2014 was a tumultuous year for relations between police departments across the country and the communities they police. In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the country erupted in protests against police brutality, which ultimately culminated in the tragic and cold-blooded murder of two NYPD officers sitting in their squad car in Brooklyn.
Both the police and the protestors need to ensure that 2015 is different, more peaceful, and more productive. The future of our civil society depends on it.
Here is how they can do it.
The police in America provide a valuable service to citizens, often at great risk to their own lives. Most officers truly represent the ideal of protecting and serving. There are, however, cops who use the badge as an excuse to vent their personal frustrations or to bully civilians. Not only is that contrary to the code that all good officers live by, but it undermines the authority of the entire police force. That authority is essential to the maintenance of law and order in our country.
To fix this problem, police departments everywhere need to sit down with representatives of local communities, be willing to acknowledge serious problems in the system, identify new policing techniques that can maintain order without the use of excessive force, retrain officers in these techniques, and create a review system to ensure that new policies are working. This does not mean the police must acquiesce to every demand but they do need to make a real effort to find a balance between fighting crime and preventing injustice.
For their part, protestors need to graduate from activism to defining specific and actionable goals, and to reach out to politicians and the police to discuss their ideas. While the initial protests may have served the purpose of drawing attention to the issue of social justice, endless marches and speeches will accomplish very little in terms of actual solutions. That can only come through calm and thoughtful dialogue, not romantic rhetoric and social media hype.
In addition, protestors also need to recognize the reality of policing in America. In a country overrun with guns and an inherently aggressive culture, cops here face an extraordinarily difficult task in enforcing the law. It is a dangerous beat which is not helped by the public perception, which the New York Times recently voiced in a surprisingly tone-deaf oped, of cops being public 'servants'.
Unless we are still living in feudal times, they are not servants and are not obligated to do a dirty job no one else wants to do, for little pay, in an increasingly violent society, and with little respect from the very people they protect. They do it because they want to, but the least they deserve from us is some empathy. That does not, of course, entitle the police to be abusive to the public, but some understanding might go a long way towards promoting meaningful dialogue between the two sides.
Another issue that the protestors should be willing to examine is that of violence within their own communities. While the protests have focused exclusively on police brutality, they should also be equally focused on the gang culture that destroys the lives of minorities and the future of inner city children. If the protestors really care about justice, they should address every factor that contributes to injustice, whether it's the legal system or the violent criminals in their own neighborhood.
The irony is that confronting this sensitive subject would not, as some people maintain, distract from the issue of reforming police, but actually help the cause. The more society is willing to work together with the police to root out violence, as opposed to the two sides working as 'enemies', the less fear there would be on the streets and the less force would ever need to be applied in any given situation.
In the last few months, we have seen a lot of posturing from all sides; lots of opinionated statements, divisive rhetoric, and calculated hype. This needs to change in 2015 if we hope to move on from finger-pointing to constructive solutions.
Real change, as history has taught us repeatedly, comes gradually and without much fanfare. After all the protesting and politicking is over, change itself is practical, dry, and perhaps even anti-climatic, but it is the real purpose of all activism (or at least should be). Anything else is self-indulgence.
So it's time to end the noise and hostility, and initiate change. A good place to start would be for police departments and community leaders to start speaking with each other instead of at each other, and to do it in a meeting room instead of on the streets.