Why you should care
Around the nation, debates are flaring about what the police should do, and how.
Domestic disturbance, south side. It’s Saturday night in San Jose, California, and Patrolman Scott Erickson arrives to find a Middle Eastern man and his son arguing. It seems routine, and Erickson pulls out his notepad to record the son’s side of the family squabble. But the boy has something else to tell him, about a father who’s “preaching anti-American stuff” at home. Erickson remembers the hair on the back of his neck standing up as the son told him more. A mundane call had changed direction.
What Erickson did next might seem minor, but it’s a flash point in a gathering debate over terrorism prevention and civil rights. As a terrorism liaison officer for the city, he reported the incident as “suspicious activity.” The father’s name quietly started up the ladder toward a federal database. “I felt justified to at least pass on the name,” Erickson, 38, told OZY.
As nationwide debates roil over privacy and the role of the police, Erickson is a surprising, out-of-nowhere figure in the middle of the storm, notepad in hand, Glock 40 in holster. He’s become an outspoken proponent of police involvement in counterterrorism measures — like his report that Saturday night — and that’s put him on the conservative party’s map, albeit at a young age and with some fairly odd credentials. Erickson is a simple beat cop, no gold stars weighing down his shirt pockets; just a regular guy working swing shifts. But he has been identified by the GOP as one of its 18 young rising stars. He’s also considered a hotshot at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative D.C. think tank.
… an incongruous personality, considering that on any given night he’s busy choke-holding drunks.
As the Republican Party struggles with a “millennial problem,” Erickson offers a fresh, moderate voice for young conservatives. Besides privacy, he’s written policy memos on missile defense, homegrown terrorist networks and Benghazi, in addition to privacy issues. On Ferguson, he gracefully sidesteps the question of police brutality, but says the so-called militarization of the police is something a crime-weary public asked for. With work like that, Heritage official Jim Carafano, calls Erickson a diamond in the rough. “A lot of grassroots folks involved in law enforcement — that’s just their day job,” he tells OZY. “It takes a combination of leadership and confidence to speak out on these issues as Erickson does.”
He didn’t get there easily.
Scott Erickson’s gravitational pull toward law enforcement started in the backseat of his family’s sedan on the way home from a SoCal vacation, northbound on the 101, on a Tuesday afternoon in August 1981. After lunch at Anderson’s Pea Soup Factory, the family of four packed into the car for the final stretch when, just past Buellton, a merging tractor-trailer clipped the rear bumper. The car flipped once, and then again, and was flattened beneath the truck. A passing motorist would find the littlest Erickson, just 4 at the time, running down the highway, bloodied and alone.
Today Erickson tells this story with a far-off look in his perfectly blue eyes, in his blue-blooded breakfast nook of gold-rimmed china and white orchids, overlooking the Embarcadero and the ballpark in San Francisco. His sweet views are the fruits of a side hobby flipping apartments. Framed by bay windows, leaning back with one ankle propped up on a knee and fingers drumming the leather as his gray cat circles around him, he calls to mind a politician in repose, and it’s easier to imagine him running for office than running the sector Victor night beat. He’s soft-spoken instead of brash, thoughtfully eloquent instead of soundbitten. It’s an incongruous personality, considering that on any given night he’s busy choke-holding drunks.
But that grit, that drama: It’s the job he chose. Today he thinks back quietly on that tragic car accident as the pivot point that brought him into the force. He always wanted to know what his parents were like. His father, 25 when he died, was also a cop in San Jose. At that same age, in 2001, the younger Erickson joined the city’s force full time.
While many people fear the rise of the surveillance state, a kind of dystopian world where our every little detail is typed into a database, Erickson, for one, thinks the idea has its merits. He’s voiced his thoughts on the matter for the Heritage Foundation, even drafted a policy memo for a lawsuit brought by — whom else? — the ACLU. The organization represents five men whose names police reported to the feds despite, the ACLU alleges, any reasonably suspicious activity. At issue is whether local cops should be able to report what they consider “suspicious activity” in the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Database. The federal district court in San Francisco will hear the case next month.
Profiling, of course, is the concern, and ACLU lawyer Linda Lye points to a March 2013 government report that she says shows the “suspicious activities” police logged into the database were not connected to national security threats. Lye says the guidelines for reporting are too loose, and that police are not adequately trained.
The sun fades orange behind the palms and the car’s computer screen lights up with incoming calls.
