Air Disasters and Police Brutality

Late one cold rainy evening last week, I was walking my dog in the park behind my house. Given the hour and the weather, it was very quiet out, and so when a couple people ahead of me were having a private conversation, I heard it crystal clear. “If they investigated crime the same way they investigate airplane crashes-” I heard one say.

At this point our paths were just about to cross, and before I knew what I was saying, I found myself exclaiming at this people in the darkness, clearly startling them and totally weirding them out. “EXCUSE ME!” I fumbled. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard what you said about investigating airplane crashes, and, well… have you heard of a show called Air Disasters?”

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that these people didn’t seem too comfortable with me at first, but as I managed to stammer our my reason for stopping them, they loosened up, and we departed as newly-acquainted neighbors after about 10 minutes of bonding in the park. All because of a totally random National Geographic documentary series about airplane crashes.

Why? Why did I accost this stranger? Because he was saying exactly what I was saying for years, using the same example I’ve been giving for years. He was drawing a very important connection between criminal and crash investigations. Let me explain…

I love cop shows. I love Law & Order. I love True Crime (just season 1, of course). I love Endeavor. But you know what my favorite cop show is? Air Disasters. You’ve probably never heard of Air Disasters. But if you have, you’re probably thinking “Uh… that’s not a cop show. It’s a documentary about airplane crashes.” True, but imprecise. It’s an entire show that follows the aviation investigators tasks with figuring out what went wrong after plane crashes. The reason this is my favorite cop show, is because they don’t stop investigating the mystery when they find out WHAT happened. No. They always continue investigating until they know WHY the bad thing happened, and then they make recommendations on how to PREVENT the bad thing from happening again to other people. They don’t just look for a person to blame. If a person IS to blame, they keep digging.

Our justice system, and every other cop show based on it, doesn’t operate this way. We investigate until we find out WHO did the crime, and then we charge them and call it a day. But wouldn’t it be great if we could go beyond that? If we could prevent future crimes by pinpointing the exact reasons crime is committed, and fixing them at the source? That’s exactly what my startled neighbor in the park was saying to his companion, as he’d been recently learning about the level of detail that goes into aviation investigations and how the findings are implemented industry-wide to save lives. That’s also, of course, what criminology basically is. I remember when I was a student and told people I was a Criminology & CJ major, half would joke “Oh, don’t lock me up!” But… why would I? My major was the opposite. It wasn’t about how to lock up bad guys. It was about figuring out potential causes of crime, and hopefully applying that info for potential preventative measures. So when I watch an episode of Air Disasters, I get all pumped.

This recent encounter put Air Disasters at the forefront of my mind as I watched various videos soon thereafter. First, I watched as much of the Chauvin trial as I could manage. Around the same time, video came out of police violently arresting an army officer here in my home state of Virginia. These incidents reminded me of one of the investigations on Air Disasters.

In this episode, a plane crashed because, believe it or not, it ran out of fuel. Was there a leak or something? A broken gauge? An error while filling up the tank? No, nothing like that. Instead, it was human error. There was some reason why they couldn’t land as early as expected (can’t remember- weather? backup at the airport? I dunno.) For some inexplicable reason, the captain just kept circling, even though fuels levels were low. There were many options available (alerting the tower to skip the que, diverting to a different airport, etc). But the captain didn’t consider any of them. He just kept circling uselessly in the sky for a while, seemingly oblivious to the peril in which he’d placed his passengers. His co-pilot, on the other hand, realized they were low on fuel. He followed protocol and informed the captain. The captain dismissed him and said naw, they’d be fine. It was clear the copilot understood the gravity of the situation, but for some reason, he remained silent. And the airplane crashed.

Investigators were left wondering: how on earth is it possible for a pilot to know his plane is about to crash, but do nothing about it? Regardless of whatever faulty reasoning was going on inside the captain’s mind- how could his second in command just let him go on to hurt and kill people, including themselves? How is that even possible?

The key, the investigators realized, was in the last paragraph. “Second in command.” This flight was decades ago, when most commercial pilots had first been military pilots. In the military, they’d been ingrained with a deep respect for rank. Questioning your commanding officer’s decisions was strictly forbidden. Even in matters of life and death. Especially in matters of life and death, as military procedures matter the most on the battlefield. This strict hierarchy spilled over into the early days of commercial aviation. Once the captain dismissed his crew’s concerns, that was the end of things. That’s how military and military-based organizations work. Do not question authority. After this crash investigation, the aviation world adopted a new standard; regardless of rank, it was the right and the duty of any crew member to raise the alarm on potential dangerous issues. Who knows how many lives have been saved by this common-sense solution.

