The past week has been tough for those of us who support law enforcement, but are also in favor of policing reform.
Early Tuesday morning, video emerged of an incident in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in which a black man named Alton Sterling was killed during an altercation with police. Sterling was armed, but many believe the shooting–which took place at point-blank range while the officers were attempting to arrest Sterling for selling CDs–was excessive force, considering the videos did not show that Sterling reaching for the weapon.
Following the shooting in Baton Rouge, video went viral of the aftermath of a police involved shooting in St. Paul, Minnesota. The shooting involved a man named Philando Castile who was carrying a concealed weapon–something he had a license to do–and was shot while sitting in his vehicle during a traffic stop that originated over a broken taillight. Castle’s girlfriend, whose Facebook livestream of the moments following the shooting went viral, claims that Philando told officers he was carrying the weapon and was shot while reaching for his wallet to retrieve his ID.
The incidents caused outrage and protests took place in major cities across the country. On Thursday night, the week took an even more unfortunate turn as 5 police officers were killed in a shooting as a protest in Dallas, Texas was coming to an end. The shooter appeared to be targeting the police as revenge for the shootings that took place earlier in the week. My heart truly breaks for the heroes who ran toward the danger and lost their lives, for they too–like Sterling and Castile–have families that love and depend on them.
The events have sparked a nationwide debate on police use of force policies and policing reform. The debate has divided the country and there is a sentiment that is emerging that says you either support law enforcement or you support policing reform, but you can’t support both. Not only is that rather ridiculous, it’s exactly the type of false dichotomy that stops us from moving forward with solutions that actually work.
I am a proponent of policing reform, but I also respect our law enforcement officers. I believe that the average policeman is a reasonable and honest public servant. I think most officers choose the profession because they actually want to make a positive impact on their communities. I do believe there are some “bad apples”, but I don’t blame the whole profession, just as I hope others do not blame all reformers for the shooting in Dallas.
I believe that many of our law enforcement agencies have become unnecessarily militarized and have a history of using force–including deadly force–far too often, but I believe that bad policy and lack of training is often more to blame than the individual officers involved.
I believe that the culture in the law enforcement community is one that generally promotes a warrior-like mentality, and I think that far too many of our officers have an initial instinct to view the citizens they protect as potential threats and the communities they patrol as war zones. However, I think most of that is caused by politicians who put police in situations that force them to intrude into the lives of everyday citizens. The war on drugs and the hyper-anxiousness in regard to terrorism have caused us to arm our police like they are invading Fallujah. It is naive to believe that this would have no impact on the culture of a police department and it is no surprise that officers dressed like soldiers would likely have the mentality of soldiers.
People conflate a criticism of policing strategy as an attack on all officers, but that is not what it is. When we get upset that an officer uses too much force we are not attacking all officers but simply acknowledging the wrongdoing–something the police unions never do. We expect movements and even entire religions to make statements when a person who even appears to represent them does wrong, but the police unions actively deny the existence of even the most obvious misconduct.
Just like any other arm of government, police should be scrutinized by the people, but that scrutiny is not an indictment of the majority of police officers. You can support reform while also supporting the individual officers who deserve our respect.