Truth and Meaning: Respect

In an editorial earlier this week titled “We should respect our police officers,” the Midland Daily News asserted that “Police actions have been scrutinized to the point in which many law enforcement officials believe that they can no longer do their jobs effectively because of public pressure.” The editorial concluded, “Law enforcement officers have a demanding, difficult and sometimes dangerous job to do. And because of that, they deserve our respect.”

There are two ways for the reader to take editorial sentiments such as these. First, they can be viewed as the innocuous kind of flag-waving we see on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. However, on the other 363 days of the year, our veterans go without adequate treatment of the mental and physical afflictions they suffered performing the dangerous work of imposing American foreign policy around the world. On each of the other 363 days of the year, according to the Veteran’s Administration, 22 veterans commit suicide. On the other 363 days of the year, our best patriots must live with the knowledge that their dedicated service has contributed to innocent civilian deaths, torture, and the ongoing destabilization of sovereign foreign governments.

So this editorial could simply be rhetorical pleasantry, a pat on the back to men and women who do perform a truly demanding, difficult, and sometimes dangerous job in our society. No one taking to the streets in Ferguson, New York City, Washington, D.C., or elsewhere is questioning the courage of law enforcement officials. They would join in commending police for taking dangerous criminals off our streets, for protecting and serving the citizens within their jurisdictions.

But, the second interpretation of this editorial reveals a far more insidious agenda. In citing the findings of the statistics compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the editorial fails to offer the details of the 50 firearms-related fatalities of police officers in 2014. Only 15 of those 50 resulted from ambushes, including the two recent heinous murders of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in New York City. Most of the firearm-related deaths of police officers in 2014 came from the regular performance of their duties, including traffic stops, routine investigations of suspicious behavior or disturbances, and others including accidental shootings. A logical conclusion one might draw from these statistics is that too many people own and carry guns who should not have them and that our society should improve efforts to better manage the sale of deadly firearms.

The claim that “many law enforcement officials believe that they can no longer do their jobs effectively because of public pressure” is dangerous hyperbole. If our police must exact unquestioning loyalty in order to perform their function, then something is wrong with our law enforcement system. If we are unable to hold people accountable for the negligent acts of violence committed behind the shield of a uniform and badge, then something is wrong with our criminal justice system. And if we continue to allow unfettered access to deadly firearms without adequate controls, then we should hardly be surprised at the toll such a policy exacts on our citizens and on our police.

The concern being expressed about the recent deaths of unarmed African-American boys and men at the hands of police officers has nothing to do with being pro- or anti-police. Dismissing recent “public pressure” as anti-police sentiment is misleading and factually incorrect. Recent public pressure has focused on our inability to objectively follow our system of prosecutorial due process in order to find justice. It is about needless deaths and what must occur to prevent such waste from ever happening again.

Should we respect the police? Absolutely. But respect does not mean turning a blind eye when police abuse their authority or use lethal force inappropriately or unevenly. Respecting the police means not only honoring their contributions, but also holding them accountable when their actions result in the death of innocents.