In many ways, Erickson agrees. Cops shouldn’t report suspicious activity until they’re trained; otherwise, “we’re putting the cart before the horse.” But he opposes restraints on police reporting because, he says, these days the police must address threats like terrorism. Like many others, the San Jose police department lacks the robust suspicious activity reporting policy he wants. The reason? Political hot potato. Privacy versus security. But Erickson insists that it’s better to grapple with the tough questions now than to “explain to the public after some terrorist event occurs that we were ill prepared for it.”
Monday night on Julian Street. I’m on the beat with Erickson. We cruise past dilapidated homes as the sun fades orange behind the palms and the car’s computer screen lights up with incoming calls, flashing red script lines. I haven’t been in the car more than five minutes when a loud thud hits my window. In the rearview mirror I see an older woman standing in the middle of the street, arms up and shouting, a heavy tree branch at her feet. Erickson keeps driving. The community’s mental health issues are complicated, he says with a sigh. Rather than throw the woman in jail, only for her to begin a cycle through the court system that’ll likely drop her right back on Julian Street, he’ll let it go. “What’s the solution?” he asks no one.
The dispatcher interrupts, and Erickson pulls the handset to his lips, murmuring in a low voice that he is on his way. With a soft smile he returns to our conversation, a chat about what a typical day is like for each of us. And for a moment, I almost feel like I am on a first date in the 1950s, as if we are on our way to the drive-in, and not an assault at the EZ-8 motel.
Erickson’s wife, Lauren, is on the squad too, and she spent last night investigating a shooting at the Brit Bar in downtown San Jose, between Raiders and Niners fans after the rivalry game. They met when he showed up to offer backup at a crime scene, and married last year in D.C., their favorite city. Though their schedules often don’t sync up, he says they wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’re both from cop families, and we love our jobs.”
More calls. A woman is threatening to jump into rush-hour traffic on the 880, and the freeway’s being shut down. A stakeout is in progress on a stolen-car crime ring. Some brown pit bulls are loose on the east side.
But back in Victor, we’re caught up dealing with the results of mental illness plus homelessness. We wind along an industrial street lined with Winnebagos, which, I learn, have become home to San Jose’s hidden quasi-homeless communities. Erickson runs the names of a pedestrian couple, a pair he knows as repeat players in the criminal justice system, and finds felony warrants out for their arrests. He has deposited the wife into the backseat, with me alone in the front, and from behind the glass she begins calling to me. “Ma’am, ma’am, please, I got fibra-myalgia. These handcuffs are too tight,” she pleads. “Please. I can’t breathe.”
Erickson offers up a new brand of conservative leadership, one based on street cred.
At this particular moment, in the winter of 2014 and the wake of Ferguson and Eric Garner, the choke-hold victim in New York, her words trigger a panic in my own chest. “I can’t breathe,” she repeats. A blinking red script alerts an anti-police protest in downtown San Jose, threatening to overrun the city’s “Christmas in the Park” light display. Up in Berkeley tonight, protesters have blocked the freeway, and there are reports of looting as they converge on the Berkeley police headquarters. Change is in the air. But in the passenger seat of Erickson’s car, nothing’s changed, as the woman behind the glass calls out to me for help.
This weekend, Erickson is on a different kind of beat, rubbing shoulders with other conservative rising stars in a banquet room in D.C., at a Heritage Foundation board meeting. Both in roaming San Jose’s streets and clinking glasses in D.C., Erickson offers up a new brand of conservative leadership, one based on street cred and not on deputy-secretary status. The GOP hobnobbers aren’t the only ones attracted to Erickson’s double life; cops around the country are reaching out, too, Erickson says. For them, he represents a new, moderate voice that can speak on a national scale to the challenges of a law enforcement job. And though there may be other police officers with a penchant for policy, “there aren’t natural venues for them to get engaged at a more national level,” says Carafano.
Meanwhile, a life spent alternating a government punch card with personal politics demands that Erickson proceed with caution. Standing out is risky in a profession built upon fall-into-line values. The San Jose Police Department denied OZY’s request to run a photo of Erickson in uniform. And throughout our interviews, Erickson repeatedly reminded me that his opinions do not represent the department.
Back on the beat, after Erickson’s colleagues calm the woman in the backseat, a call comes in: Nine gang members have jumped a teenager in a park. As we weave through town toward the call, Erickson reflects on his chosen dual life. “Out here, you get a good idea of what policies can and can’t work,” he says as we pass a creek bed homeless encampment. “So many people, especially elected officials, have no idea what’s going on with society. They’ve never dealt with the grit.”
Photography by Sam Wolson for OZY