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How Did We Get Here? A Look At Police Distrust In America

On December 20, 2014, NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were sitting in their patrol car minding their own business when a man with a gun fatally shot them at point blank range. After murdering the two officers in cold blood, the shooter made his way to a subway station and ended his own life while standing on the platform. Social media posts from the suspect point to a clear motive for the targeted killing, and this tragedy among other recent events lead many to wonder, “How did we get here?”

I didn’t plan to start this piece this way. I’ve had this article planned for weeks and it’s been almost ready to be published for days now. The timing of Saturday’s horrific double-murder and suicide has proven once again that there is a terrifying divide between civilians and law enforcement in this country that, despite protests, demonstrations, memorable slogans, t-shirts, and activism, has yet to be addressed.

So, how did we get here? How did our nation get to a place where so many have a deep distrust for the very people that are supposed to protect and serve us? How did law enforcement as a whole get such a negative reputation? How did we allow anti-police rhetoric to infiltrate young minds, ultimately leading to the cold-blooded murder of two men simply doing their jobs?

During these scary times, I think back to September 11, 2001. As a young person living in New York, I experienced the events of this day firsthand. My father, a now-retired NYPD sergeant, ran toward danger that day instead of away from it in the hopes that he could save lives. That’s why he went into the police academy in 1984 at the young age of 20 – to help people. So when put to the ultimate test, my father, like so many other brave men and women, put his life on the line that day to do what he knew in his heart he had to do. He, unlike thousands of others, survived that day, but he was never the same.

His actions that day, he will tell you, were exactly what he did on every other day as a police officer. He went towards danger instead of away from it. On New Year’s Eve 21 years ago, as everyone was ringing in the year 1994, my father was being brought to a hospital after being shot by a man on a roof who wanted nothing else but to inflict harm on police officers like my father who were only doing their jobs. My father, a man with a wife and triplets at home, was shot for simply doing his job. Thankfully, he survived and lives to tell about it today, but that’s not the case for countless others.

So when I think back to those moments in life when I feared my dad was never coming home, that he was trapped and slowly dying among the rubble of the World Trade Centers on 9/11, that my mother would be left widowed and heartbroken, I wonder how anyone could have such a deep distrust and hatred for police officers that they would ambush them and murder them in cold blood.

How did we get here?

On July 17 of this year, Eric Garner died after a police officer used what many believe to be a banned chokehold on him when, as others believe, he resisted being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes. Cell phone video shows very clearly that Officer Daniel Pantaleo had his arm around Garner’s neck as the father-of-six repeated, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

Not even a month later, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson during an altercation in which Wilson says he feared for his life.

Just last month, around the time that grand juries in both Ferguson and New York City decided to not indict the officers on criminal charges for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland, Ohio police officer while holding a toy gun.

In recent weeks, Americans have gathered in groups all over the country to protest these events and speak up about what they say are very clear racial injustices, and despite some violent rioting in Ferguson and other cities, the protests, for the large part, have been mainly peaceful.

To me, a young white man living in America, I can’t claim to know or relate to any struggle that black people in this country have had or still have to go through just because of the color of their skin, but I have seen it firsthand. I’ve witnessed one of my closest friends, a black man, pulled over for no reason other than the fact that he is, well, a black man. While I don’t understand this, I can certainly sympathize.

It’s situations like these that have caused people, especially minorities, to feel as though they are being targeted because of the color of their skin. Who am I to question that? That’s not my experience. There are certainly many truths to this, and it’s clear that our justice system is flawed in more ways than one.

What troubles me, however, is the deep distrust for law enforcement that exists in this country, and while it is nothing new, the events that have unfolded in recent times have only added fuel to the fire, so to speak.

How have people come to have such distrust for those that they are supposed to be able to trust the most? Clearly not all police officers are racists or have evil intentions – my dad doesn’t have a racist bone in his body and has a deep regard for the lives of his fellow human beings. How can people lump all police officers together because of some bad seeds?

In order to examine this, one must look back at the deep history of relations between police and civilians. It would be tedious to go back to every incident in recorded history, but in more recent times, especially since the dawn of the social media age, problems within law enforcement units have seemed to come to light more frequently.

New York City’s “Stop-and-Frisk” is a prime example of behavior that has lead people to lose faith in police officers. It’s no secret that officers specifically target minorities as they randomly search people on the street as part of this practice, and my own father is the first to criticize the practice, admitting that these stops are driven by pressure from bosses to reach certain quotas. While the original intention of this program was good, what it became in recent years has in itself contributed to the distrust of police officers by civilians, especially those of color.

Other stories have also recently caught my attention, including one involving a subway musician who was arrested by an NYPD officer for refusing to stop playing on the platform. 30-year-old Andrew Kalleen told the officer that he had a right to play music there, and even when the officer read aloud a portion of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s rules of conduct that specifically says people can perform for donations, he still insisted that Kalleen leave and arrested him when he refused. The incident was caught on camera, ultimately went viral after being posted online, and people all over the world who watched the clip expressed outrage at police for what many say is obvious abuse of power.

New York City isn’t the only place where people see police officers doing questionable things, however. Recently in Greene County, Virginia, a four-year-old was reportedly handcuffed, shackled at his ankles, and taken to the police station after a preschool principal was unable to control him during a tantrum and called for help from police. The boy’s mother was called mid-tantrum to pick up her son, but when she arrived at the school, he was already in police custody.

These few examples stand out, to me, as part of the reason why civilians feel they cannot trust police officers. Race is just one part of the equation, as abuse of power and excessive force at the hands of police officers isn’t always a white-against-black issue.

So knowing all of this, how do we, as a nation, restore trust and faith in our law enforcement officers? On the one hand, police brutality against people of color is an epidemic in this country. There are systemic issues within law enforcement that must be addressed. People of color continue to be oppressed in the U.S., and as a whole, minorities are not afforded the same opportunities as white people. To deny that these issues exist is to continue to perpetuate the strain between communities of color and the officers that are tasked with serving them. White people refusing to acknowledge their privilege is also a contributor. On the other hand, while it’s clear that reform needs to happen within law enforcement as a whole, it’s not a completely one-sided issue. Those of us who aren’t police officers need to take a serious look in the mirror, as a society, to see where we can grow and change the way we view law enforcement. When police officers go above and beyond the call of duty to help people, we build them up and thank them for their service, but when some abuse their position of power, we tear down the profession as a whole. That’s got to stop. We don’t punish every surgeon when one commits malpractice. We can’t stop trusting those who are supposed to protect us from harm when some abuse their position of power. We can’t turn to violent retaliation when an injustice happens; an eye for an eye is never the answer. It only further segregates “us” from “them” and creates even more distrust and hatred.

Maybe we can all come together, police and civilians alike, and take an honest look at the serious issues facing our nation, work together to create positive change, and learn to trust our fellow human beings again. Police distrust is nothing new, but it’s worse than it has been in a while, and the blame doesn’t fall on one side – it falls on all of us, and we all have the power to turn things around.

Photo Source: Stan Weichers via Flickr


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