one sec.
TB: So I guess maybe I, I do.
AS: Did you mute yourself? What, did you have a sort of moment of emotion that came up when you were talking?
TB: Um, yeah. I just had a, it just made me emotional to think about like myself doing that. Like, it seems like a weird thing to do to like, watch these incidents and read about these incidents over and over again. It doesn't make - that probably should really hurt me, I think maybe, but it doesn't. And I find it helpful.
Tom’s path to becoming a police officer started when he entered the Army at 18 years old, right out of high school. He’s white, and he’d grown up moving around a lot, up and down the East Coast, from Florida to Maine to Nova Scotia. His dad had been in the Army. His grandfather too.
TB: It was just sort of part of my culture. And it just seemed like a good fit. I thought I'd be good at it. I thought it’d be an adventure. And I had absolutely no clue what else to do.
Tom enlisted in 1996. He ended up being stationed in Washington State and got married and started a family. And then, three years later, he decided to leave the Army and go to school. He studied political science, and dreamed of entering the State Department and becoming a diplomat.
TB: I did the written exams and did really well on those and made it all the way to like, an interview in DC and didn't get selected. But the guy, one of the guys who was there, like said, "Hey, you did a, you know, you did really well and you're really close. You just need a little bit more, um, experience." Then we had a little conversation and I thought he had mentioned something about like crisis management. And I don't even remember what it was exactly that he'd said, but as I thought - in my mind, I thought, well, I'll go take a job. And I thought, I'll be, I'll go be a cop for a couple of years. And I had been in the military, so I kind of, I kind of thought I had an idea of what the culture would be like and felt as though that I would be able to do well in that type of an environment. And then you know, growing up in like a working class family, like the men in my family, the coaches, the community, the idea of being like a police officer was like a good, solid, respectable type of position. And I also thought that it would be an interesting background to bring into my reapplication to the State Department.
AS: How did you end up in Phoenix?
TB: So I did some, I just went on the internet and I looked at agencies that were hiring. Um, so I had a basic idea of what I was looking for. I wanted a large metropolitan area with lots of different details and things that I would be exposed to, um, that the cost of living wasn't totally unreasonable. Um, and that was like, uh, you know, that was paying pretty well and offered decent benefits. In my mind, at the time it was an astronomical amount of money and it was like $50,000, or it was like, you know, 48 to $50,000. That's comfortable. You can go on a vacation with 50 thousand dollars a year.
AS: Yeah. And when you're starting out having finished the police academy, did you feel when you were going to work every day, did it feel the same being a police officer, as you thought it would?
TB: Yes. I think, I think that's the, I wasn't, there was nothing about it that surprised me in any way? Um, initially. I mean, and I, and I felt, and I felt I really took to it. I really enjoyed it.
AS: Tell me about that. What does that - like what kind of police officer were you?
TB: Um, so I was very, I was very active. Chasing calls is what we used to call it. And then when you weren't responding to a call, then you were trying to be proactive or, you know, some people were lazy and just sat in a parking lot somewhere. But, um, a lot of us were like proactive police.
AS: How did you understand that at the time, being proactive?
TB: Um, so the way I understood it was if you had, if you had free time, so if you weren't answering calls, um, then you'd go find criminals. That was sort of the, the way I saw it. So, um, you know, if I knew that there was, uh, you know, Johnny had probable cause for the burglary that we did the investigation on last week, then I would be out trying to find, trying to find him, you know. Or just being, doing observational work. So driving around the community and looking for suspicious vehicles. And that's different for, you know, every officer's going to interpret that in a different way. So you would drive down the street. And you see a vehicle, um, and it cuts into the neighborhood when it sees your patrol car. And it just didn't look right. So you sort of go and see, you know, hey, what kind of, you know what, let me go run the plate on that, on that car. And you run it and it comes back to a house in that neighborhood and you're like, "Oh, he's going home." Or you run the plate and it comes back to a completely different neighborhood. And then you see it circle back out and get back out onto the main thoroughfare and confirms your suspicion, "Oh yeah. This guy was just hoping to avoid - avoid me." And then following them, establishing probable cause for a stop. And then working, working my way through the vehicle, like digging for guns and drugs and, um, other types of other types of things.
AS: How much do you think the race of the person affected those choices you made?
TB: Um, so it's difficult for me to say because my, the community I worked in was so predominantly one ethnicity. So, so it was, uh, it was a, um, Mexican American community and migrant community. And, so there just wasn't there wasn't a heck of a lot of diversity in the beat that I, that I worked, so.
