“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.