As of this date, the latest assault to result in the death of a US police officer involves two domestic terrorists in the grip of a twisted anti-semitism. The public might never learn the full circumstances that led to the killing of Det. Joe Seals, but there is no doubt that he was simply responding to a lead in a murder investigation. His death brings to over 55 the number of officers nationwide who have died from gunfire or vehicular assault in 2019, about the same number as in all of 2018. For comparison, violent deaths among US law officers in a single year equal the total of those who died on duty in Britain over the past 30 years. During the same decades in Germany, a frontline country in the battle against Islamic terrorism, about 120 were killed, one-half the annual toll in the US. Differences in population and staffing alone cannot account for this divergent picture.
Media reports of police deaths, reinforced by TV dramas in which police are regularly killed and injured, sustain the perception that law enforcement in the US is dangerous work. The year 2016, of course, was notably deadly, with the ambush murders in Baton Rouge and Dallas. None of my observations here is intended to minimize the real challenges, including to personal survival, facing urban police departments. My concern relates instead to the deeper narrative of relations between the public and their uniformed representatives, a story about the proper conditions for the exercise of lawful coercion that goes beyond even the current debate about implicit bias and racially motivated violence. The connection was highlighted this week by no less a public figure than US Attorney General Bill Barr, who chose a police awards banquet as the occasion to deliver what seems like an egregious obiter dictum on the subject of public gratitude. A Baby Boomer himself, Barr harked back to the signal conflict of his generation, the Vietnam war, drawing a lesson about the need to “show respect” to those who serve the nation. Just as “our brave troops” then were not accorded “the respect and gratitude owed them,” Barr said, so the service of law enforcement officers now is not adequately appreciated. He lectured the “American people [to] start showing more than they do – the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” and then shifted, either ominously or obliviously, to suggest that “communities” that failed to do so might find themselves “without the police protection they need.”
This Boomer, harboring his own memories of the Vietnam era and its lessons, is not happy to be associated with Barr’s comments. It’s not just the clumsy sideswipe at protesters who have raised questions about police conduct or even the ‘gratitude’ that particular “communities” are presumed to owe when people who look like them, active criminals or not, are disproportionately the victims of lethal police action. Instead, my complaint lies with idea that citizens should be chastised for wondering whether the power being deployed in their name against law-breakers is naturally akin to the violence exerted against a foreign enemy in a war zone. And secondly, one asks, if support is necessary, then shouldn’t it primarily take the form of adequate public funding, a responsibility shared by all “communities,” rather than quasi-patriotic deference to the uniform?
My apologies to the AG if this is what he meant to say, though I doubt it. I certainly accept that overwhelming firepower may be needed to subdue armed assailants–although the fate of the hostages and bystanders in the recent case of the Miami UPS hijacking suggests some restraint is in order–and the grief of families like Joe Seal’s in the loss of a loved one is unimaginable. Crimes like the Jersey City shooting raise a host of questions, most of them uncomfortable, while highlighting the complex predicament of police launched into a chaotic situation. But let’s also recognize that cop shows portray mainly the fantasies of their creators and that international police conventions are more focused on officers’ mental health and pensions than on the latest tactics of engagement. Let’s remove political grandstanding from the debate about public safety; a ceremony of recognition is not an appropriate setting for a retrospective civics lesson. The testimony of soldiers has always been that the “heroes” are the ones who didn’t come home. Maybe those police officers who are merely doing the job day by day do not expect to be lionized, especially if the point of doing so is to blame the citizens they serve. To suggest that they would not do that job on account of lacking respect is an insult not an honor. At the same time, when the issue of the police budget comes before your local government, it is well to remember that they do expect to be paid.