AS: But also quite a different community than the ones you had lived in growing up.
TB: Absolutely. Absolutely. We're people who the local government has brought in - a lot of local people, and they made a real concerted effort to hire a diverse set of candidates, which is difficult to do in policing - but there was also like a lot of guys being shipped out West from the Northeast, from the South, uh, white, a lot of white guys coming into Arizona, um, and being paid to police those communities that didn't look anything like them or that, you know, like migrant communities. And, um, you know, I tried to learn Spanish as quick as I could, but, uh, I certainly wasn't the most culturally appropriate person for that job.
AS: Did you feel powerful when you were out on patrol?
TB: Um, I think that I was always, definitely, uh, uh, aware that there was, there was a power dynamic at play. But I was also aware that power was being exerted on me. And then I was exerting power on others. Like, I felt like a conduit of state power.
AS: Ah. "A conduit of state power."
TB: So like something that - so like, uh, the state has this power, this monopoly on the use of violence and they use it to compel people to engage in a certain type of behavior. And I felt as though that as a police officer, I was the mechanism through which that power was expressed.
When Tom wasn’t on-duty, he occasionally picked up off-duty security shifts, something he says was common in the department where he worked. One night, toward the end of one of those shifts at a large apartment complex, a domestic violence call came in. Tom recognized the apartment number. The night before, he’d responded to a call there involving a white man in his 30s, who’d gotten in a fist fight over a parking spot.
But this night, when Tom and his partner arrived on the scene, they heard that the man had a knife, from a neighbor who was standing outside the apartment door.
TB: And he was like crying and like saying help in Spanish. And he was pointing into the apartment. Um, and I could hear screaming coming from inside of the apartment, like through this open door. So I started running up the stairs and I noticed there was blood everywhere on the landing and some on the stairs. So as I was, like the last couple of steps, I started to draw my firearm and had my flashlight. And as I hit the landing and turned to face the door, there was the man from the night before. And he was like, no shirt on. And he was like, had a bunch of blood all over him. And he had a big knife in his hand. And so I was in a, kind of a tough spot. He's only a few feet away from me and I know there's children in the apartment. So [clears throat], what my, what I always try to argue in my research is that when there's an edged weapon, that officers should be trying to maintain distance from the suspect, because distance equals time, more time to react, you know, but I didn't really have any distance or time. Um, I told him to drop the knife. And he said, "Let's go motherfucker." And raised the knife and started like a sprint towards me with the knife. And so I fired two rounds and I hit him twice in the chest and, um, he fell to the ground and I could tell by the way he was, you know, breathing or these last, like these last few sort of heavy sighs. And then he, uh, stopped moving pretty quickly.
AS: How much time, when you think of what it felt like being there in that moment, how much time elapsed where you were actually engaging with this guy with the knife?
TB: Um, it was - well, so the weird thing is, is I had like a time distortion. I know at a rational level that it was, it was like a split second. Like, it was almost immediate, like, I mean, a second or two at the most kind of a thing. Um, he was only, I think, I don't remember the exact - like he was like 17 feet away from me is what they measured. And when you're sprinting that - you can cover that in just a couple of seconds. Like it's a second, you know, it's, it's nothing, but in my mind it was like a really long thing. So it's, uh, um, so like, I, it was like watching myself do it.
TB: Like I, everything was very calm and slow and I could see my, I could see my - so in my brain, I was thinking, okay, you don't have, you know, you don't have any options here and you need to, you need to shoot this guy or else he's going to stab you with that knife. And I, while I was thinking that, I could see my body start to discharge the first round, like, and, and I remember thinking, okay, good. I'm - [chokes up]. Can I have one second? [Mutes mic]
TB: [Clears throat] Um, so I, I remember being like, feeling a sense of relief that I had developed a skillset and re-enforced it enough that I reacted in the way that I wanted my body to, in that moment.
AS: Yeah. And you're describing a certain, um, distance. Like that you at the time were thinking, oh good. My body is doing what I'm - my brain is hoping my body would do in this situation. Like it's, you're describing a disconnect.
TB: Yeah. Kind of like being, just sort of watching yourself, while I'm still in my own body, I'm watching my body do something. And I'm also - it was also thought about, it was like a weird thing, because I remember thinking while I was shooting, I remember thinking, I'm going to miss my Spanish, my Spanish exam.
