CIA to Local Street Cop

Stephen Downing

The Tweets of Patrick Skinner

During my 20 years of service with the LAPD, then being witness over the next 35 years to my son’s law enforcement career as well as staying current with the issues of law enforcement reform as an eight-year board member of the non-profit Law Enforcement Action Partnership – a group of police, prosecutors, judges and other criminal justice professionals who advance sensible criminal justice policy solutions – nothing has ever been more exciting for me than to observe first hand or hear and read about great police work – and the great cops who deliver it.

About a year ago I discovered the Twitter feed of a former CIA agent Patrick Skinner who chose to leave the agency and return to his hometown of Savannah, Georgia to become a police officer.

Today Skinner’s Twitter feed has 13,700 followers. I am one of them, having basked and delighted and cheered almost daily while reading perceptive Tweets about his views, philosophies and understanding of what local law enforcement is and can be.

The idea of curating Skinner’s Tweets for local (Long Beach) consumption has been on my mind for months – as they provide a ground level look into the thinking, actions, hopes and dreams of one of the best beat cops with whom I’ve ever become acquainted.

A feature article written by Ben Taub about Patrick Skinner was published in the most recent (May 2018) issue of the New Yorker entitled “The Spy Who Came Home – Why an expert in counterterrorism became a beat cop.” It is a “don’t miss” read.

Taub delivers the full and exciting sweep of Skinner’s life with a deep dive into what he describes as “A profile of a former CIA case officer who came to believe the most meaningful application of his training and expertise was to become a beat cop in the city where he grew up.”

I deliver here a curating of Skinner’s Tweets aimed at identifying what I believe to be some of most critical law enforcement reform issues facing us today – articulated by the kind of cop we’d all like to clone.

Skinner Becoming a Local Cop

Six months into my time on the streets in my hometown as a local police has humbled me in several ways, all of which have oddly confirmed what I was wondering when I made this change.

The problem is the lack of true local awareness was so profound we didn’t see it. Ever. We sought “community leaders” or “agents of influence” and they were usually neither. But our plans were well-intended and well thought out.

And strategically we failed every time.

So obsessing about Syria I’m walking around my neighborhood here and I begin to understand that the limits of our knowledge are blinding. And that we try overseas with entire countries what we can’t ever achieve here in a few blocks: understand and change.

So I go career kamikaze, drop it all and go all in with my last career: local cop here. To see what actually can be known enough to understand and change in a lasting and positive way.

And since I’ve been on the streets, after another round of academies that were less fun this time around, I’ve been amazed at how little community understanding we have to focus and help our broad legal authorities and obligations.

Real crime after the fact is easy and obvious.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to know a little more every shift while embracing I don’t know enough. I speak for myself. Barely. But I think I’m right.

The foundational assumption of our CT (counter terrorism) plans overseas and our crime plans here is simply wrong and I’m gonna prove it here.

Skinner On Fear and the Use of Deadly Force

I’m so lucky to work for a smart department that de-escalates above all. They trained me. My goal is to add some stuff I think helps the beat cops as they talk to their neighbors.

First thing is to make sure we see everyone as neighbors. We hunt criminals but not with dynamite.

I’m sure departments have different policies. I don’t touch my gun unless I need to pull it out.

Keeping your hand on your gun, at least for me, kinda makes people nervous for good reason. So I don’t do it.

Long ago I dabbled in overseas counterterrorism. What I saw/did over there, way back then, is why I’m doing what I am right here right now.

Stop being afraid of people. Or at least be more selective with your expressed fear.

Not an easy sell, but I really think the “warrior mindset” might be a good workout motivator in the gym but it’s terrible policing on the streets.

Want to be a warrior? Join the military. Want to give rides to desperate people or listen to why (insert issue) matters? Be a cop.

I want to teach not just a course but an ethos of the opposite of “officer safety first,” which I totally understand why it’s taught and how by accepting more potential risks we might actually lower actual risks.

Skinner on Community Policing and Discretion

So I did something last night. I half pulled over people driving after dusk with no lights (easy to do in modern cars). They drove toward me; I hit my lights and wave them to come closer.

