In ‘Trying Times,’ Demand Safer Policing


Donna Ladd

"I'm tired physically and emotionally. Disappointed in some family, friends and officers ... but hey what's in your heart is in your heart. I still love you all because hate takes too much energy but I definitely won't be looking at you the same."

Baton Rouge police officer Montrell Jackson, 32, posted that on Facebook on July 8, nine days before a Missouri man gunned him and other officers down in what may have been his personal retaliation for the drumbeat of tragic deaths of black men at the hands of cops.

This is a long-time problem in the United States that the nation has finally started to grapple with in recent years due to cellphone video that makes it difficult to justify or deny the circumstances of many of those deaths.

Like many black officers, Jackson's words indicated that he felt caught in the middle, much as many black police officers I've talked to in the last year. Many love being on "the job," working to protect people and are loyal to the force. Many of them are also against the tradition of over-policing and ingrained bias that has affected people of every ethnicity, but especially people of color.

"Thank you to everyone that has reached out to me or my wife it was needed and much appreciated," Jackson wrote after Alton Sterling's alarming death in Baton Rouge, followed closely by the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota, and then the sniper attack on Dallas police officers, and then the rough arrests of hundreds of protesters in Baton Rouge.

"I swear to God I love this city but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. I've experienced so much in my short life and these last 3 days have tested me to the core. ... These are trying times. Please don't let hate infect your heart," he continued.

But we are a divided nation, and hate does infect many hearts, as does anger at many years of ignored dangerous policing that leads to little recourse. It's a powder keg, and one that many people are trying to ignite—from the "CIVIL WAR" headline on the New York Post after the Dallas shooting, to all the immediate tweets calling #BlackLivesMatter a "terrorist group" (and a petition to the president for the same), to the explosive people on either side who stockpile weapons just waiting for a chance to supposedly avenge the wrongs of "the other."

Let's dispense with this now: #BlackLivesMatter is not a terrorist group. It's a hashtag used by a huge variety of people fed up with police deaths like Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and so many others—that cops aren't held responsible for. It's a statement born out of desperation that makes it clear, finally, that black lives do matter, even when one of them does something slightly wrong or that police officers don't expect. It's a message that makes police officers too often, as former police officer and now Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams told me last May, choose the last and most violent tool in the toolbox when the suspect is not white, too often leading to a senseless death over a minor crime.

This understanding that black (and brown) lives do matter even when it's someone doing something unpredictable in a poor neighborhood must break through all the noise. What we're seeing now is many, many decades of frustration bottled up over the fact that bad cops too often get away with violent policing against people of color—and that even many good cops, not to mention many white Americans, defend the bad cops no matter what. It reminds me of people who slam those who criticize rapists or abusers as "hating all men." No, we're talking about the ones behaving badly. Don't we get to?

The #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter responses are offensive to many people of color, but not because the statements aren't true: I don't know a supporter of the movement to call out bad policing who does not believe that the lives of all humans are important (although there are certainly extremists and rogues in every group). The point is that non-black (and brown) lives are not the only ones that matter, even when they do something slightly wrong.

Men like Montrell Jackson and white cops like Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald matter. So do Garner, Sterling, Castile and a boy like Rice. It's time that we face this fact squarely and not allow those who don't value their lives to control our responses, especially if we're white.

Like Jackson, black police officers have told me repeatedly that they are torn between two worlds—and it's a complicated world in which some of them end up over-policing people who look like them (see Garner and Freddie Gray cases). And those who don't can still be blamed because they are part of an institution that is too slow to change, or a ship slow to right its course, as Eric Adams put it to me.

Many, including Adams, will tell you that over-policing probably got more brazen after the infamous Street Crimes Unit fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, who was hanging out on his Bronx apartment's stoop after a long work day back in 1999, and he tried to show them his wallet after they profiled him for maybe being a criminal.

The officers got off with a defense that argued (correctly) that they were doing exactly what the NYPD taught them to do, and that Diallo wasn't doing exactly what they expected him to do, although he reacted the way many of us might have if men in plain clothes jumped out of a Taurus and ran up to us at midnight with guns drawn. He fumbled and tried to back up and hide.

In Diallo's case, the cops' attorneys also blamed people who protested his death, arguing that they were the ones drawing attention to the case. This is what we see now with #BlackLivesMatter—people who do not want to demand that the institution of policing become safer for everyone, including cops, want to blame the people who are organizing to make it safer for everyone. They ignore research showing that cop disrespect and over-policing make the streets more dangerous for everyone, including cops.

Most disturbing to me as a white woman, frankly, is how many people who look like me seem to have no sympathy whatsoever if a victim of police brutality is a person of color—assuming they deserve it. It also disturbs me to see anyone justifying murder of a police officer, but I see that far less often than I do the defense of deadly policing.

The good news is that many police departments are trying to improve training and even root out implicit bias in their ranks—better late than never. Now, the rest of society has to do our part and stop defending a bad cop no matter what he or she does, or it will never change. We must learn the difference if we want unarmed people and innocent police officers to stop dying senselessly.


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