Days before police arrested a suspect in last week's shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, politicians and pundits were eagerly characterizing the act as an inevitable outcome of the nationwide movement for police reform.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani quickly blamed the shooting on the rhetoric of President Barack Obama. “It all starts at the top,” he said, accusing the president of not supporting police unequivocally enough over past months, as protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner swept the nation. “It’s the tone that’s set by the President.”
Fox News host Lou Dobbs made the same connection. “There are so many who deserve considerable blame for fomenting an environment in which this could occur,” Dobbs said. “Chief among those in my opinion are the president of the United States and the attorney general.”
Protesters in Missouri went on the defensive last week, seeking to distance themselves from the shooter.
“We are a nonviolent movement,” Montague Simmons, of the Organization of Black Struggle in Missouri, told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “What happened last night was a tragedy, but it was not part of our movement.”
Holder -- who oversaw a scathing investigation into the racially biased practices of the Ferguson police department -- denounced the attack, calling it the action of a "damn punk." He seemed to make a point that other activists have tried to drive home in the preceding months: Bad individuals sometimes do unconscionable things. But it is those individuals alone who are ultimately responsible for their actions. Just because they happen in the context of a broader political movement does not mean they are condoned by, or necessarily have any relation to, the movement at large.
The reprehensible actions of a single disturbed individual also threatened to tarnish the entire movement back in December, when 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinley shot and killed police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in Brooklyn.
NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said the murders were a “direct spin-off” of protests over Eric Garner’s death. Pat Lynch, president of New York City’s largest police union, said Mayor Bill de Blasio had “blood on his hands,” and former New York Gov. George Pataki tweeted this:
— George E. Pataki (@GovernorPataki) December 21, 2014
(De Blasio’s alleged slight was saying publicly that he’d warned his biracial son about interactions with police -- a perfectly normal conversation among black families in America.)
Protesters in New York immediately distanced themselves from the actions of Brinsley, with the family of Garner even holding a tribute for the slain officers.
It's hard to know what precisely drove people like Brinsley, or whoever shot the two police officers in Ferguson, to do what they did. It’s a sad fact that police are often targeted like this by criminals, and each tragic incident in which a cop is supposedly targeted is different -- whether in Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Tampa Bay. After all, as police so often say, it’s a dangerous job. At least three American police officers have died this year as the result of gunfire.
What shouldn't be controversial, however, is to push back against suggestions that these crimes are ever the results of good, grounded people lashing out as part of a political agenda.
Brinsley took his own life after the murders. The next day, the NYPD’s chief of detectives, Robert Boyce, said it appeared that his actions weren’t necessarily motivated by political ideology. Rather, it emerged that Brinsley had struggled with mental health problems and had been arrested 19 times in his life. The day before he came to Brooklyn, he’d threatened to kill himself inside his ex-girlfriend’s Baltimore apartment. She talked him down before Brinsley shot her.
Yet despite Brinsley's profile, police reform advocates are regularly pressured to reassure their critics that individuals who shoot cops are not representative of the movement. Their ranks, organizers say, are filled with good people, and no matter how frustrated or concerned they may be about policing in this country, they would never support violence against police, much less commit such heinous crimes themselves.
But in the same breath, activists need to understand that most police officers are well-intentioned people who regularly risk their lives protecting us. And tellingly, both sides must face the reality that it sometimes could be those very same good cops who end up being involved in the controversial police killings that have spurred nationwide calls for reform.
That good cops can be responsible for killing good people -- whether due to confusion, fear or simply by accident -- only serves as further proof that police reform is needed. As it exists now, the system isn't doing enough to keep police from harming the (all-too-often innocent) citizens they are tasked with protecting. And it's simply not enough to claim that every police officer who commits one of these acts is a bad cop who has done so intentionally or maliciously.
We live in a nation of both covert and overt racial bias, where sometimes overworked and underpaid police are often called upon to enforce laws that seem to target many at the benefit of none. It's an unimaginably difficult job that would give way to misconduct and tragic errors even if every police officer were at their core a good person.
There have been many promising proposals to confront these complex issues: reform drug laws, end aggressive "broken windows" enforcement of low-level crime, increase training on implicit racial bias, and simply continue to foster a dialogue to improve the relationship between police and the community. Contrary to what people like Giuliani and Dobbs say, these types of reforms are decidedly pro-cop. They could protect police from getting involved in or even creating potentially dangerous situations, and from being the source of anger in the communities they serve.
Instead, however, we frequently see opponents of reform seeking to shield police departments from change, pointing to aberrant acts of violence to disingenuously suggest that recent criticism of law enforcement is nothing more than a thinly veiled call for violence against cops. In so doing, they're defending a status quo that history suggests will continue to fail its citizens, especially those who are black or brown.
Improving policing in this country has to be the result of a good faith effort by both police and the policed. We can't let every random act of violence against police -- nor those who rush to politicize them -- derail that process.