A cop’s story

An unusual career path, a $100,000 pay cut, and a cop who calls people "neighbors." Also, 7 other things worth your time.

This is the story of a rookie beat patrol officer in a medium-sized city. He came to the job late—49 years old now, and he’s only been on the force a few years.

Here’s his career path: joined the Coast Guard out of high school, then worked as a waiter and a flight attendant while attending college at night. From there, he worked for the U.S. Capitol Police in Washington for a couple years, then the federal air marshal program after 9/11.

Then, a few years with the CIA, then work with a global intelligence and security company, and finally his current job with the police in Savannah, Georgia.

Wait, back up. The CIA. Good, you caught that. The officer’s name is Patrick Skinner. I originally heard of him because somebody retweeted him on Twitter, and I started following.

(This despite the fact that his Twitter bio reads in part: “a truly terrible twitter follow.”)

His story, as I missed at the time but later read, was shared in an article by Ben Taub in The New Yorker, which spurred some more interviews and other coverage.

Largely, he focuses on two things:

  • First, how and why Skinner wound up taking a $100,000-a-year pay cut in his 40s to work as a rookie cop — in a department where the police cars have 200,000 miles on them, and he has to shell out his own money for armor plating in his bullet resistent vest.

  • Second, the similiarities between being a CIA case officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, and being a beat patrol officer in the U.S.

It’s probably easier to tell the how-he-became-a-cop story first. The short version is that when he came home from the Middle East and left the CIA in 2010, Skinner and his wife moved to Savannah, near where he’d grown up.

Over the next few years, in what he called his “last act of recruitment,” he persuaded his parents and his sister to return to the area, too.

Then, one of his best friends in the CIA was killed by ISIS in Afghanistan. He was working as a consultant and speaker by then, effectively disconnected from both his former spy work and his city.

Skinner, Taub wrote, “felt like a fraud.”

He preached that insurgencies arose out of the failure of local policing, yet he didn’t know a thing about the gangs operating a few blocks away.

“We have people that are disappearing into the cracks of society,” he said. And they can be helped only on an individual basis. “Then you have to scale that support to a neighborhood. And then to a city.”

So, he joined the police. As for how being a cop is like being a CIA case officer, he talks both in the New Yorker article and elsewhere about playing a long game, recognizing limitations—and realizing that for most people, one bad encounter with the police can overshadow many good ones.

For example, he said in another interview, a cop is usually more likely to say the wrong thing to someone and do harm to the cause, than to do good by saying the right thing.

“If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. … Always be respectful … Listen. Don’t be rude. Don’t be arrogant. And so I do that now as a beat cop in Savannah, with every single call. And it’s paying off, so far anyway.”

Also, Skinner says lots of overseas efforts are doomed simply because people rotate in and out—six months, a year—coming in with overwhelming force, remaining separate, and never really understanding or becoming a part of the places they’re working.

“I think the militarization of police is insane,” he said. “[T]he heart and soul of a police department needs to be community-based policing ... As a member of the community in Savannah and as a police officer here, I use the term ‘neighbor,’ and I use it all the time. But I use it because it’s actually true. I live four minutes from my precinct police station.”

Given the protests about racism and police brutality right now—and the focus on the police is what made me think of Skinner’s story again—it might be conspicuous by its absence if I don’t mention race. Skinner is a white police officer working in a community that is 55 percent black.

But, while I can’t find anything on the makeup of the police department statistically, the leadership is largely diverse: the department’s chief is black, as is one of the two deputy chiefs, one of the two majors, and two of the eight captains.

I really wanted to ask Skinner directly about all of this—but unfortunately for me, he’s been at work. However, he’s been outspoken on Twitter since the death of George Floyd, and he also talked earlier this week with Ezra Klein of Vox.

What did he think of the video of Floyd’s death? he was asked.

“A murder,” he told Vox. “No semantics. No justification. They just killed that guy.”

Let’s go back to Taub’s profile to close this, because he includes a detail that I really liked. It’s that Skinner said he compares his own situation to Voltaire’s Candide, who, “after enduring a litany of absurd horrors in a society plagued by fanaticism and incompetence, concludes that the only truly worthwhile activity is tending his garden.”

(In my limited experience, cops who cite Voltaire are somewhat rare.)

Skinner added: “Except my garden is the 3rd Precinct.”

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7 other things worth your time

  • This is so despicable and heartbreaking. A retired St. Louis police captain, David Dorn, 77, was shot to death by looters while he was guarding a pawn shop early Tuesday, with his killing broadcast on Facebook Live. (St. Louis Today)

  • A white bar owner who fatally shot a black protestor in Omaha won’t face charges, officials announced. (Washington Post, via SFGate)

  • New York City was tense again, with an earlier citywide curfew extended and rides from Uber and Lyft banned after the previous night saw looting and violence. (NY Times)

  • In DC, as of early evening Tuesday, people were defying a curfew in big numbers, but there wasn’t anywhere near the same tension with police and military as the night before, according to reports. (AP)

  • Another DC story from the previous night: About 100 protestors waited out police until after a 6 a.m. curfew, by seeking shelter in a private citizen’s home. At one point, with officers surrounding the house, they still managed to have pizzas delivered. (Axios)

  • Nationwide: Gun sales are up 80 percent, according to a report—this covers May, and it would seem that it was largely about Covid-19, predating the unrest over George Floyd’s killing. (Washington Times)

  • We’ve seen a lot of images lately that seem like they could be out of a movie, but this was one heck of a photo from ABC’s Martha Raddatz at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday.

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