“The policeman is our friend.”
Those of a certain generation and demographic in America grew up believing this mantra taught to us by parents and teachers. The images of the kindly patrolman walking the beat was stressed at home, in schools and by a popular culture that showed uniformed officers as stalwart defenders of our security.
Be it Joe Friday, Andy Taylor or Matt Dillon, the man with the badge was the good guy whose job was to catch the bad guys. It was all clear and uncomplicated.
But that image began to tarnish when the channel was flipped to the nightly news during the civil rights era, and Americans saw policemen using fire hoses, dogs and nightsticks on protesters. Suddenly the good guys could also be viewed as bad guys.
Thus began our descent into what we have now, a mood approaching all-out war between blue-clad centurions and minority urban residents.
This conflict has flared up at times over the years, such as after the videotaped beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. In recent weeks, it has reached a fever pitch following incidents one after another in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.
The first shots fired by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson on Aug. 9 that killed Michael Brown touched off a storm of protests, some of them violent, throughout U.S. cities. Those protests flared up again when the grand jury there declined to indict Wilson in the shooting.
Just as that began to fade a bit, a grand jury in New York reached a similar decision in the case of Eric Garner, who died while being restrained by police during his arrest July 17.
The conflict took a new turn Dec. 20 when a troubled man with Georgia ties named Ismaaiyl Brinsley gunned down two New York officers in cold blood as they sat in their patrol car, killing Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. It appeared to be a direct retaliation for the Garner case, according to the shooter’s social media posts. We’ll never know for sure, as he killed himself when cornered after the incident.
Just before Christmas came another police-related shooting near Ferguson when 18-year-old Antonio Martin was killed after police say he drew a gun on an officer. More protests followed.
Each incident has further eroded the trust between police and the people they aim to serve. It leaves many Americans caught between their respect for the law and those who enforce it and their attempt to understand the sentiment among African-Americans who have come to fear law enforcement and justice systems they believe have not treated them fairly.
The sting of racial profiling remains at the root of this distrust, as young black men often are viewed with suspicion based only on the color of their skin. “Driving while black” is not a crime, but as long as many are pulled over for just that and treated as potential criminals, feelings will remain raw. Law enforcement agencies need to ensure that line isn’t crossed and that no one is subjected to interrogation for no clear reason.
It’s just as important to note the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are selfless, hardworking public servants who put their lives on the line to keep us safe. They are human beings, like the rest of us, and there will be a few bad apples. That shouldn’t cast aspersions on the majority who perform their tasks well and apply the law fairly to all.
Police work is one of the few domestic professions in which its members head to work in the morning not knowing for sure if they will come home at the end of the day. And many don’t. This year, some 114 officers nationwide have fallen in the line of duty, four in Georgia, according to the Officers Down Memorial Page, www.odmp.org. Last year, 105 were lost, three in our state; in 2012, 126 nationwide and seven in Georgia. Though there are other dangerous professions, from firefighters to window washers, few would trade places with a police officer on the front lines.
It’s easy to cast police officers as bullies drunk on authority if you haven’t walked in their shoes and felt the danger they encounter, never knowing if another Ismaaiyl Brinsley is out there waiting. Cries for restraint in the use of deadly force can’t factor in that moment when someone brandishes a firearm and puts lives in danger. Even with the proper training, instinct can take over.
Yet somehow we’ve got to end this “us vs. them” mentality and return to the idea of community-based policing where departments and residents are partners in enforcing the law for the benefit of all. One way to do this is to promote additional diversity in hiring so police ranks more closely reflect the racial makeup of the communities they serve. This would create more understanding and help smooth tensions inflamed by each violent confrontation.
It will take time for some Americans to view the police as their friends, and replace fear and hostility with a mutual sense of trust. Those protest signs that read “Black lives matter” and “Police lives matter” all could be amended to “Lives matter.” They all do. We don’t need to choose sides; we need to end this struggle somehow.
King himself said it best after the riots touched off by his infamous arrest: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Even in this season of hope, it’s a lot to ask for, but a new year brings fresh promise.