Since 9/11, we have descended a slippery slope regarding the value of life: capital punishment, fear of the “other” (terrorist), and the continuing existence of two separate and unequal societies in America (as the Kerner Commission reported in 1968), and inability or unwillingness to merge these two Americas through education, opportunity, jobs and housing.
Police leaders must answer the question Black America is asking: “Will you stop killing us?” As emotionally weighted as that question is, I have continued to counsel, cajole and even berate police leaders for not having the moral fortitude to stand up and answer that question with integrity and action.
The job of police in a democracy is to model fairness and protect those who are most vulnerable among us; to save lives. The use of deadly force should be avoided at all costs by police. Police officers will only be able to do this if their leaders lead and they understand the importance of this from the community as their “peace officers.” Their leaders must teach and support alternatives to using force and remind them the most effective weapon they possess is their brain.
I am reminded of two stories a good friend of mine and police academic related to me about police in Europe. While in Amsterdam, he viewed an immigrant person waving a knife in a crowd within one of that city’s many public squares. A police officer calmly walked up to the man, firmly took possession of the knife, and said, “Sir, we don’t do things like that around here.”
That’s what needs to happen within our police culture. Discourtesy? Unfairness? Killing? We don’t do that around here.
The other story has to do with a British police constable who was questioned whether he wouldn’t give an insulting and unruly suspect a knock on the head if he was sure no one would see him. The man thought a moment, pointed to his badge with “ER” inscribed on it, and said, “No sir, I would not. For it would embarrass the Queen!”
When police engage in misconduct, who is embarrassed?
It may be time for an assessment of the attitudes (the ethos) of our police with regard to people, service, and use of force and if found wanting, move to improve those attitudes.
That’s why this national discussion in which many of us are engaging may not be about what we think. It may have little to do about body cameras, new policies, or better training, it may have everything to do with how our nation’s police understand what we now need them to do.