I started writing a very different post the other night about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I wrote a draft about the need for police departments nationwide to better police themselves, to root out bad officers, and to hire better officers to begin with so that problems do not occur.
And then Dallas happened. What an awful week.
Just prior to the shooting at the Dallas Black Lives Matter demonstration, where 5 police officers lost their lives, all had been well. The large crowd moved peacefully through the streets. And Dallas police officers marched with them. Some even took selfies with protesters.
Dallas’s Police Chief David Brown, an African American in office since 2010, has worked hard to make his department accountable to all the people of Dallas. Early in his tenure, a police shooting scandal took place: an unarmed man was shot to death after a foot chase. Chief Brown responded by initiating reforms on the use of deadly force. He has also overseen community policing reforms and created a website that posts information about police involved shootings, one of the first in the nation. DPD will also begin using body cameras over the next few years.
Most astoundingly, Chief Brown has also fired officers involved in abusive situations and publicly shamed them on Facebook and Twitter. In one case, he praised an officer for outing a bad one, and called on his force not to retaliate against the one who “broke” the blue wall of silence. This type of behavior does not usually go over well with the rank and file. Indeed, just last spring, at least one of the police unions for DPD called for Chief Brown to resign after he proposed staffing changes that many officers disagreed with. Chief Brown refused to resign, but eventually backed down on the staffing changes.
Generally, however, the Dallas Police Department has been a model of reform. Even during the tragedy of the shooting, calmer heads prevailed. The department initially identified the wrong man, Mr. Mark Hughes, as a “person of interest.” They did so because folks had seen Mr. Hughes wearing a rifle strapped across his chest. (Texas is an open carry state.) However, once Mr. Hughes learned of the shooting, he quickly turned in his gun to an officer. The officer calmly took it and exchanged information with Mr. Hughes. No incident arose.
More continues to come out about the real killer, Micah Xavier Johnson. He was an army reservist who had served in Afghanistan. Early reports did not confirm if he had had special weapons training. But Army Lieutenant Colonel Major Michael Waltz, a White House aide, reviewed the video of the shooting and believes that Johnson had been “well trained” in “close-quarters battle” and urban combat. Johnson also posted rambling rants against white people on Facebook, but no one thought him predisposed to violence.
He was a ticking time bomb, however. He had stockpiles of weapons and bomb-making equipment. So once again, a month after Orlando, we have to question ourselves as a society about the easy access to guns.
The tragic killings of Messrs. Sterling and Castile brought the conversation about police violence against unarmed African Americans back to the mainstream of American political dialogue. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton declared quickly after Mr. Castile’s death, “Would this have happened if those passengers would have been white? I don’t think it would have.” A black female police officer from Cleveland vented her frustrations at the killings in a very moving video posted on Facebook. She did not hide her anger, disgust, or hurt about the racism she has seen in her profession. It looked like the conversation, though deeply painful, was getting somewhere.
Johnson’s obscene, senseless murders have interrupted the conversation. Shills of hate like Matt Drudge and former Congressman Joe Walsh have dutifully reignited the “us versus them” battle lines. They stoke the false narrative that the Black Lives Matter movement wants to see all police dead. Nothing could be further from the truth. BLM is about ending violence, not perpetuating it. It’s about justice, not revenge. Bad cops should face criminal charges for wrongdoing, not murder.
We can’t let the conversation end. If it does and “us versus them” prevails, more lives will be lost.
© 2016, gar. All rights reserved.