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Opinion: We need law enforcement, and we need to make some changes to law enforcement
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Protesters and law enforcement gather in the streets of Gainesville on Saturday, May 30, 2020. - photo by Shannon Casas

Somewhere between total anarchy and a militarized police state, there has to be a societal construct upon which civilized and rational people can agree that allows for the security of public safety as assured by officers of the law without a corresponding fear those same officers will abuse those who they’ve sworn to “serve and protect.”

Those who have used the events of recent weeks to call for a “defunding” of police departments, or worse yet the abolishment of such agencies, are using chaotic times to promote unrealistic concepts and accomplishing little in the process.

At the same time, those who ignore the realities of recent events by focusing on the actions of misbehaving protesters rather than misbehaving law enforcement officers, add to the chaos by pretending problems do not exist when they clearly do.

The men and women comprising the law enforcement profession in our nation are absolutely essential to the social bedrock of our society; without them there is no “rule of law.” But that does not mean they all are perfect.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo
  • Mandy Harris

There is no quick fix, no easy answer to the current standoff between critics of law enforcement and its staunch defenders. These things, however, would seem to be true:

Those who propose abolishing the police are shortsighted, and thankfully few. Others who propose “defunding,” when they really mean “reforming,” hurt their cause with verbiage that seems to focus on money rather than attitudes and cultures.

It is true that many law enforcement agencies have become increasingly “militarized” over the last couple of decades, with armaments and equipment more typically found on a battlefield than in a police precinct. With that inventory in hand, it is easy for a more aggressive mindset to permeate police operations. You don’t need an armored Humvee for community police work.

It is hard to implement a meaningful refocusing of law enforcement when politics are interwoven into every decision. Professional policing strategies should not be held hostage by the whims of a Republican vs. Democrat debate, the re-election plans of a mayor or governor, or the need for a district attorney to curry favor by rushing forth with criminal charges against an officer before an investigation is complete.

The nation’s military is the best in the world at what it does. It is not designed for the task of domestic law enforcement.

Many police officers need more training to do their jobs well. Data from the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police compiled in 2017 showed the hours of training required for certification of officers in the state was well below the national average and among the lowest in the Southeast. Better training could help when a violent situation needs de-escalation, when a mental health patient needs help, when peaceful protesters fill the streets, when entire communities teeter on the brink of explosive rebellion.

“Defunding” is a notion without validity, but we do need to find ways to reallocate funds so as to pay police officers, and many others in public service, more for what they do. The job placement service ZipRecruiter says lower end salaries for law enforcement in Georgia start at under $30,000. While our starting salaries are higher locally, if you know a police officer, odds are he or she works a second job to make ends meet. Better salaries would mean better job applicants, more stability and less financial pressure, not just for police officers but also for social workers, firefighters, EMTs and others who play a vital role in our society. 

There are systemic and cultural issues within the profession that need to be addressed, but they vary from agency to agency. Rather than a stereotypical condemnation of all law enforcement, true reform has to be tailored to specific agencies, even specific commands and officers.

Police agencies in general need to be more receptive to transparency, to opening the curtain to allow the public to see how things work, to see how discipline is handled, to have a voice in developing programs and strategies. “Policing the police” needs to be a priority; problematic officers have to be stopped from moving department to department to escape the problems they create.

All communities need to embrace the officers who serve them well, respect the job they are called upon to do, and offer assistance when possible. Good police officers are beset by all the fears and concerns and uncertainties that plague us all. We need to remember that as we critique and criticize.

On one side of the current debate are those who are quick to suggest that the high profile actions of a handful of “bad apples” have made all in law enforcement look bad. On the other, are those who would argue that systemic problems are inherent at all levels of law enforcement nationwide.

We tend to side with those who still have faith in the system, despite the inexcusable outrages perpetuated by some whose actions are inhumane blasphemies.

Even so, there are many steps, both large and small, that can be taken to make things better. The first movement in that direction is admitting there is a need for change, which requires more than just a photo op of marching in the street with protesters.

A good first step is being more receptive to listening to the community, which we see happening here with events sponsored by the Newtown Florist Club.

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