Geoffrey Mount Varner, M.D., M.P.H.
1. Dr. Varner, what inspired you to write Home Alive? As a practicing ER physician of two decades who used to run a level-one trauma center in an urban environment for several years, I bring a unique perspective to the debate of how we can save lives when civilians interaction with the police. I have seen too many casualties that have come as the result of civilian-police confrontations. I have an 11-year- old son who is old enough to be killed by the police. When a recorded video killing of a young black person at the hands of the police surfaces, I make my kids sit and watch the video with me and we use the media story as the basis for our ongoing police relations conversation. After one of the videos my son asked me: “What are you doing about this, Daddy?” This is my answer to that question.
2. What makes your book different? You are not a lawyer or in law enforcement, so what makes you qualified to speak on this? I am an emergency medicine physician, a Harvard graduate, a father and someone who sees the impact and pain from death every time I go to work. I uniquely know that regardless of the who, what, when, and where of death, there are people who are left to endure the unending pain of having lost a loved one. My unique perspective based on seeing sudden death and violence in the ER combined with the fact that I have two siblings who were both former prosecutors and are now sitting judges, I have a perspective that no one else can have in the world. There is not a law, or even two laws, that can be passed that will suddenly stop the American crisis of police killings and deaths. This crisis is going to take years to solve. In the meantime, 3.4 citizens are being killed per day, with a disproportionate number being young black males. And a disproportionate number of the young black males are unarmed. We have an American crisis. We are the cavalry. We must immediately start saving lives. Based on over 2,000 hours of research and interviews, I developed a survival tool kit that will immediately begin to save lives.
3. You have an 11-year- old son. Are you deathly afraid he can wind up another statistic even if he does nothing wrong? I have great concern and angst that my son, your son, your nephew, daughter, niece, or your loved one will wind up a statistical victim of violence. This is about being concerned about someone you love more than yourself being taken away from you for reasons that don’t make sense. My son is a black male. The world is going to treat him differently. We can prepare him for that challenge. But I have to prepare for how to interact with the police, because initially and often they will only see a black male and all the stereotypes the officer chooses to harbor. Additionally, most people think that police violence will never happen to them because after all, they are law-abiding citizens. The only time most citizens come in contact with the police are for traffic stops or when they’re in need:
i. 30-40% of those killed by the police started off as a simple traffic stop or as a domestic call.
ii. 20 – 30 % of those killed by the police were unarmed
4. As an ER doctor of two decades in a busy urban area, what did you witness to inform your impressions of the interactions between the police and citizenry,
specifically with young black males? Often, by the time the officers and the assailant arrive to the ER they have already managed through the more aggressive phase. Hence, my perspective is different and if the arrestee is injured, he is more focused on his life than the police interactions. Often, I experience an intersection of the black male and police officer, finding common ground especially for those arrested when the officer had other options. The exchange between the officer and the arrestee is more about seeking clarity and explanations. When there were clear undeniable reasons for the arrest, the intersection of the officer and the black male is more confrontational. The officer is more aggressive and judgmental. The black male is often more defiant, often related to the aggressive manner of the arrest.
5. So, you say that your book doesn’t look to prosecute cops nor make people feel like victims. Rather, you simply seek to save lives and not risk unnecessary injuries during police-citizen interactions. Why is such a book needed? The book is needed because the Unites States has more police killings of citizens than any other industrialized country in the world. I get it, the police want to make it home alive and often their motto is, “I would rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6.” Police first want to feel safe and then respected. If the police feel threatened, they are trained to react with a force that is greater than the perceived threat. There are 3.4 citizens killed by the police each day. There are even significantly more citizens who are injured by the police each day. So, if citizens can calm themselves and slow things even before the stop and during the interaction then there is a greater likelihood that officers will feel less threatened and have more time to react in non-life- threatening situations.
6. What do you say to law enforcement members who may criticize you for making people fearful of the police? I would say that they have not read the book. I would encourage them to develop thicker skin. There is no industry where it is all or nothing. Meaning, just because you speak to truth and to power, it does not mean that you do not support the police. Fear is not always a bad thing. If fear motivates people to behave in a certain manner until the officers clearly feel safe and assess that there is not an imminent threat than give me fear every day. It is about saving lives, not about anything else. Also, I would inform the critics about the new proven and verifiable data. It is not innuendo or maybe, it is factual, black males are 9 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white peers. Black males ages 14 – 32 should fear the police, and white males 40- 50 should fear the police too. These age groups are being killed at alarming rates.
7. What would you say in response to African-American activists who may feel you are silencing their narratives in police-citizen relations? Where do you think the tensionstems from? I would say that their narrative exists within my book. My book does not change any group’s activism. In fact, it is because of the book that their activism can exist and flourish. Let’s be clear, from my perspective, a traffic or police stop is not the time for activism. It is the time to change your focus and go into survival mode. It is the time to figure out how to make it home alive and unharmed. You know what they call a dead activist? Dead! You know what they call the parents of a dead activist? A person experiencing a pain worse than death. It is an inconsolable pain. A pain so deep that their heart literally hurts.
