On July 5th, Alton Sterling was shot and killed in Louisiana by Baton Rogue police as they had him pinned to the ground. The next day police in St. Paul, Minnesota shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. On July 7th, at an event in Dallas protesting the two killings, a man systematically targeted and killed five police officers, in addition to wounding seven other officers and two civilians. It was the deadliest single-day for American law enforcement since September 11th, 2001.
I’m not sure there is a way to “make sense” of a week like this.
I want to first start by making clear that there is no moral equivalency to the events I just outlined. The attack in Dallas was cold-blooded murder by a man intentionally targeting law enforcement officials. His despicable actions took the lives of five public servants and endangered dozens of peaceful protestors. The shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota are incredibly tragic and it will be some time before we know all the facts, but I approach it from the assumption that the police involved acted with the intention of protecting themselves and bystanders. In that assumption, I admittedly bring forward the bias of my own perspective and experience.
Law enforcement, like military service, is an incredibly demanding job that requires great sacrifice in terms of hours worked, exposure to dangerous conditions, and a level of compensation not commensurate with the demands and risks involved. I have the greatest respect for those brave men and women that choose this line of work, a group that includes close friends and family members.
But saying that the police may have felt they had need and reason to protect themselves does not by itself justify the killings or absolve them of responsibility. High levels of risk do not mean you can shrug your shoulders and say, “Tragic events will happen in high-stress situations.” Although we must wait for the investigations for these particular incidents before we pass judgement, we should always remember that in these situations, the onus is on the police to remain calm, clearly communicate instructions, and only escalate force to a level appropriate to the assessed threat. Recent trends indicate that numerous local law enforcement agencies must make greater strides toward better training and greater professionalism within their ranks, such as those outlined by retired Detective Mike Conti of the Massachusetts State Police in a recent BBC interview (starts at the 7:15 mark). It’s a demanding job, and not everyone is going to have the character traits to be poised in extreme circumstances. Better to find that out during the qualification process than on the streets.
Ultimately, we must reduce the level of violence in this country. It runs a spectrum, from mass shootings and the assassination of police officers to tension-filled traffic stops and Walmart brawls. We are a long way from Alexis de Tocqueville’s America. Our civil society is unraveling. Despite unprecedented levels of connectedness thanks to personal technology and social media, we are stove-piped and vacuum-sealed into the comfort zones of our own perspective. We are hyper-partisan and have lost the ability to seek and find compromise: on gun control, on criminal justice approaches, on combatting poverty, on education reform…on a whole host of policy questions that could help us become the best possible version of our great nation.
How do we reach such compromise? I have some thoughts, but that’s a whole other post…
Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.