I started thinking about police and their relationship to the community long before last year’s events in Missouri and New York. No credit to me: it was hard to avoid thinking about it when, nearly eight years ago, a 16-year-old in our community was shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy who had been summoned by the boy’s parents to help restrain him. The boy had a history of mental illness, and had threatened his younger brother with a small knife. The first officer to reach the scene climbed into the back seat of a van where the boy (now unarmed) was tussling with his father, and shot him to death.
In my county any such incident is investigated by a neighboring police department. Not surprisingly they found—as they always do—that the police officer was not at fault. The also-predictable lawsuit was settled for $1.75 million dollars. The county sheriff asserted that, contrary to any appearances the settlement might leave, the sheriff’s deputy’s actions were “legal and reasonable.”
After that I paid much closer attention to police reports. There were other alarming deaths in my community involving police who shot to kill when they “felt threatened,” but nothing quite as horrifying as the death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old boy who was shot by a sheriff’s deputy in October, 2013. Lopez was carrying a plastic pellet gun made to look like an AK-47 when the officer spotted him by a vacant field, stopped his patrol car and ordered Lopez to drop his weapon. Lopez’s first and only reaction was to begin turning toward the officer—he had his back to him when the order came–whereupon he was struck by six bullets and killed.
The investigation by a neighboring police force absolved the deputy of blame and he was subsequently returned to his regular duties. But the incident has divided our community. Protests have been non-violent if not always entirely civil.
On one side are those outraged by what they perceive to be a shoot-first approach of the police, and the impunity they receive. On the other side are those who sympathize with the split-second responses required of the police under such circumstances, who believe that respect for law and order entails giving the police the benefit of the doubt. Some police defenders are hardest on Lopez’s parents, who did not prevent their son from carrying an apparently real gun in public, nor did they train him to always, absolutely obey a police officer’s instructions. (Though it is not clear that Lopez had time and opportunity to know that the instructions came from an officer.)
Is there any middle ground here? I think there is, though given prevalent attitudes it will be hard to find.
We will find no satisfactory middle ground so long as police maintain their absolute circle-the-wagons response to all questionable incidents. No doubt it is a natural response, but it is also toxic to the reputation of the police. When life and death mistakes are made, sorrowful apologies are a proper response, whether or not there is legal culpability. We want such apologies from doctors and lawyers who make mistakes; so too with police. In the two cases I have described, there has not been a hint of apology or regret from anyone associated with the police. Perhaps I or anyone would have made the same tragic mistakes under the circumstances. Nevertheless they remain tragic mistakes, and their horror is heightened by the unwillingness of anyone in authority to state the obvious: it ought not to have happened, and we ought to do everything in our power to see that it never happens again. That seems like a bare minimum for civilized response to the unnecessary death of children.
On the other side, we must show respect to those in authority, and teach our children to do the same. Exactly how common it is to disrespect the police I don’t know—but it ought never to happen, even under provocation. The police take risks on our behalf, they do dirty work for us, and we desperately need their help in times of need. In some places and times they are all that stands between us and chaotic lawlessness. As my father used to tell me he learned in the army: you salute the uniform, not the man. When we show respect to the police, we demonstrate that we are a nation ruled by laws. The laws mean nothing apart from their enforcement. And there is no enforcement without people to enforce, however prone to failure they may be.
Recently I was moved by an essay from novelist Ann Patchett in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Writing years before Ferguson, Missouri, she wrote a tribute to her father, an LAPD cop. For Patchett, a transparently decent person, to salute her father’s decency, reminded me that the vast majority of police officers do their job with ingenuity and courage, and for their pains often feel alienated from the community they serve. There is a deep-seated natural tendency to despise those who wield punitive authority in society; that is why executioners are hooded. All the more reason for us to humanize our relationships with police officers at every opportunity, making a point to reach out for kindly contact.
All the more reason, too, for us to insist that the police accept that “to err is human.” They will never be treated like human beings if they insist on impunity for tragic errors.