8. What are some of the 11 tips and strategies shared in your book that, if followed, could greatly reduce the chances of an unnecessary altercation with the police?“When pulled over, everyone in the car is pulled over”
a. It is not just the driver who the police are concerned about. They are concerned about everyone and anyone in the car who can harm them. Your friend in the back must be focused on the goal too.
b. Know who is in the car with you. Set clear expectations about expected behavior when pulled over. “Don’t run”
c. When you run, your “flight or fight response” is heightened. Your adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) increases. You are amped. But there is also a stress hormone, cortisol that increases as well. Increased amounts of cortisol clouds judgment.
d. Hence, you have the assailant and the police with increased cortisol and likely clouded judgement running to an area that is often outside the public domain.
9. One of your suggestions is for civilians to cry or fake cry. Why? The goal of crying isto try to create a human pause. Crying is often associated with someone in pain or in need of help. Crying creates feelings in the person crying, as well as the people seeing the crying. Crying gives the officer a moment to see you as a person in need of help. The goal of crying is slow things down. It gives the officer more time to give you the benefit of the doubt. The book is a very transformative book and requires critical thinking. It is important to keep in mind that the basic point of the book is to make it home alive at all costs. Survive the encounter with the police and fight later in court.
10. You also make a good point that when you are pulled over by the police, everyone in the car is pulled over. One of the things you suggest is using a cell phone to record the conversation with the police. What should a driver tell his/her passengers to dobor not do? View this book as a survival kit. If the stop is going well and no one feels threatened, you are on the safe side of the interaction. But if the stop is not going well and it is escalating, you have to decide what tools to deploy. Although the Supreme Court has been very clear about the right of a citizens to record, you do not want to do anything to antagonize the situation. I would consider recording until the officer tells you to stop. And if he tells you to stop, put it down but DO NOT turn it off.
11. How can law enforcement be better trained to help civilians understand the type of behavior that’s required of civilians when they are approached by the police? I think law enforcement spends 90% of their time dealing with the bad 5% of the population that they serve. This inherently and implicitly creates a bias. I recommend law enforcement spend more time with the other 95% of the citizens that they serve. If law enforcement really wants to understand the civilians of the population that they serve, they should utilize the local barbershop or beauty shop in that area, coach a team in the community they serve, attend community events, and go to the schools for reasons other than discipline. Finally, law enforcement officers should be trained on being super trainers. Officers should be going to schools and community events and teaching citizens how to interact with police officers.
12. Your two sisters are both judges and see many cases involving allegations of police brutality. Though your book is purely about preventing injuries or death for anyone encountering the police, what can or should be done to hold law enforcement accountable for its role in cases where civilians become victims? An officer’s authority to police comes from the people they police. After all, if the citizens choose not to listen to the officers, he/she would not have any authority. Hence, when an officer does behave in an inappropriate manner that leads to the harm or wrongful death of a citizen, the officer should be prosecuted to the highest extent of the law. Poor actions by officers not only erode the public trust, but they put those in the community that the officer serves in peril. Others know that if the improperly acting officer is less than appropriate and it changes the threshold for everyone in the community for what is right or wrong. An officer should be held to a higher standard. When an officer breaches thepublic trust, he/she must be swiftly and severely disciplined and charged. We must control the controllable. Citizens must control how they respond to officers. Officers must perform their duties with the highest standard. When the officer goes awry we have to control him/her.
13. Many people come through the Emergency Room that had run-ins with the cops. What did you learn from interacting with them? I learned that officers want to make it home alive too. They have daughters and sons who want to see their father or mother come home too. The officer is uniquely focused on making it home alive. Every breath, every movement while on duty is focused on not being harmed. Citizens, and especially black males, should also be lasered focused on making it home alive too. The time for a reasonable and sensible conversation will come at some point but not during an escalating encounter with officer. I also learned that officers are human. They have the same capacity to be biased and stereotypically just like anyone else. Officers, like many other professions, should undergo regular training on how to decrease bias.
14. You also witness cops and how they handle their prisoners, sometimes needing the police to protect you. How do you view the police – as a friend, or as a foe? Officers are clearly a friend. They are the bedrock of any democracy. We are a nation of law and order. Officers maintain law and order. I am a black male. I have had interactions with police officers and some were not so good, but the majority have been just fine. Officers are here to protected and serve all members of the community. Officers protect my family. They protect my friends. Without the heroic efforts of our police officers we would not be able to enjoy the many liberties we have in our country. Sure police officers get paid. But they are being paid to protect us and know that one can deny what a noble job that is to do.
