'Off the rails' culture prompts some cops to expect trouble

Officer Lucia Wroblewski helped Mark Schannach erect a memorial cross.
Former St. Paul police officer Lucia Wroblewski (right) helps erect a memorial cross at the scene of a Maplewood officer's death.
Brian Peterson | Star Tribune 2010

Most people find the killing of Justine Ruszczyk by Minneapolis police to be incomprehensible. She was unarmed and had even called 911 to report a possible sexual assault before officer Mohamed Noor shot her to death from a squad car's passenger seat.

But some cops on patrol say the circumstances of the shooting — an officer poised to fire in the dark from a car seat — aren't uncommon.

Former St. Paul police officer Lucia Wroblewski knows what it's like to be in the front seat of a squad car, gun in hand, unsure of what's going to happen next.

"There have been numerous, numerous times, that I've driven down the street with my partner, and the call doesn't seem right," said Wroblewski, an officer for 28 years before retiring in May. "Something is wrong with the call, maybe you have an anonymous complaint. It just doesn't make any sense."

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Wroblewski has no direct knowledge of what happened the night Ruszczyk, who also used the surname Damond, was shot, so the officer won't venture an opinion on whether it was right or wrong.

However, Wroblewski said if she felt even a potential for a lethal threat, she would want to have her gun out of her holster, or have the holster safety off.

Training and discipline are what keep those situations from going wrong, Wroblewski said.

In St. Paul, police say reports of gunfire were up 55 percent over 2016 through the middle of July.

Wroblewski said cops like her feel the margin of safety is narrowing.

"I have never had so many shots fired as in the last what two to five years of my career. It's totally changed the game," she said. "It is off the rails. Our gun culture. Our culture of violence. It's just OK now. And then we have the political culture of, 'It's OK to hate.'"

Another former cop, Mike Quinn, formerly of Minneapolis police, worries that the shock of slayings like the recent execution-style slayings of officers in New York, Miami and Chicago this year have had an outsize impact on officers' thinking.

Quinn notes that a police officer has a higher chance of being killed on the road in a squad accident than being shot.

And if officers brace for unexpected violence by taking gun in hand, Quinn said, he worries they're taking other risks.

"If you've got your hand occupied with a weapon, you've already basically disabled that hand to do anything else other than use your weapon," he said, "because if something does happen in hurry, now you've got to get it put away."

Professor and psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff isn't surprised anymore to hear officers may respond to seemingly routine calls with guns drawn. He founded the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and is working on a nationwide study looking at policing and community relationships in Minneapolis and five other cities.

Goff said the problem isn't just that having guns at the ready may pose more risk to both the police and public.

He also worries that it will shift the perception of police, from a community asset and problem solver to armed occupiers, making the situation even more difficult.

"Officers must feel safe, otherwise everyone feels endangered," Goff said. "But if they only way they can feel safe is to put up arms, that's not a good option. It's also not a lasting solution."

But for cops like Wroblewski, it's not just a matter of public policy or doing a job — it's life and death.

"We're going in to try to stop people from getting hurt," she said. "It's a sacred responsibility. But we are not paid, nor is it our job, to be murdered.

"To take shots from some thug, some violent person. You know, I'm sorry, but ... we hope we take their life before they take our life. And that's just the way it goes."