TB: I have a Spanish exam tonight and I'm going to miss my Spanish exam. And then thinking, why am I, why did that come into my head? But it's all - so - it felt like it had so much time to think about that while this thing was happening. Um, it was really, really, really bizarre.
We reached out to the family of the man who Tom shot and killed… they did not want to comment. We also talked to the other police officer who was there with Tom on the call that night, and he described the same events; he also said he believes the man who died that night was suicidal. The shooting was investigated by the Phoenix police department and the Maricopa County attorney’s office, and Tom did not face any charges.
AS: Given so much mistrust of law enforcement, you know, you, your partner saw what happened. You say what happened. Why should we believe you?
TB: I guess you're going to have to take my word for it. I mean, there's - that is the evidence. I mean, it's my statement, my partner's statement and this witness's statement. And I think the victims that were there testified to his behavior. Um, and then I guess you look at the, uh, the physical evidence, like his position on the ground with the knife. But I guess if you're - there, I think right now we've reached a point in American society where there's a certain segment of the population that are just going to think, "Oh, well, they planted the knife and they kill, you know, they killed this guy for no reason." Um, that's one of the reasons that I'm a big proponent of like ubiquitous body camera footage. Um, like in 2020, every officer in the country needs to be wearing a body camera. And it needs to be made available publicly as soon as feasibly possible, just because people, people don't trust that the police are going to just be telling you the truth all the time.
Coming up…what happened in the days after the shooting. And how Tom now feels caught between two worlds, when it comes to police violence.
TB: I have one foot in the policing world and I have one foot in this academic world. And then those two groups are completely split on this issue. So they, when they see these things happen, it's like they're watching completely different things take place. And I feel like I'm sort of like straddling the fault line in our country right now. Like the country is being torn apart and I don't know if I'm going to just fall into the chasm.
Since January 1st of this year, police in the U.S. have killed nearly 900 people, according to one database. There is no federal tracking system for police killings. Instead, these deaths are tracked by researchers and journalists, across several organizations.
Black people make up 28% of those killed by police this year in one database—despite being only 13% of the population. A study released last year found that between 2013 and 2018, Black people and American Indian and Alaska Native people were significantly more likely than white people to be killed by police. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.
All of these databases show that, over the past seven years, the total yearly number of police killings in the U.S. has remained steady. Since 2013, the number of killings happening in cities has gone down. After places like Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Denver implemented more restrictive use of force policies, they saw decreases in numbers. But at the same time, police killings in suburban and rural areas have risen, evening out the total numbers. And since 2013, in 98% of cases, police faced no charges after killing someone. You can find links to all this information on our website at deathsexmoney.org.
And while there has been a growing call from both citizens and officers for all police to wear body cameras, a recent study from George Mason University found that the use of cameras has not had much of an effect on police use of force, or the way people view police.
On the next episode, I talk with choreographer and dancer Miguel Gutierrez, about what happened when the pandemic hit and cancellation emails started rolling in—without any mention of payment.
MIGUEL GUTIERREZ: I, like sent the professional email, like, you know, "I understand, you know, but I really am disappointed that you have not acknowledged whatsoever your financial commitment to this gig," you know? But, um, Instagram, I kind of went off, you know, uh, like what the heck’s going on here? Like you have the money in your budget, right? So pay me.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
It was more than 10 years ago now that Tom Baker shot and killed someone while he was on an off-duty patrol in Phoenix. In the first few days after it happened, Tom says he remembers feeling relieved about the way things had gone.
TB: I felt fine. You know, and it's difficult to explain to somebody, but like when you're, from my perspective where I was, where I was standing and the way the person was moving. And the knife in their hand. And the words they're saying, I was terror. I was terrified that I was going to get stabbed with a big kitchen knife. And so I was thankful that I didn't get stabbed with a kitchen big knife. 'Cause I didn't want to get, you know, mutilated or killed. So even today, like I still feel as though given the totality of the circumstances and the information that was available to me in that instant, that I wouldn't make a different decision today. Like I felt as though the decision to, to shoot was the correct decision. So in the days after that was, uh, that was the overwhelming feeling. And, you know, I was like, I didn't, I didn't have any, I didn't have any concerns that I had done anything wrong. And in my mind, this was this person's fault. You know, they're the ones who, they were the one who had attacked me with a knife. It wasn't my fault.
AS: When did that change?
