Don't Lose Sight of the Good Cops

05/22/2015 11:52 am ET | Updated May 22, 2016

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed on May 15 to be National Peace Officers Memorial Day.

At the beginning of this year's National Police Week, which honored the memory of officers who died in the line of duty, two policemen were killed in Mississippi, reminding us yet again just how dangerous the job can be.

The current national discussion about law enforcement is understandably focused on race, particularly the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. It's a topic that can't be ignored, even during a time when we honor slain officers.

Both blacks and whites are skeptical of police investigating their own. According to a recent Pew/USA Today poll, 70 percent of "blacks say police departments around the country do a poor job in holding officers accountable for misconduct." While just 27 percent of whites agree with this assessment, only 37 percent of whites say police forces do an excellent or good job in self-investigations.

There is unmistakably heightened tension between cops and the public they serve.

I have a yellowing page I tore decades ago from a 1970s-era True Detective magazine when I was considering law enforcement as a career. A silhouette of a uniformed policeman is framed between two New York City Police badges.

At the top of the page are the words, "A Policeman..." Below are phrases such as, "must keep cool in a crisis like a surgeon," and "must know the law, like an attorney." The longest one reads, "does not flinch before the stares of the hostile, the bricks and bottles of the alienated, or the knives of the demented."

After police, along with firefighters, ran into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001 as panicked workers ran out, cops were our heroes. When incidents of police abuse surface, they are justifiably condemned.

And in an era of ubiquitous cameras, police are often caught in the act of using excessive force. The New York Civil Liberties Union has developed an app called "Stop and Frisk Watch" that uploads video to the NYCLU in case police seize your phone and erase its content. The app is available in my home state of North Carolina, and is probably coming to your state soon.

Amateur photographers using phones can get their fuzzy images on the cover of Time magazine or in the newspaper, and the immediacy of video distributed via Twitter can inflame the public before internal investigations can even get off the ground.

Police body cameras are useful tools that can help determine what happened in an incident. These official videos should be released to the public as soon as possible.

A danger of immediate release of such videos, and especially of videos uploaded by bystanders, is that they are context-free. Police who use force to restrain a suspect may be abusive, or they may be saving a life, even that of the suspect.

Sadly, many incidents of police abuse are just that -- abuse.

Recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York or wherever an unarmed black man has died in police custody remind me of something I learned long ago when I was on the police beat: There is nobody better than a good cop. There is nobody worse than a bad cop.

Mark Twain said it best in 1905: "Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it."

The police job description is to face pain, insults and bullets. In 2013, the FBI reported that nearly 50,000 officers were assaulted on the job, and 76 were killed.

At the same time, one police transgression is one too many. But as this year's commemorations fade, it's worth remembering that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are honest and brave.

Cops can represent the best of us when dealing with the worst of us.

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