08.01.16

Op-Ed: Responding to A Cycle of Violence in our Nation (Los Feliz Ledger)

Last month, two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were shot to death by police officers in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, their deaths recorded on graphic and deeply disturbing video.  Soon thereafter five brave police officers in Dallas, who were protecting a peaceful protest, were ambushed and killed. And just last week, three more police officers were killed in Baton Rouge in yet another ambush. Individually, each of these incidents would be appalling enough. Taken together, they comprise a terrible cycle of violence and anger that must stop.

After the Dallas attacks, Police Chief David Brown spoke of his experience as both an officer of the law and a person of color. He observed that the tension between our police force and minority communities is, in part, due to a broken system that is beyond the power of police officers to solve on their own. Above all, he called for understanding and communication and recognition that we are all must work together to make our nation a more peaceful, and inclusive place.

Chief Brown is right to point out that police officers have not only a tough job, but frequently, an impossible one. We ask them to arrest delinquent students while continually underinvesting in our schools and leaving kids with nothing to do when school is over. We ask them to intervene when those with mental illness break the law, instead of providing adequate mental health care. And we have done nothing to stem the flood of firearms onto our streets.

We have lost 68 officers in the line of duty this year, a mortality rate that has continued to rise significantly since 2009. Notwithstanding the difficulties and dangers, police officers return to work day after day in an effort to keep us safe. Without them, there is no security and no rule of law.

Even as we mourn for our officers killed in the line of duty in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and elsewhere, we also mourn with the families of those killed when officers use excessive force. This is not a new issue in our country by any means, but one that has been brought home to many Americans as never before by cell phone recordings in the most vivid detail. For many in the minority community, no video was necessary to document the use of excessive and often-deadly force – they have seen it, experienced it, and know it only too well. For others, it has been a painful revelation. There is no way to watch these videos without deep dismay, shock and sometimes, horror.

When these videos first began coming to light, I called for the broad use of police body cameras. Last year, the Department of Justice pledged to invest over $20 million dollars in funding for body-worn cameras and training for their use. The Los Angeles City Council also approved funding last month to purchase and equip police officers with an additional 7,000 body cameras.

While these cameras are by no means a panacea, they do beneficially impact the conduct of those wearing the cameras as well as those being filmed. In this way, they help avoid unnecessary confrontations. And when there is an allegation of the excessive use of force, these videos can provide essential evidence.  In Rialto, California studies attributed the a dramatic 50 percent decrease in reports use of excessive force by police directly to their Department’s practice of assigning body cameras to on-duty officers at random.

At the end of the day, however, there is no technological solution to issues of race in America, and, in particular, the impact of race when police interact with the communities they serve.

The distrust of police by minority communities is not something easily repairable, but we have seen ways in which cities have successfully begun to bridge the divide. When, in Wichita, Kansas police learned of a Black Lives Matter protest being planned, the police chief called the organizers and offered an alternative – a police and protestors would join for a barbecue and forum – as a way to come together.  Though it will require many years of hard work, this kind of innovative thinking is a promising place to start.

Discrimination in America is a problem as old as our nation – indeed much older – and one we must confront together. The answer must not be violence against those dedicated to our safety, or meeting one injustice with another.  We all have to commit to confronting our prejudices, to healing the nation’s wounds, and building a more just and peaceful America.