TB: Um, that's a difficult, there's no sort of moment, I don't think. So initially, you know, like I knew that - because you're raised and you live in a culture where taking a life is the worst thing you can do. And then you do it, and you - your institution - so like the police department supported me. My family supported me. The community supported me. Everyone told me that I made the right decision. Um, so you're being supported for something that's supposed to be this terrible act and you don't feel guilty for doing it because you feel as though, well, shit, I was trying to go there, and legitimately, like the reason I was going to that apartment was because I thought someone was being hurt and I was trying to do what I thought was the right thing and this thing happens. But then when I don't, when I didn't feel guilty about it and I didn't feel bad about it, I think the initial thing was feeling, feeling wrong for feeling that way. So feeling guilty for not feeling guilty? And feeling guilty for not, for not being bothered by it and then feeling guilty for being rewarded for it?
AS: Rewarded. How did you feel rewarded?
TB: Um, well, just, these are critical incidents in policing. So everyone hears about what happens. So like I felt as though my peers, they, it, this is really probably like disturbing word to use to describe it. But it, like it earns prestige within the organization. People think, oh, that person knows how to handle their, their, their business. So it's a really difficult sort of thing to get your head around, being rewarded for something that's so gross.
AS: It's like beyond the question of, do I have a regret? Should I have done something differently, but how do I face and confront the consequences of that night? Even if I would do the same thing again?
TB: Yeah, it's it's how do you, how do you make, how do you make something that doesn't make sense and get it and fit it into your life and your story and your - like your life course, um, and make it make sense? And so, it's really kind of a, it's a, it's a very strange thing to try to incorporate into your identity.
Soon after the shooting, Tom says he was given a new assignment that he’d applied for. He says the lieutenant in charge of staffing told him he was impressed at how Tom had performed.
But privately, Tom was struggling.
TB: A couple of times, like professionally, I went and talked to somebody, but I didn't really, I didn't get much. I felt like it was just somebody that was, so - there were people that were so far removed from that type of an experience that it just didn't feel authentic for me. And, um, one of the things that happens and happened to me, and I think happens to a lot of police officers, you become very insulated. So all of your friends are cops, all, you know, when you barbecue, it's cops and their families, you know, when you, like you even live in communities where there's a lot of cops. Like, you're just spending all your time around cops. And it wasn't something that, in that sort of hyper-masculine culture that speaking openly about your feelings was, was you could say frowned upon? [Laughs] Um, but I certainly didn't feel comfortable talking with them about it.
AS: When did you start thinking about leaving law enforcement?
TB: Um, so we had the financial crisis. And following the financial crisis, we had the Occupy protests. And I worked on a crowd, like a crowd control squad for a little while, working those protests and like when I first started, I felt like when I, when I was going to work or when I was out, I felt like I was helping to provide security so that regular, working people could go out and do their thing and improve their lives, and raise their families. Like I really bought into that idea.
TB: And then living through the financial crisis, it sort of shattered that for me. Like, I didn't - I lost a lot of faith in you know, in how just the underlying system was. And I started to more like a person that was like a mercenary, you know, who had just been hired by people in power to keep a lid on our problems while they made money. And - but I also had pressures. I had two kids and we had a house, um, and my wife was, uh, had quit her job and gone to get a PhD. So it was, I felt like, um, a lot of pressure to maintain my employment.
AS: Yeah. When you weren't working during those years, um, did you drink a lot?
TB: So not, I didn't really drink at all um, when I first started. But when I really started to have, when I reached that period where I was, um, didn't want to do it anymore, I would go to work. And then when I would, I would come home in the evenings, I would drink. And I would, you know, most, most evenings just drink till I fell asleep, for a while. Yeah. For a couple of years. Until I quit, pretty much.
AS: How much of you deciding to leave law enforcement has to do with you killing someone while on the job, do you think?
TB: It's central, but it's, it's complicated. So I don't think that I would have interpreted the financial crisis and its implications in the same way if I hadn't also been dealing with the fact that I had taken a life for the state, you know what I mean? Like it really made me feel as though - it made it very difficult because I knew like up close and personal, what that violence looks like and what the reality of it. So like experiencing that level, experiencing that violence and then evaluating what's happening in the world with that as part of who you are? Um, made it, made it very difficult.
Tom left the Phoenix police department in 2014. He finished his bachelor’s degree, and made the decision to continue on to get his PhD—to study how to reduce the number of people killed by police.
