Police Have The Power To De-escalate And Reform, And Their Own Safety Depends On It

07/18/2016 12:29 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2016
Photo by Ben Rosenfeld

The mass shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge this month make one fact plain: however powerful police might appear, they live or die at the mercy of the policed.

Dallas and Baton Rouge are only the most recent and sensational in a series of ambush-style killings of police officers, including the execution of four officers in a coffee shop in Parkland, Washington in 2009, and two in their patrol car in Brooklyn, New York in 2014. If police are afraid these incidents portend more to come, they are right to worry. They cannot militarize their bodies, weapons, or tactics enough to avoid being targeted by anyone determined to collect revenge. And if police believe the solution is more force, more armor, and less restraint, they are sadly mistaken. Now is the time for contrition and concession, not more of the us vs. everyone else siege mentality we are used to seeing from them. Their safety will depend on it.

So far, the signs are not hopeful. Just a week after a Baton Rouge police officer shot and killed Alton Sterling point blank while it appears he was subdued, the ACLU sued the department for harassing and assaulting protesters and interfering with their free expression. Chief Carl Dabadie Jr.’s vague and sweeping rationalization ― “we had credible threats against the lives of law enforcement in the city” ― is no justification. We can only hope the killing of officers in Baton Rouge does not turn out to be retribution for the crackdown on protests there.

Safely outside the fray, demagogues banging law and order drums ― like Illinois Congressman turned talk show host Joe Walsh (”This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you”) ― do police no favors by inciting them to crack down on already over-policed communities. The ultimate power resides in the people, and the Dallas shooting teaches us how easily the governed can revoke consent and unleash vengeance on their official tormentors.

No one should play politics with people’s lives. The deaths of the officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are every bit as agonizing for their families as the deaths of Sterling and Castile are for theirs ― not to mention the grievous injuries inflicted on numerous other officers in these horrible massacres. Nevertheless, amid shared grief and poignant calls for peace and unity, these are not commensurate events. It would be a grave mistake to set the police deaths against the civilian ones, treat them as one collective tragedy, call it a draw, mourn and move on ― like some pundits and policymakers seem eager to do, as if to avoid thornier discussions.

The sheer body count reveals that this is an asymmetric battle ― between state actors, on the one hand, who can just as easily dispense reform as brutality, and marginalized people, especially of color, on the other hand, with little means but to react to police violence perpetrated against them. Just three years after police officer wannabe George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin and the Black Lives Matter movement ignited, we can barely recite by memory anymore the names of all the black men infamously cut down since then by police, to say nothing of the dozens unsung, killed in such disproportion to other groups.

Police did not just begin using excessive force when cell phone video came into being. They have been murdering with impunity, in epidemic proportions, and with paid administrative leave and non-presentment of grand jury indictments, for so long that Dallas and Baton Rouge are also a study in the patient civility of an aggrieved populace that has been slow to take up arms to the awful extent it still could.

Or, some would say, to take up Jeffersonian principles. The Second Amendment enjoys significant support among people of all political stripes who view gun ownership as a safeguard against runaway police power. If, as reported, Philando Castile was legally carrying concealed when St. Anthony, Minnesota Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot him while he reached for his license, the question arises whether he would have been within his rights to shoot the officer. After all, many conservatives prescribe open and concealed carry rights as a panacea for crime writ large, and Castile’s fiancée’s video suggests that killing him was a crime. So far, Donald Trump, a brash proponent of concealed carry, does not appear to be wrestling with this conundrum, though consistency dictates he should.

Ultimately, the only protection for police will be systemic reform, such as raising hiring standards; eliminating racial profiling; minimizing police intrusions into people’s lives generally; retraining cops to de-escalate incidents, be patient, and create buffers of space around suspects rather than rushing in unnecessarily to confront them; and promoting accountability by giving up many of the special privileges and immunities police unions have demanded, and judges and lawmakers have delivered, in order to exonerate police at all costs.

Even combat veterans, who make up significant police ranks, warn that as urban police departments come to resemble occupying military forces, and their missions degenerate from protecting and serving into showcasing their own power and protecting themselves uber alles, community trust unravels. As a result, police come to fear the public more, and so on in a downward spiral. (See “Why the police in Baton Rouge look like they’re dressed for war,” Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post, July 11, 2016.)

If the good apples are tainted by the stench of the bad ones, they have a special duty: to break the code of silence and to make clear that they will not tolerate police abuse committed in their names. What goes around comes around. Police and their allies are going to have to deal with the fact that the officers who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile share responsibility for the deaths of their colleagues in Dallas, and now Baton Rouge. That it is taboo to say so makes it no less true. The sooner we confront these truths together, the more lives will be spared.

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