Jumping to conclusions about the actions of law enforcement makes us all less safe
By Jay McDonald
Other than a handful of eyewitnesses who have yet to be subjected to the rigors of cross-examination, none of us really knows what happened when a Ferguson, Missouri police officer encountered Michael Brown. But as a law enforcement officer with 21 years of experience, I do know that those voicing their opinions loudest often have the poorest understanding of police work.
I’ve met thousands of cops in my career – black and white, male and female, rural and urban. None of them relishes the prospect of shooting someone. Yet with the most recent social media and news coverage of the events in Ferguson, a troubling narrative is developing. People who ought to know better are suggesting that some police officers are more likely than others to use deadly violence against a particular group of citizens. It’s a distortion and it’s just plain wrong.
Most of us were taught by our parents to avoid prejudging a situation until both sides have been fairly heard. That’s also the basic premise of our legal system. Yet in our current culture, information comes at us like a turbulent tidal wave of facts mixed with opinion and conjecture conflated with bias. Prejudgment follows.
Within a few hours of the Ferguson shooting, news stations were abuzz with accounts of an “unarmed black teenager” being shot by a police officer. That was the spark. Then witnesses of dubious credibility falsely alleged that the officer shot Michael Brown in the back. That was the fuel. The resulting conflagration has begun to die down, but re-ignition awaits.
While some observers have characterized the violence that broke out following this incident as symptomatic of social-economic or racial unrest, I see its effect as even more worrisome. When those who work in the justice system change their actions in response to threats of violence, the rule of law begins to morph into the rule of the mob. And when elected officials such as Missouri Governor Jay Nixon prejudge the actions of a police officer who has yet to be heard from, the illegitimacy of mob rule moves from the streets to the halls of government.
Racism has an ugly history in America and the debate over whether we’ve advanced past it is a relevant discussion. But while that dispute continues, far too many agitators have essentially declared war on police. And as a nation, we must reject that attack.
We task officers to patrol dangerous and unpredictable terrain and require them to make split second, life and death decisions to protect others. When they get it right, as they almost usually do, little notice is taken. On those rare occasions when they get it wrong, headlines blare the details and the reign of armchair cops begins.
For each of the infrequent occasions when a law enforcement officer is forced by deadly circumstances to shoot someone, there ought to be a review. A fair and thorough investigation protects everyone involved. But prejudgment hinders a fair review.
Just as a tragedy like this ought not be a catalyst to abandon reason and deliberation in the judicial system, it should not spur hasty changes in our legislative process. Those currently decrying the “militarization of police” fail to understand that the equipment being transferred from the military to law enforcement agencies would otherwise be scrapped or sold to foreign governments.
Indeed, most of this surplus military gear is for the support and safety of officers, not for use as weaponry. On the battlefield, an armored vehicle is used to deploy armed troops into the fight. But on the scene of an active school shooting, that same vehicle can help first responders transport paramedics to wounded victims still in the line of fire.
As a police officer I want only that equipment that will keep my fellow officers, the public and myself safe. Better vests, more versatile less than lethal weapons like TASERS, and better communication devices have all made our communities safer.
Even if you don’t believe that those who protect and serve deserve the benefit of the doubt, surely you can agree that they ought to be trained well, equipped sufficiently and not be presumed to be at fault.