TB: The way to prevent my killing was not by necessarily - 'cause I've thought about it, you know, what could we have done differently? You know, what could I have done differently? Should I have run up the stairs? You know, and you go through all the different scenarios. And then when I, when I watch these other incidents or read about these other incidents, I do the same thing. And what I keep returning to is that the problem needed to have been solved years ahead of time, you know, and it's by investing in institutions and structures that provide people stability in their lives. Um, the people that encounter the police and end up dead are usually in some type of crisis, you know, they're having a mental health crisis. They're, you know, they're, they're, they're having an emotional crisis related to their lot in life. They have - they're victims themselves of past abuse and there's intergenerational trauma. And it becomes very easy to say, well, we just need to reform the police. And that's not to say there, now there are tons of - I'm also saying there's tons of opportunities for police to reform their policies, to save lives. Like really simple things, like more restrictive pursuit policies, like when you can, and can't chase cars. You know, changing the way that we respond, police respond to mental health calls. Um, there are people who, who can improve services and probably save lives as a result. But if we really, really want to reduce the level of police violence, then we need to reduce the level of violence within our society as a whole, and to do that, um, policing is not the solution.
AS: What was it like for you to watch George Floyd’s death?
TB: Um, it was gross, really gross. Um, when I watched it, it was, it was, it made me sick. Because it was so far outside of what I considered reasonable behavior and was such a blatant - um, it was just, it was disgust, is basically the word I would use to describe my reaction. And then an immediate recognition as I was watching it, of the implications that it was going to have for our society. I didn't know how big those were going to be. But I knew that I was watching this pretty early on and I just, I was expecting there to be a big backlash. The length of it, you know, how long it was, the citizens, like clearly articulating what every viewer was seeing, you know, like, "You're killing him, stop that you don't need to do that." And so it was, it was, it was brutal.
AS: My sense is that most cops, most police who kill someone while they're working, don't talk about it, um, publicly or outside of - outside of law enforcement. Um, does it feel scary to be someone who does?
TB: Yeah, very. Like when I first decided to, uh, like be public about it, um, I was really worried about like the nastiness that I was going to have to encounter. And I thought people would like, say horrible things and that I might piss off some police friends. But I've been really surprised that that hasn't been the case. Like I've had a few people say nasty things, but it's been very, very rare. And I've had police officers who are still working, who said, hey, I feel a lot of the things that you talked about feeling, and I don't feel comfortable talking about them. So it really helps me hear somebody talk about it. That is like, makes like - that really makes me feel good.
AS: Mmhm. Yeah. Can I ask you one more thing, Tom? And this is just something I noticed and I just wonder if you could kind of walk me through it. Um, you know, I interview people about a lot of different kinds of hard things. Um, it was interesting to me that when, when you hit upon like, uh, a moment where you, you felt tears well up, that you would mute yourself?
AS: Um, can you just tell me about that?
TB: Um, [laughs] well I think that's my, my cultural operating system. So this like growing up in a - in our society and then being deeply embedded in highly masculine organizations for most of my adult life, expressions of vulnerability are interpreted as signs of weakness, I think. I think that's changing. Like I think that's changing and younger people are more accepting of it, but generally, generally speaking, just the idea of like, you know, crying in front of other people. Like it would be, uh, there's a sense of humiliation that comes with that. Even though at an intellectual level, I recognize that that's, that's not healthy. But it's easier to say something and recognize something at an intellectual level than it is to not feel that sense of shame at like a primal level. Like my, my son recently, like my, my grandmother passed away and she was like, my mom pretty much - like, like really difficult. And I was like, trying to stop crying, and he was there and he was like, it's okay if you cry, don't don't worry. And that was like, I wished that I had that - like the maturity, the emotional maturity that he does. Um, so that like, but I think it's an intergenerational project. It's not something that we can necessarily do. We can try, but that's my own weakness. Not being able to express vulnerability.
That’s Tom Baker. In 2018, he was named a Tillman Scholar, his PhD is now funded by the program, which is named for veteran and NFL player Pat Tillman.
You can find a link to an article that Tom wrote for The Guardian about his experience at deathsexmoney.org.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Katie Bishop. The rest of our team includes Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And make sure you sign up for our newsletter, at deathsexmoney.org/newsletter.
AS: That's really nice that your son was like, dad, it's not a big deal. [Laughs]
TB: Yeah. He makes from my, from my masculine performance all the time, the other day we were, we were doing wind sprints and he almost beat me on one of the sprints and it was devastating. I can't, I can't lose. Meanwhile, he's looking at me like, teasing me for being such so fragile.
AS: [Laughs] That's funny.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.