If We Cannot Make Progress on This, Much Else Will Never Get Right
Here We Are
Once again, we sit in front of our TVs and watch our nation burn. We have been here before, and surely will again. This time has some important differences, as well as some timeless evil.
That there are racial disparities in the dispensing of law enforcement and justice should not be a surprise to anyone by now. Although some resisted the terminology and the messaging, the Black Lives Matter movement has done much to educate the rest of us in preparation for this moment. The hard, cold statistics are unwavering. Your odds of dying at the hands of a police officer are stunningly high if you are black, particularly if you are black male.
Black parents fear for their children’s lives literally every day, every time they step out the door. One chance occurrence, one misinterpretation, and someone’s child is dead. Who the hell can be expected to live that way? And yet people do – for their entire lives.
But what makes this time even more dangerous is our failure to police effectively and consistently. More on this in a moment, but one of the results that makes this so dangerous now is that a lot of police departments themselves feel under attack and at risk. When the people you have entrusted with sanctioned violence feel threatened and as outsiders, no good can come forth. This will end badly, every time.
Living Where You Work is Key for Law Enforcment
One of the striking lessons we seem never to learn is that community policing works; its absence is a lit fuse. Like so many other places (remember Ferguson?), the Minneapolis Police Department is a force of outsiders. Over 94% of that force does not live in the city they are charged with securing. I expect that percentage is even higher among the leadership at all echelons.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how this happens. Sometimes the city is not a desirable place to live. Oftentimes, it is too expensive to live there. But there are places that have overcome such obstacles, to great benefit. A police officer that lives where he or she serves feels a connection to the community they serve. Equally important, their neighbors know them, see police cars parked in front of homes in their neighborhood all the time. Sustained proximity does not solve everything, but it makes a better set of outcomes possible. It is worth serious investments to make it happen. It is reasonable to expect police leadership to set the example.
Three Warning Signs
I have known a lot, I mean a lot, of law enforcement people over the years, local and federal. Most I have found to be decent, dedicated people trying hard to do the right thing. But three particular warning signs should be called out and addressed.
One, policing attracts two kinds of individuals. One is the natural protector. They want others to feel safe and secure; they will take great personal risk to provide that protection. That accounts for the vast majority of those I know in law enforcement. The other is the natural bully, who seeks to dominate (a term used just this week by a particular politician…) and has a bit of the sadist in their soul. Every law enforcement agency knows this type of person. It is not always obvious at first, but the signs do show up.
Departments that are slow to identify and cull out these types are asking for trouble. Even good officers can be charged with misconduct, but the man now charged with murder in Minneapolis had 18 such charges against him. The guilt of the crime he is now charged with is shared by his supervisors over the years. There are more than a few of these people out there in uniform. They are bad news for everyone, including their fellow officers.
Two, even good people get burned out. Doing street level law enforcement is hard, dangerous, discouraging. You see people at their very worst, day after day. There is gratuitous violence. Every call, no matter how innocuous , could turn fatal. The military learned a very long time ago that people cannot operate in the combat arms forever, nor can they sustain battle forever. The Command must build in breaks and rotations or face having a cruel, malignant force of soldiers that have lost too much of their humanity. Their moral injury becomes too great to heal. So too must it be with law enforcement at the front lines. People burn out.
Three, if the gap between law enforcement and civil society, including political leaders, gets to be too large, the risk is of having an organized force, armed and sanctioned to commit violence in our name, that feels itself under attack. Under attack individually and as a unit. They are not connected to the communities they serve, they do not trust their political leaders, and they do not see any way for it to get better. They will surely circle the wagons and push back.
A Deadly Combination
In this last concern, now we have an armed force that feels betrayed and threatened. It is in the midst of a community that feels that this armed force is their main threat, one incapable of working with the community in any meaningful way. In other words, we have two groups that are angry, feel threatened and at some point, feel they have nothing to lose. Anyone with a smattering of history and human psychology will tell you there is nothing more dangerous than an angry man who has nothing to lose.
Hope and Despair
We saw the full spectrum on display this weekend. Police officers were marching with demonstrators, helping demonstrators who had fallen or needed some other kind of help. Demonstration leaders were calming each other down, making a human circle to protect isolated police officers, and separating out troublemakers.
These are dangerous times. People are angry and have every right to be. If you are not angry about the history that brought us to this point, you are part of the problem.
But be aware there are those that very much want to agitate the calls for justice. There are anarchists and extremists both left and right who fan the flames of destruction. It is so much easier for them now to communicate, and to miscommunicate. They tarnish the memory of those whose deaths started this movement. They don’t care. We all need to be wary. Call them out, isolate them, punish them. Don’t let justifiable calls for justice play second fiddle to looting and violence. We don’t have the luxury of getting this wrong.
Can We Do This? Dare We Not?
Civil strife is never easy. There is pain and misunderstanding everywhere we turn. Irrational actions spring up in an instant. But so too are there opportunities to deal with both cause and effect. Joe Biden and others have been clear and compassionate in calling on us to do just that. But a nation where the President disdains the rule of law without consequence and who so clearly identifies with the worst of our nature is a nation at risk.
Bryan Stevenson has often and articulately spoken of the power of proximity. It is not enough to sympathize with others. We need to get uncomfortably in close with them, to live a bit in their world. Until more of us understand what it is like to be a black man walking a street alone or being a police officer feeling hated by everyone around him, we will not break this gordian knot of mutual distrust. And until we do, it will not get better. Those who thrive on hate and division will carry the day. Because we allow them to do so.
No one is going away, America. We all live here. Together. Best we start working on how to do that the right way. This one will be hard to solve. But solve it we must.
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