15. The strategies in your book can also help save the police officers from injury or death as well. Will Home Alive help them understand civilian behavior and the concerns of the community better? Yes, Home Alive will help officers understand civilian behavior and hopefully assist them in recognizing those seeking to cooperate.
16. If someone follows all the steps in your book during a police encounter, could they still conceivably be injured or even killed? Absolutely! The book is simply a starting point. It is a bridge. The book does not capture every feasible situation. In fact, there is not a book, a rule or a policy for any major organization that captures a 100% of the possibilities. Home Alive greatly reduces the risk of being injured or killed by the police when stopped. Also, Home Alive should not be applied retrospectively. It’s intended to help some people avoid an ugly situation.
17. One recent study showed that young African-American males were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers. A Washington Post investigative story revealed that black men – who account for roughly 6% of the American population – make up 45% of the unarmed individuals fatally shot by the police. What tends to go wrong when the police encounter young black men? The data is quite clear on this. The officers own implicit bias impacts the lens of how they view black males. The studies show that not only do white officers have this bias when it comes to black youth, but even not-white officers. Many who do not have accurate information will assert that black males commit most of the crimes. This information is wrong. White males commit the majority of violent crimes in this country. Yet, in an academic research article, A Bird’s Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015: Further Evidence of Implicit Bias, author Justin Nix highlights, “the only thing that was significant in predicting where someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black.” In short, for reasons well outside the scope of this book there is a clear bias against black males.
18. Tell us what you mean when you say, “be a superhero.” Often the patriarch or matriarch of the family is viewed as a superhero. They have super natural strength and are able to endure great stresses. They are even able to find the special birthday or Christmas gift that no one else in the world can find. A superhero knows when to hug, and when to say just the right thing to encourage. Thus, the father and or mother figures in households are held in very high esteem and regard. They are accustomed to being held and treated in this manner. Thus, when officers speak to or treat the superhero in a disrespectful manner in front of their family, there is a greater emotional need to defend their status. But a superhero, has already practiced his or her reaction with family members. The superhero has enormous mental strength and discipline. The superhero does not allow the officer’s poor behavior to lead to the hi-jacking of their emotional discipline. He/she endures the verbal assaults of the officer and keeps his or her cool in the interest of staying alive and thus maintaining their superhero status. The superhero with his family present then goes to the police station and writes letters to elected officials to complain and seeks justice concerning the poor interaction.
19. In the chapter specifically about black males, why do you apologize to blacks for the wrongs they have experienced at the hands of society? America has undeniably inflicted unjustifiable pain on blacks since the inception of the country. America has never apologized. I am American. I am apologizing to black folk for America. There are times in life an apology or a recognition of wrong-doing is a great facilitator of the forgiveness process. Given the enormity of the great task in front black families, it is of the utmost importance that our minds be laser-focused on the task at hand. We need to be able to think and move and react quickly. Our minds need to maintain their great dexterity. Hence anything that is not productive in our thought process must be minimized or deleted. People who do not forgive become angry. Angry people become bitter people. Bitter people become miserable people. Miserable people are not able to function at their full potential. Blacks have traditionally been able to forgive and stave off bitterness and misery. The apology I offered is on behalf of America so that any anger and thus lack of focus that may reside is extinguished. The parent must have all of his or her emotional energy fully ready to endure and manage the journey of saving their black loved ones. Let there be no doubt that black males are treated differently and are in need of being protected and honored.
20. Please tell us what you think about the need to even write a book about surviving encounters with the police? And why do you feel the need to dedicate two full chapters to black males? It was distressing and difficult to have to write such a book. It is even more upsetting when I consider that our American history shows that millions have been beaten, lynched, and have even died fighting for many of the basic rights that I speak about in the book. However, the new and available data is showing that young black males are being killed at alarming rates. New, reliable and verifiable data shows we have an American crisis: black males are being killed at a disproportionate rate. Yes, we must be unrelenting and undaunted while fighting for basic human rights. The fight should never stop. But being innocently killed by the police does not fall under my definition of fighting. My book does not clash or distract from the goal of basic inalienable rights. Combined with the great efforts of black activists, social activists and books like Sermon
to White America by Dr. Michael Dyson, there has been a unique space created that does not distract from the social, political, moral or legal goals of any organization. In fact, it supports them – the goal is to immediately start saving lives.
21. What do you say to those who talk about all of the police officers who have been killed? Don’t they have a right to make it home alive? Let’s be clear. If a person, regardless of race, creed, or religion points a gun at a police officer they should expect the worst. But they are not the audience for this book. It is the American citizen who does not pose an imminent or reasonable threat that we are trying to save. Tears taste salty. They don’t taste black, white, or yellow. Regardless of the who, what, when, and where, there are loved ones left to fill and endure the void of the lost one.