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Yes, You Can Be Pro-Cop and Pro-Police Reform

You can abhor violence against the police and still believe that policing in America needs fundamental change.

July 18, 2016

“We can believe in the need for police reform and still reject and condemn the attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge,” tweeted Seth Stoughton Sunday, hours after we all learned of the scope of the carnage in Louisi­ana. Stoughton, a former police officer who now teaches at the Univer­sity of South Caro­lina School of Law, has been a meas­ured voice of reason in the national debate about poli­cing, a crit­ical link between the close-knit community of cops and the communit­ies they serve. “Improv­ing poli­cing requires dialogue, engage­ment, under­stand­ing and collab­or­a­tion,” he added Sunday. “Viol­ence pree­mpts all of that.”

Contrast Stoughton’s comments with those of the head of Clev­eland’s police union, Steve Loomis, who said Sunday in the wake of the Baton Rouge shoot­ing that Pres­id­ent Barack Obama “has blood on his hands that will not be able to come washed off.” Blood, that is, because the pres­id­ent in the wake of dubi­ous police shoot­ings (and of shoot­ings of police) has persist­ently pressed for mean­ing­ful police reform in communit­ies of color, communit­ies like Clev­e­land, where Loomis defen­ded the police officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice to death in Novem­ber 2014.

Stoughton is right and Loomis is wrong. You can abhor viol­ence against the police and still believe that poli­cing in Amer­ica needs funda­mental change. In fact, I bet there are hundreds of millions of Amer­ic­ans who believe those two beliefs are not mutu­ally exclus­ive. The police union voices push­ing to frame the prob­lem as a choice—you are either with us or against us — may be saying what some rank-and-file officers want to hear. And they may be speak­ing to that so-called “silent major­ity” among civil­ians who want “law-and-order” so long as discrim­in­a­tion and excess­ive force occurs far away from their own communit­ies. But the either/or dicho­tomy is a false one and ulti­mately self-defeat­ing because it serves to stymie the very reforms that can help fix poli­cing in Amer­ica.

Self-defeat­ing, too, is the argu­ment, repeated Sunday, that “this is perhaps the diffi­cult and danger­ous time in Amer­ican poli­cing history.” Terry Cunning­ham, pres­id­ent of the Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­ation of Chiefs of Police, said that, and he prob­ably meant it, but it is simply untrue. Even though more police officers have been shot so far this year compared to last year — and even though the shoot­ing of a single officer is too much — the truth is that viol­ence against the police is dramat­ic­ally lower than it was in the 1970s and lower, still, than it has been in the past ten years. From The New York Times late Sunday:

Still, the annual number of police deaths has decreased dramat­ic­ally since the 1970s. In that decade, during one of the coun­try’s worst surges of viol­ent crime, an aver­age of 127 officers were fatally shot each year. During the past 10 years, the aver­age number of officers fatally shot was 52, accord­ing to the National Law Enforce­ment Officers Memorial Fund.

To point this out is not to dishonor the fallen or discount the anxi­ety and fear that comes with poli­cing today. It is not to “choose sides” against the police. To point this out is to simply provide context and perspect­ive to a narrat­ive that sorely needs some. To suggest, despite these horrific epis­odes of ambush and death like we saw Sunday, that the evid­ence today estab­lishes that there is not so much a “war on police” in Amer­ica as there is a nascent “war against poli­cing” that has proven to be discrim­in­at­ory, unjust, and excess­ively deadly to those in certain communit­ies.

You can “back the blue” and also back reforms that would curtail police union power to make officers more account­able. You can “back the blue” and also back changes to use-of-force proto­cols and train­ing regimes designed to de-escal­ate viol­ent confront­a­tion. You can “back the blue” and also back amend­ments to exist­ing law that would require prosec­utors and judges to take more seri­ously police miscon­duct cases. You can “back the blue” and also demand more trans­par­ency when it comes to body cameras and police records. You can “back the blue” and still be horri­fied at what happened to Tamir Rice in Ohio and Walter Scott in South Carorlina and Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri.

I reject the “with us or against us” narrat­ive that too many police tribunes are pitch­ing these days. I reject the idea that the poli­cing reform move­ment has to go at the pace that those opposed to reform would like it to take. And I embrace the work of all those officers out there, includ­ing the ones who went to the White House last week to listen to what the other side had to say, who see the need for mean­ing­ful reform and are will­ing to work for it. In their own way they are display­ing some of the same bravery as those officers who put their lives on the line each shift on patrol.

The “war on cops” ended decades ago. You don’t need to be a legal analyst or comment­ator to see that the cops clearly won — despite these occa­sional crim­inal acts of viol­ence against them. But to the victors come the respons­ib­il­ity of chan­ging tactics and strategies and atti­tudes to ensure that the noble idea of fair and just poli­cing becomes a street-level real­ity in every community. To ask the police to do better, more often, so that there is less injustice in poli­cing and more univer­sal respect for the police is also, in its own way, “back­ing the blue.” 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Think­stock)