Police do better when they earn their respect

NYPD-car-aHundreds, thousands of African-American youth are gunned down each year, mostly by other African-Americans. For many, their stories become the landscape of the world in which we live. We almost expect these homicides to lead our local news; in some cities it’s like turning the pages of a book, with each day being a slightly different story of black-on-black crime.

In each killing, the questions naturally arise as to “why.” These killings are so commonplace that we rarely try to answer the question with more than the standard perfunctory responses:

  1. Somebody shot somebody and we may or may not find out who did it or why.
  2. We have underlying societal conditions that cause urban dysfunction and consequently so much black-on-black crime.

When two New York police offers were gunned down ambush-style in Brooklyn on December 20, 2014, it was anything but a commonplace happening that just blended into the background of our daily viewing, listening or reading. It was not a case of “shit happens.” Because the media gave it much greater importance than black on black crime, it required a societal response. The first part of the equation was to figure out who was responsible, and next on the agenda was to play the blame game, even if it had nothing to do with the actual shooting.

It was quickly determined that the killer was Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a career criminal from Baltimore with 19 arrests to his name. Before the ambush in Brooklyn, he had shot his girlfriend in Baltimore County and then sped up to New York, apparently to execute any police officers he found. Along with his criminal record, Brinsley had a long history of mental illness. Recently, he had not been compliant in taking his prescribed medication.

There are two basic problems with how this all unfolded:

  1. Without provocation, Brinsley mercilessly killed two innocent police officers.
  2. Public reaction included loud voices playing the blame game in a most inappropriate way.

Former New York Governor George Pataki, using the clipped language of Twitter, he wrote: “Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder & #mayordeblasio. #NYPD

What does Pataki mean by the anti-cop rhetoric of Attorney-General Holder or Mayor DeBlasio? Both of these men have repeatedly expressed strong support for police officers and the essential work that they do. However, their support of cops is not blind, as Pataki might think his is. If a police officer acts in an inappropriate way, statesmen like Holder and DeBlasio expect there to be thorough investigations and disciplinary action taken when found to be appropriate.

While there were certainly extenuating circumstances in Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, there was nothing justifiable about Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold on Eric Garner in Staten Island. It is reasonable for citizens to be upset with the conduct of Pantaleo and his fellow officers. One of many appropriate ways for citizens to express their dissatisfaction is to take to the streets and peacefully protest. If the mayor of their city is supportive of the demonstrations, it can be government at its best, as leaders and followers are joined at the hip in expressing a need for change.

The fact that Mayor DeBlasio was critical of both Officer Pantaleo’s conduct and the inactions of a grand jury that did not indict him for anything does not make him anti-police. It means that he did not approve of what one officer did and a grand jury apparently condoned.

Like so many responsible leaders, DeBlasio expects law enforcement officers to live up to strict standards when it comes to the use of force. He also knows that a rogue police officer does harm to all other officers. It is in the best interests of police departments to have standards of civility and to have them enforced. This strengthens all police officers, particularly their relations with the communities that they police.

A fundamental role of police is to enforce our laws. Our laws include First Amendment protections – allowing people to peacefully protest. This work may not be easy for police officers, but it is necessary. When police officers and their representatives blame Mayor DeBlasio or Attorney General Holder for the bizarre actions of a mentally disturbed individual, they undermine their own authority. They misdirect the investigation, all in the name of a misbegotten sense of law and order. Those who support real policing, who support the First Amendment, and who want a more peaceful society need to remind the police that like everyone else, their respect is earned every day by good work. When they fail to do that, they need to pick themselves up and resume good policing. They will then receive the respect that they deserve.