In videos of the police attacks on both George Floyd and Caron Nazario, I was reminded of this Air Disasters episode. Because in both cases, there is one clearly out-of-line senior officer being overly aggressive, and at least one newer officer attempting to follow protocol and do the right thing, only to be dismissed by someone who outranks them. During the murder of George Floyd, Chauvin, with almost two decades of experience, dismissed his fellow officers when they expressed concern or suggested following protocol. Two of those officers were in their first week on the job. Their first week! Once Floyd was cuffed and subdued on the group, one of these rookie officers repeatedly suggesting turning Floyd on his side. He expressed concern about potential medical issues. Chauvin dismissed him. The rookie later said they need to check for a pulse, which the other rookie did (finding none). There were a dozen people onsite, watching Chauvin murder Floyd, all aware of exactly what was going on. Several tried various degrees of intervention and help, but were stuck feeling helpless. Those other officers should have intervened. They should have stopped Chauvin. Watching the video, I got the sense that they knew what they should be doing, but something stopped them.

A similar, but thankfully less deadly, example unfolded in the Virginia video. A rookie cop tried to pull over a driver did not appear to have visible plates displayed. The driver, an army officer Nazario, dropped his speed and continued driving to the next well-lit area, a gas station about 1 mile down the road. I’ve looked at the Google street view of the stretch of road. It’s a country road with no lights, but a couple small unlit parking lots into which the driver could have pulled. The rookie officer interpreted this drive to safety as fleeing the cops, and called for backup. Assuming this person was fleeing the police, the rookie pulled his weapon and yelled commands for Nazario to exit the vehicle. Nazario, scared for his life, stayed in his vehicle with his hands up. Now so far, the situation is a bit of a question mark, but arguably understandable behavior for a trainee. But a much older more experienced names Joe Gutierrez answered the call for backup, showed up, and went fucking nuts. By this point they’re in a well-lit area where you can clearly see the license plate, and any reasonable person could deduce the reason why the driver waited for a safe place to stop. This would be the point where you deescalate and communicate. Gutierrez was having none of it. He’s threatening violence. He’s screaming conflicting angry commands. When Nazario expresses his fear (very calmly), Gutierrez says he SHOULD be scared. He’s on an evil power trip. Throughout it, the rookie seems to be uneasily looking to Gutierrez for guidance. He goes to help Nazario with his seatbelt, only to be chided and commanded out by Gutierrez. As they’re trying to cuff a terrified Nazario, the rookie attempts to deescalate by actually talking to Nazario. He says in a friendly tone something along the lines of “calm down and we can talk about it.” The senior officer, on the other hand, was having none of it. He’s pepper-spraying Nazario as he is sitting very calmly in his car. The rookie may not yet understand all the standard operating procedures, but he likely knew that pepper-spraying a man for no reason is not in the manual. Should he have intervened? Yeah, of course. But he was supposed to be learning from Gutierrez and following his lead. So something stopped him. This was a chance for a more experienced seasoned cop to teach a rookie how to better handle the situation, but instead, he escalated.

There is something wrong here. There’s a chance to inspire and train new cops to be good cops. But when the people responsible foe training encourage all their worst instincts and reject all their best instincts, we no longer have a bad apple situation; we are planting poison trees. The aviation industry realized they had a problem after the crash I described above. They realized that strict hierarchical codes would promote the groups worst instincts rather than the group’s best instincts. And then, very importantly, they did something about it. They didn’t bother blaming individuals or getting defensive. They didn’t say people in these jobs or people who respect these codes are bad. They said “here’s something we, as a group, can do to improve and to save lives.” Police departments, which based on these videos also struggle with fallout of cop culture, need to do the same thing. They need to ensure environments where everyone feels comfortable doing the right thing, especially if it means calling out one of your own. They need to make sure newer officers aren’t blindly following senior officers. I mean, if the freaking investigators on Air Disasters could fix their culture, then cops should be able to do it, too.

Like the air disasters investigators, I am neither blaming nor excusing the rookie cops here. I am searching beyond these specific individuals, instead looking at the system that allows these situations to happen in the first place. This year has prompted a lot of people to talk about issues in policing and community resources (the very issues I studied back in my school days). Nothing is black and white, and there are a million pieces to this seemingly unsolvable puzzle. This observation of mine is just one of those millions of pieces. But these two cases are the ones freshest in my mind right now, and I’ve found myself thinking… If only those younger officer spoke up instead of becoming accomplices. If only we can figure out how to set them up to feel comfortable speaking up instead of becoming accomplices. If only we can do what they did on Air Disasters, and fix at least this one faulty component of the system.

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