Earlier this week, I went to a swim meet with two of my daughters. When we got there, they recognized an off-duty police officer and said hello to him by name. Not only did he know my daughters, but he asked me why my son wasn’t there also. (I had to explain that he had his own commitment – Tae Kwan Do.) It reminded me how blessed I am.
I grew up in a wonderful, small city where my father was one of two local judges. I knew quite a few police officers by name. As far as I was concerned, they were heroes and protectors.
Today, I live in a small city not unlike the one in which I grew up. We have a wonderful police department and a talented police chief. Through my interfaith work, I have come to know quite a few officers by name. As far as I am concerned, they are heroes and protectors.
I can’t imagine doing their job. They never know when a mundane, everyday experience will explode into a crisis. They have to be prepared for so many contingencies. I have the utmost respect for the men and women who serve our communities in this fashion.
However, I also recognize that there is a big difference between being a police officer in a wealthy suburb and being a police officer in a cash-strapped inner city. Further, I acknowledge – as in all fields – there are excellent, effective officers as well as poor, ineffective ones who are ill-suited for the profession they have chosen.
So, when I sing the praises of the police officers in my town, I am only speaking about my experience with my police department. Similarly, when I criticize the actions of a police officer, I am in no way criticizing all police officers everywhere. The vast majority of police officers are noble and honorable public servants. Unfortunately, there are a few who give the whole profession a bad name.
Just yesterday, videos surfaced of police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota doing exactly that. In two separate incidents, white police officers shot and killed African-American men. Was it fear? Was it racism? Was it poor training? Was it a bad day? Was it some horrible combination of factors? I don’t know. But, both of those videos look like murders to me. It’s got to stop.
As a society, we have been reluctant to have an honest conversation about bad cops. After all, the police do so much good and are such an important part of our communities. And I understand that the good, honorable officers do not want to be lumped together with – or have to defend – the bad ones. But we cannot simply go on this way. We cannot deny that there is a problem. It takes a special kind of person to be a hero and a protector; not everyone is up to that challenge. Further, the problem is exacerbated when white, middle class officers are serving in African-American, lower-class neighborhoods. The divide between the police and policed is just too great.
Earlier in the week, before I saw these two disturbing videos, I thought that I would use this space to write about Elie Wiesel’s death and the legacy he left behind. However, I felt compelled to write about the growing problem that these two videos represent.
Then, I realized that, in truth, speaking up for these two victims is the perfect tribute to Elie Wiesel, who wrote: “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
And so I add my voice, speaking out on behalf of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile because they no longer can.