If you’ve been keeping up on the national news lately, you might think there’s something rotten swirling inside the water cooler of your local cop shop.
From New York to Los Angeles, from Missouri to Pasco, it seems police officers have declared war against minorities, immigrants and the impoverished. Looking for an inflammatory statement that paints cops as racist killers? Just dangle a microphone in a crowd.
While television media is, as always, willing to provide a point of view for those lacking one, there is more to the story for those inclined to think for themselves. In fact, there is not a story, per se, but several stories.
But first, let’s look at some basic numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 there were 15,563 police agencies in the United States, which together employ some 780,000 sworn law enforcement officers. Together, this equates to an annual number of police incidents which can best be expressed exponentially. According to Wikipedia, an average of 400 justified homicides by police occur each year, while 126 police officers lose their lives in the line of duty each year.
Against that vast backdrop, here are a few of the stories highlighted in the media.
• As was recently confirmed by federal civil rights prosecutors, the ubiquitous “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” slogan, based on the assertion that Michael Brown was shot by a Ferguson police officer while surrendering, was utterly false. Witnesses stretched the truth or lied. Fortunately, the forensic evidence did not.
• Last Sunday, the viral video of Los Angeles police officers fatally shooting a homeless man yet again incited anti-police rhetoric. This despite a forensic video expert (hired by CNN) whose analysis clearly showed that the man had, in fact, grabbed an officer’s firearm before three officers simultaneously shot him.
• Wednesday’s News Tribune also provided details of a scary encounter in Tacoma. An enraged man confronted a lone police officer, yelling profanities, racial epithets and death threats. When the officer got out of his car, the man shoved his hands in his pockets, refusing to remove them.
Because a similar situation happened to me, I assume the officer’s thoughts were the same as mine were: Did he have a gun, and if so could he shoot me quicker than I could respond?
This incident could have ended violently, either with the death of the deranged man or the police officer. Though the officer tackled and arrested the man (who allegedly was armed with a knife), I did not like the article’s headline, “Officer keeps his cool,” an implication that any other response would have been rash.
In contrast, the death of Eric Garner in New York while struggling with police officers and last month’s deadly police shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco appear much harder to justify. With few details from the brief footage, the use of force in each case is certainly questionable.
But before I would consider racial profiling, I would first question the police procedures, training and, above all else, the leadership of those involved. Why not racial profiling?
Fair question. Like it or not, we are all cursed with our own individual prejudices. Both our upbringing and our daily experiences leave indelible impressions upon us, and it is only human nature to recall those impressions in future encounters.
So what keeps police officers – or anyone else, for that matter – from devolving into automatons who base every decision on their prejudiced instincts? That would be the aforementioned procedures, training and leadership.
In a word, professionalism.
Yes, it’s a dangerous world. Yes, police officers make mistakes. But for those whose job it is to rush towards trouble, whose blood runs blue, whose identity is best symbolized by a badge, there can be only one response to the public’s outcry against them.
Protect and serve.
Brian O'Neill, a Gig Harbor resident and former South Sound police officer, is a former reader columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.