Note to sheriffs and police chiefs: If you aren’t actively seeking ideas to foster better relations between your community and your officers, you probably should resign.
If you are still operating under the illusion that social unrest could never come to your town, you better think again.
If you don’t realize that a new day has dawned in law enforcement — a day where a growing number of citizens automatically mistrust cops — you might want to get back out on the street and walk a beat for a day or two.
There is now a nationwide, colorblind call demanding a change in the way law enforcement interacts with the people they have sworn to protect.
There is no turning back now. The bad apples in the policing barrel have spoiled it for the rest of you.
Most recently, a cop in Cleveland gave a 12-year-old black child — who was unfortunately playing with a realistic-looking toy gun — just a few seconds to live before pulling his gun and shooting him dead. Other officers reportedly then restrained his mother, telling her to “calm down,” and then tackled, handcuffed and tossed his 14-year-old sister in the back of a squad car.
There was, of course, the headline-grabbing Ferguson, Mo., shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August. Before that, in July, the much-publicized death of an unarmed black man named Eric Garner who was selling single cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island, N.Y. In March, Albuquerque police shot and killed a homeless white man following a more than four-hour standoff over his illegal camping.
Each of these cases has a backstory, of course, but the cold, hard fact is that there have been too many recent cases involving the use of questionable deadly force by police. Their seemingly callous actions after the fact only add to the growing anti-law enforcement feeling.
Across the country, people of all colors are asking, “Isn’t there a more humane way for peace officers to respond to tense situations? Can’t police be trained to diffuse disputes in a way that does not include fatal gunfire? Why are so many unarmed citizens losing their lives?”
I’m wondering if it really is all about race, or might it have something to do with the poverty and sense of hopelessness that traps so many minority Americans in gang-infested neighborhoods? Have those consumed with surviving the desperation simply forgotten to teach their children to respect law enforcement, to acquiesce when an officer tells you to stop an illegal action?
Why did young Brown decide to confront Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson in the street that day? Why hadn’t Garner stopped illegally selling cigarettes after police had repeatedly warned him not to? This isn’’t blaming the victim; it’s trying to understand motivations.
Anyone who reads this column regularly knows I am a friend to law enforcement officers and completely understand their daily challenges. To those who wear a badge, I say you’ve got another challenge on your plate now. A good chunk of the population has come to see your profession as one to automatically fear and mistrust. It is way more than just a public relations problem, and multiple steps are required to fix things.
Police academies have to adopt better ways of weeding out psychologically unsuitable cadets. Instructors need to include more nonconfrontational training and stress the art of street-level problem solving.
Police unions need to stop automatically going before cameras to defend questionable shoots and do more to pressure departments into providing state-of-the-art training and crime-fighting tools such as Tasers and body cameras. Demand qualified dispatchers who know the full facts of a situation to convey them to officers in the field.
The cop on the beat who displays the uber-macho, bad-guy attitude when dealing with the public needs a slap upside the head and a reminder that the arbitrary enforcement of the law is the mark of tyranny. Citizens will always fight against it.
And, finally, back to the sheriffs and chiefs of police. Learn a lesson from what’s occurred recently — from the tiny burb of Ferguson to the inner city of Staten Island. You set the tone for your department. Even if you don’t think adjustments are necessary, take another look. Citizens of all colors are demanding change.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at email@example.com, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.