Law Enforcement & Black Lives Matter
To start this discussion, allow me to state unequivocally that I support our local law enforcement. In my career I have had the privilege of working alongside many police officers and believe them to be the finest public servants our community has to offer. They put on the uniform every day, say goodbye to their loved ones, and go off to a difficult job, recognizing that any given shift may present a life or death situation. When police officers are made the enemy, it not only makes their jobs more difficult, but it makes our communities less safe.
Supporting law enforcement, however, cannot end with putting up a yard sign or attending a rally. We must listen to our police officers to understand how we can make their jobs safer and help them be more effective. If you ask police officers the type of call they most dislike responding to, the answer is likely to center on some form of mental health issue. Approximately 10% of all calls for police assistance are related to mental health crises. Police officers themselves feel ill-equipped and poorly trained to respond to such situations, and veteran officers report seeing a significant increase in the number of such calls over the length of their careers. Such calls take considerably longer to complete than most other requests for police assistance and are significantly more likely to end in a transport to a hospital than an arrest. Tragically, it is estimated that 25-50% of all fatal police encounters involve a citizen with a severe mental illness. We must increase the establishment and utilization of mental health crisis response teams. Pilot programs across the country have demonstrated that these programs reduce fatalities, are cost effective, and allow law enforcement to focus on the prevention and solving of crimes.
As for Black Lives Matter (BLM), I categorically refute the notion that supporting law enforcement means one cannot support the message of BLM. Although slavery ended 150 years ago, this was followed by Jim Crow laws to exclude freed slaves and their ancestors from economic and social opportunity. In 1934, the National Housing Act authorized the Federal Housing Authority to withhold the backing of mortgages to African-American families who wished to buy in White neighborhoods, where greater concentrations of wealth meant better schools, job opportunities, and investment in the community. During the civil rights era, peaceful protests were put down, sometimes in violent ways, and violent crimes against African-Americans were not investigated or prosecuted in many parts of the country. Once housing laws were changed and African-Americans began moving into White neighborhoods and urban areas in northern states, White individuals moved out, accelerating the establishment of affluent White suburbs and poor Black urban areas.
I was not personally responsible for any of the discriminatory policies in our nation's history that led to the significant ethnic disparities of wealth and power. But, I can understand why so many in the African-American community believe that Black lives have been and continue to be undervalued and dismissed. For me, the message of BLM is that respect for Black lives should be on equal footing with those of any other skin color and, in essence, the argument is really that "Black Lives Matter Too." Understanding this message is only part of the solution. While I understand why many in the African-American community do not trust police officers, given that it was the police who were tasked with enforcing Jim Crow laws, putting down peaceful protests, and who failed for many years to investigate violence against African-Americans, viewing police officers as the enemy is not a part of the solution. We have seen in places like Minneapolis, Portland, and Seattle the utter death and devastation caused by police pulling out of neighborhoods and allowing lawlessness to run rampant. Rioting destroys people's livelihoods and places innocent civilians at risk.
The solution to this problem is multi-faceted. First, the rule of law must prevail, but we must remember that the law is written by people. To the extent that established law creates discriminatory practices, the law should be changed. This is the task of legislators, not police officers. Second, if we assume that 99% of police officers are good public servants, and there are approximately 700,000 police officers in the United States today, then we estimate that there are nearly 7,000 active police officers that should not be in uniform. We must work with police unions and departments to take active steps to root them out. Third, we need to increase community-police partnerships so officers get to know members of the community on a more personal level and vice versa. Such actions can help to counter misperceptions and distrust. However, police officers, like the rest of us, will not want to work with those who treat them as corrupt and racist enemies. Partnerships require mutual respect and understanding; those who choose to condemn police officers trying to faithfully serve their communities are themselves fostering the problem, even if their anger is justified.
We must remember that for every negative police encounter, there are literally thousands of positive ones that are not shown in the news, nor do people pull out their cell phones to record them, nor are they talked about in town halls. That is not to excuse the bad ones, they need to be identified and addressed. At the same time, Black lives do matter and I have no problem with saying so. I reject the characterization that this is an either/or issue where one must pick a side; we will grow stronger as a community and a nation when we acknowledge our history and its legacy, and take active steps to move forward in a way that ensures equal opportunity for all.