“…with liberty and justice for all.”
Those are the closing words that millions of U.S. school children recite every morning at school as they pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Yet many Americans do not feel as if there is justice for all. That feeling has been illuminated by a national spotlight in the wake of the recent, high-profile deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Gardner and John Crawford III, to name just a few, none of which resulted in any charges for the officers who killed these men. The result has been protests in several big cities that have shut down roads, shopping malls, and disrupted daily life.
With that backdrop, two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafeal Ramos, were shot and killed by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a man who had shot his girlfriend before heading to New York to undertake his murderous deed.
In response to the shooting, Patrick Lynch, the head of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, that “the blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.”
It was just one of a series of statements made by police associations and (often conservative) commentators in which they claim, essentially, that because no one was charged by a grand jury, there was no wrong done and therefore no reason to critique the police. It is a position we have seen repeated often recently such as the St. Louis Police Officers Association condemning the Rams players who gestured with “Hands up; don’t shoot” and the Cleveland Patrolmen's Association issuing a statement criticizing Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins for wearing a shirt saying, "Justice For Tamir Rice and John Crawford," before the team's game.
These statements have a clear message and that is: “The points of views of the protesters are invalid and, in fact harmful.” It is a clear attempt to discredit the right to protest. In the New York City case, it is a dishonest attempt to indicate a causal relationship between the protests and the shootings of the officers where none exists – an action that only serves to exacerbate the existing tension and to misinform the public.
Such statements broadcast a position that argues that all police are beyond critique. When the police position themselves as irreproachable, they create a decidedly undemocratic relationship with the people they interact with which is outside of the basis of any liberal democracy.
In the U.S. this is important because police are, at their heart, street corner politicians. Police officers are likely the only point of contact for the average person and the government. If the actions of the police are deemed to be largely illegitimate, then the government too faces a crisis of legitimacy in which its authority begins to lose meaning and its control, through the police, becomes more and more contested even if that contestation must happen outside of the normal channels. Such an outcome is not desirable for anyone as it is not part of democratic tradition.
The reality in the United States is that there have been several instances where people have been harmed by police and there is a significant portion of the public that is largely unsatisfied with the examination of those incidents. Brown, Garner, Rice, and Crawford are not, unfortunately, unique cases – they’re just cases that have gained and sustained the national spotlight.
It is important to understand that when people criticize these events and their handling, the vast majority are not criticizing every cop or calling for violence to be directed to police in general. And the minority who do say such things are not condoned by the majority who do not support violence. Those who criticize the police for their aggressive actions that result in the deaths of unarmed people and the judiciary that fails to do anything to ameliorate this phenomenon want a better society in which these events don’t happen at all, and when, God forbid, they do, there is accountability.
There is nothing un-American or un-patriotic about demanding accountability. We are people who live in a liberal democracy and have that very right. As citizens, we ought to exercise it either by voting or being extremely vocal. Being vocal is not with out recent precedent. Take the NSA scandal and the outrage the Edward Snowden revelations caused. Americans were alarmed at the amount of information the government was collecting. Yet by drawing some artificial line that the NSA is somehow a different part of the state’s control apparatus to the military or the police is to be blind at the purpose of each entity.
It is illogical that the demand for transparency and clear standards not be extended to the police. To put it another way, if criticizing the police under any circumstances is a no-no, then criticizing the men and women of the NSA ought to be too, yet it is not (nor should it be!) . Generally speaking, people want equal treatment to go with their equal rights. And when they are treated differently, they want to understand why they were subject to such treatment. It is not too much to ask for and it is something that people on both sides of the equation have asked for repeatedly in recent months.
All that being said, if I were a police officer I would be mad right now, too but not at de Blasio who was only repeating a reality for many people of color not only in New York but in much of the U.S. I would be angry that incidents in which police have done wrong are rarely dealt with appropriately, which contributes to a negative perception of police. I would be furious that there aren't enough police officers who are on the beat, that it takes an impossibly long amount of time to get hired or promoted in a city like Chicago, that there is a lack of training coupled with expectations that require such training to reasonably fulfill, and a lack of pay given the risks and responsibilities that police officers manage every single day. I would be fuming at the systemic shortcomings that contribute to the problems that eventually manifest as deviant behavior such as a lack of mental health treatment in the U.S., a lack of support for public education, a lack of community programs and centers, particularly for these disadvantaged areas. As a street corner politician, I would be blowing my top at the injustice that exists and the demands placed on me to sort it all out magically as if I held the panacea. I would want to have an open discussion on how to make things better, because at its heart, that's my job.