No one has to remind us that we’re living in tumultuous times, whether the subject is climate change, racism, immigration, or politics. One issue that comes with its own unique troubles is policing and use of force. Unlike many other issues, such as climate change or national politics or even immigration—all of which can seem distant from our everyday lives—policing is always personal because when we think about police, we naturally think in local terms—that becomes our frame of reference.
If you’ve been paying attention, by now you know that when it comes to police and policing tactics, there has been much criticism of police officers across a wide spectrum of the country. Some of that criticism is absolutely warranted and some of it less so. Much of the recent criticism centers on race and how police go about enforcing the laws when they encounter and engage with their citizens.
In an age of social media, instant communications, body-worn cameras, and iPhones that can serve as video recorders for every man, woman, and child carrying such devices, communities across the country have gotten a first-hand unadulterated look at how police engage different groups of citizens in their respective communities.
Through these cameras and devices, we’ve seen footage that has been in equal turns shocking, stunning, outrageous and unbelievable. Some of the footage testifies to the ugliness of certain police and some of it testifies to the ugliness of the citizenry. We’ve seen routine situations escalate, going from zero to 60—which is to say from peaceful to deadly—in a handful of seconds. We have also been witness to the aftermath once a piece of footage has gotten ample traction on social media or in the news.
Some may be forgiven if all of this coverage has left them with a negative view of police officers and the work that they do under the banner of “serve and protect.” What’s not forgiven is assuming that all the negative coverage tells the whole story. I say that as I think of Bridgeton Police Officer Sean Peek, who died one night a couple of weeks ago serving and protecting.
The circumstances surrounding Officer Peek’s passing don’t lend themselves to the type of sensational headlines favored by news outlets, yet his actions that night were sensational. I say that not because of what was known, but because of what was unknown.
When Officer Peek pulled up to the scene, it was all about unknowns. He didn’t know whether he was dealing with a single individual or multiple people. He didn’t know if they were armed or unarmed. He didn’t know why they were there or what they wanted. In short, when Officer Peek pulled into the parking lot of the old Water Works building, he knew nothing about the situation as he exited his vehicle.
Then he heard someone hit the waters of the Cohansey River, again more unknowns. Did they fall in accidentally or were they trying to get away? Sean Peek had been an EMT and maybe those instincts kicked in. Either way, he did not hesitate to go toward the sound—to go toward potential trouble. That may not sound extraordinary to some, but the instinct for self-preservation is strong and 99 out of 100 people would have waited for back-up, for help, for something.
While I knew Officer Peek, I did not know him well. I would see him late at night at the Code Blue shelters checking in—his instinct was to help and render aid. That is no small thing at a time when police are routinely criticized for acting as judge, jury, and even executioner. That is not what happened here. In the quiet of the first few hours of a Sunday morning, his instinct was to rescue if rescue was needed. The rest would sort itself out later.
And that is the other side of the story, the side that isn’t often or easily captured on video feeds or social media—that police officers move toward the trouble and always with far more unknowns than knowns. That’s not to excuse some stunning abuses around the country, but it is to say that those abuses are not the whole of the story. For the whole story, it’s necessary to consider Bridgeton Police Officer Sean Peek who gave his life in service to our community.