We met at our windows and I simply say “Hey you; turn your lights on!” Their reaction tells me what I need to know. 99 percent just forgot the lights cuz the dash is lit and it’s a city so it’s not dark... An odd reaction is an indicator for drunk driving and then there’s that.

But my point is that not every single encounter with a cop must be “show me your papers” and so I relish in smiling and telling them to turn their lights on, seeing their reaction and driving on.

A really good academy classmate and shiftmate said last week that “Skinner won’t arrest someone unless he has to” and she’s right.

I look for ways to figure out stuff.

I hate crime but use discretion like all cops. I’m just older and slower but also looking past my stats. Who knows?

Skinner On Training and the Use of Force

Well I’m down in FLETC (Federal Law Enforcement Training Center). Last time I was here was the spring before the 9/11 attacks, over 17 years ago.

This place has really changed. Me, not so much: I was an old rookie cop (fed) even back then. I’m a really old rookie cop (local) now.

But it’s such a cool sensation coming back here at this stage in my life. Knowing what I know, what I’m trying to do, how I want to do it and why I need to do it.

I don’t have all that much to bring to the issues I’m working; but whatever I have, I’m bringing all of it.

Most obvious change for me coming back here since April 2001 is that back then the Department of Homeland Security didn’t exist.

The term is still so odd. I’ve gone so far since then and ended up back here. Armed with a pen and paper and a bunch of questions. Which is real security?

I so badly want to devise a course not just on interview and interrogation but also on how to shed the cop armor (metaphorical and actual) that we put on for patrol and just get closer to people.

Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Or maybe just don’t be uncomfortable.

But it can’t be a one-and-done course on how to drop the appearance of your guard while seeing what’s really happening.

Sometimes you can defuse a situation simply by not being a flame to a fuse.

So at every stage of training the need to get closer must be taught in use of force training, in defensive tactics, in ticket writing, everything.

If someone wants to shoot me they are gonna shoot me. I can cut down the odds a lot with positioning and paying attention to body language but 90 percent of calls aren’t dangerous to me. So I play those odds. And try to keep the 90 percent from turning bad.

I can’t treat every call like an ambush. We’ve gotten this .01 percent doctrine in which at any moment a random old lady can grab my gun or hit me with a chainsaw. So we stress stance and positioning over the reason we are there. I get it. I just think over the course of calls it adds more drama than takes away.

So I get close to people. I mean close. I lean in. I talk softly. I don’t do it with out-of-control people but holy god stop using the outliers to build standard operating procedure.

I mean, seriously. My job isn’t that dangerous compared to a clerk in a store in a high crime area. Or a cab driver. And I’m not a baby. I’ve got backup. A lot of backup. And a literal Batman tool belt.

I love my job. It’s honorable. Doesn’t need to be relentlessly honored.

Skinner On CIA Promotions

“McCain has it right.

[Gina] Haspel is amazing. She really is. She just shouldn’t be the new CIA director.

At some point we as a nation must say enough with the “in the aftermath of 911 rules didn’t apply....”

They did. And they do. They always did and do.”

“It’s What We Worked to Do”

That’s a small part of what Patrick Skinner is all about. If you’re a cop, follow his Twitter feed @SkinnerPm. It’s some of the best training you’ll get.

If you’re an interested resident do the same and tell your councilperson, mayor and chief of police that you like this kind of cop, his thoughtful, compassionate attitude and his thinking about the job and how you’d like to see your community policed.

If you got this far, please read the New Yorker article on Skinner by Ben Taub. I sent it to my son, who retired about a year ago as the LAPD’s Chief of Counter Terrorism. He wrote back and said, “Really good – it’s what we worked to do – understand the people and cultures and ethos so we could provide better service. Skinner’s insights are better than most chiefs and intelligence heads. Thank you for sending.”

Thank you, Patrick Skinner, for being who you are and sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

Link to New Yorker article:

Stephen Downing is a resident of Long Beach and a retired LAPD deputy chief of police.



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