The horrific events in Dallas this week once again emphasize with terrible clarity the war on police. Since Ferguson, police officers have been under constant criticism and attack. From President Obama, who declared that there is a problem with racism in our police throughout the country, to the “Black Lives Matter” movement that espouses the mantra that police are the greatest danger to black men. The result is a racial divide that we have not seen since the sixties.
It is against this background that Micah Xavier Johnson felt empowered to put on body armor and take an assault rifle and kill five brave Dallas police officers doing their jobs protecting the public. I wonder if Johnson had the “conversation” with his parents when he was in his teens. The “conversation” I’m talking about is the one I have heard about from black leaders and other black citizens for decades. Black parents tell their children how to act if stopped by a police officer: put your hands where they can be seen, do not make any sudden moves, be respectful, and follow directions without complaint. This sounds like reasonable advice. But what it is really telling young people is that police will kill you if given the opportunity.
The reason black parents give their children this advice is based on a series of myths they believe and propagate.
First, the myth that more black men are shot by police than white men. Not true. Second, the myth that blacks are targeted by police. Not true. Police target individuals based on the descriptions given the by victims. Third, the police use excessive force. Not true. Excessive force complaints and police shootings have decreased over the last ten years.
In spite of the above facts, there are incidents where police act inappropriately and sometimes criminally. From Rodney King to the more recent events in Baton Rouge and Minnesota (still under investigation), individual police behavior is questioned. In this digital age, almost every police interaction with the public can be recorded. Often these incidents are aired nationally by the media who make judgments that reinforce these myths without waiting for the facts to be gathered. When police act inappropriately or commit criminal acts, they should be disciplined or prosecuted. However 18,000 police departments and millions of dedicated officers should not be broad brushed because of the actions of a few.
This is not a one-sided problem. Police need more deescalation training to make sure a minor traffic stop doesn’t turn into a serious shooting incident. Police need to emphasize goal-oriented community policing where they get out of their cars and get to know and serve the needs of the citizens. They should be viewed as a part of the community there to protect and serve and not an occupying army. We need officers who desire service and not adventure.
In communities of color, leaders and parents need to change the “conversation” from fear to one that emphasizes the fact that the police are there to protect them from harm and serve the citizens. They need to realize that these brave men and women who put their lives on the line every day do not wake up in the morning thinking about abusing citizens.
We are at a tipping point in this country. We must start talking to each other and narrow what divides us and help stem the violence. This is a time for reason not rhetoric.
When I served as New York City Police Commissioner I had a simple logo put on every patrol car: “Courtesy Professionalism Respect.” If everyone followed this advice we might begin to solve this problem.
Howard Safir is the former commissioner of the New York City Police Department (1996-2000) and Chairman and CEO of Vigilant Resources International (VRI).