Intimidated by the authority that she senses at only 5 years old, my daughter often asks, “Why are there police? What do they do?”
“They make sure that everyone is following the rules so that we are all safe” I respond, inwardly patting myself on the back for being such a good mom, teaching respect for law enforcement to my children from the very beginning. “So they keep us safe,” I add, summing up my point. And then for a second, I cringe a little. The thing is, they do keep us safe, if by “us” I am talking about the inhabitants of my Mazda minivan, my white children and I, my boyish faced white husband who has talked his way out of more tickets than most people you have met combined, with nothing more than a few well placed “yes sirs” and that innocent face he won in the genetic lottery. Then as I keep driving my daughter’s voice still chirping merrily from the back seat, names start passing through my head. Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner.
They didn’t keep them safe.
And now within a couple of days we have the tragedies of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile. Let me clarify a few points. I get there were in most of these cases, extenuating circumstances. Alton Sterling had a rap sheet a mile long, I get it. But here is the issue. I trust the cops to keep me safe from the bad guys. I don’t expect bad guys to just follow the law a little better.
Our police officers have all made an oath to serve and protect. And that is very simply, their job.
I saw a tweet today saying, “When I’m pulled over I never fear for my safety; I’m only annoyed and trying to avoid a ticket. That’s privilege. #Philandro Castile” while I appreciate the point he was making, the thing is, that isn’t privilege. It is the basic right of an American that we are paying to have. It is a basic right that our black brothers and sisters are being denied.
I am not trying to paint all law enforcement with a broad brush of racism, paranoia, and general ineptitude. There are more good cops than bad, but based on a project by The Guardian 561 civilians have died at the hands of law enforcement this year alone (it’s only July.) And as long as there are long lists like the one above full of names each signifying at best questionable, at worst cut and dry unjustifiable killings of civilians at the hands of law enforcement, we have a problem it is long past time to correct.
Many other large and industrialized nations don’t have this problem. Australia, Canada, the UK. We must demand better from our law enforcement. We must demand that they are held accountable, since we pay them to be accountable. While I thank each and every one of them for their choice to serve us in highly dangerous jobs, I expect them to do their jobs well. I expect our police officers to be vetted thoroughly to ensure candidates who can’t handle the pressure of putting their life on the line every day aren’t given the opportunity. I expect them to ensure candidates who can’t make wise life or death decisions in a moment of high adrenaline aren’t asked to do so anyway. And I expect those men and women who can’t serve each and every inhabitant of this country regardless of physical appearance with the benefit of the doubt they are guaranteed by the constitution, that those individuals will never be given a gun and the authority to use it on the rest of us.
There are many practical steps we can take to make the necessary changes to stop these tragedies from occurring, but the very first step is going to have to be the first step imperative to any true change: acknowledging the problem.
Acknowledging the problem means watching a video of a man being tased and pinned to the ground and shot multiple times and not stopping and demanding that we wait until the Police Unions get involved and the cops do a thorough investigation of themselves to draw any conclusions, it means admitting what we just saw is what we just saw. It means that when a woman who thinks her fiance just had his arm blown off by a crazy cop at a traffic stop pulls out her camera to video the injustice to prove a point her community has been trying to make for a long time now, only to realize to her horror and disbelief that the cop actually killed him for the crime of reaching for his driver’s license, we don’t stop and say “well it looks pretty bad, but she may be lying”. We cry with her and her 4 year old baby, and then we start demanding to see heads roll.
It is time for change. It is time to stop making this about whether or not you are a Democrat or a Republican, whether or not the victims were choir boys or thugs, it is time we looked at our civil servants and say “this is not what we are paying you for”, because we are one and when you kill one of us out of fear and racial profiling, you have failed all of us. We expect better. We demand better.