Yet another law enforcement officer has been killed, this time near Chicago, and while the initial, uncertain reports available thus far imply that Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz was not targeted, but rather that he was doing his job, happening into a suspicious situation in which he intervened, the killing falls into a pattern.
The account I’ve heard was that he pursued three individuals on foot and was not heard from again. He was found dead, without his handgun and “equipment,” a short time later. It appears he had been killed “execution style,” implying that his quarry–three men on foot–somehow turned the tables on him and killed him in cold blood. Lt. Gliniewicz, at age 52, was a 30-year veteran and father of four who was slated to retire in a few weeks.
The news reports portray Gliniewicz as a fantastic, heroic guy and a superior officer, but of course they do–how much he was loved and respected is irrelevant to the greater truth here: another cop has been murdered, something like the 7th in the past month, and it has to stop.
And here’s where I get unpopular. Despite the increased news coverage, police murders have held relatively steady this year, declining slightly from last year, though the perception is quite different. This is not something in which we should take comfort. The numbers are still too high. One officer killed in the line of duty is too many. This isn’t television–most cops go through entire careers without discharging their weapons in the line of duty, and that is how it should be. Behind those statistics, unfortunately, is a promise of more violence to come. The news coverage of these horrible deaths translate to desensitization to violence–potential killers will be inspired.
And we know what happens next: law enforcement, justifiably angry and fearful, will double down. Mainstream contemporary police theory is to employ hyper-dominant, preemptively aggressive behavior to “control” encounters rather than mediation. When you see a cop, on youtube or on the street, yelling and cursing at someone for what seems like a relatively minor reason, that officer is not necessarily an asshole–although he or she has been taught to act that way.
Police orthodoxy has to change. When I was a child, my mother taught me that if I ever was in trouble, and she wasn’t available, that I could go to a cop. Three decades later, an integral part of my teaching my daughters to drive was how to avoid accidentally escalating the always potentially dangerous traffic stop.—Put the car in park and turn off the ignition. Lock the doors and put the window down 1/3. Retrieve your papers while the officer is still in his car calling in your info, but be sure to have your hands where he can see them as he approaches, palms up and open. Turn the dome light on if it is dark. Once the officer is at your door, make no sudden moves–NEVER reach for anything without asking permission first–and even after getting permission, move slowly–a cell phone can look like a gun, and you can be justifiably killed for holding it….”
How have we created a paradigm in which we much fear our protectors? More importantly, are we at a precipice from which we can pull back, or have we gone over the edge? I like to think the latter, and I believe that we can do it with minimal effort and a lot of dialogue.
It has to come from the cops. I’ve written this entire piece without mentioning the giant elephant in the room–police violence. The numbers are shocking, and the individual stories–going far beyond the sensationalized events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City or Cleveland, Ohio and Baltimore are often terrifying. The issue has often been clouded as a racial problem, and while race is often a factor–the police involved are primarily white, the victims primarily brown*–this is overwhelmingly about power more than race. The two dovetail, of course, but the not exclusively.
Community policing, retraining officers to focus on deescalating rather than dominating confrontations, securing a larger percentage of more intelligent officers–by providing better pay and benefits–and, most of all, making the “thin blue line” a lot more transparent–would be a great start. If you know police officers, you know that they know who the jerks in their departments are, and they aren’t surprised when those guys do something stupid. Or something awful. This has to stop. Good officers need to stop tolerating their misbehaving peers–the very few outliers, among the majority of good, hardworking, honorable public servants–even if that means turning their backs on them. I understand this will be a hard thing to do, but the bad cop who beats a suspect, or shoots an unarmed suspect–is a traitor to his community as well as to his brothers and sisters in blue.
But what about the bad guys? There are always going to be bad guys–that’s why we need cops. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get criminals to behave respectably, or to do anything, really. They are also, by definition, traitors to their community. The police, on the other hand, represent our institutions, and must be held to a higher standard. They will not only be making a better community, and doing a better job, but they will be preventing the kind of adverse media attention that puts targets on their own backs, and on the backs of their peers.
If things continue the way they’re going, more and more police will be singled out as potential targets, which will lead to increased vigilance and fear-grounded aggression that leads to more conflict, more violence, and more resentment. The cycle is self-perpetuating. We must demand more from our protectors, in order to put them at less risk.
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*Isn’t this the stupidest thing? When I say it like this, I can’t help but shake my head–defining by skin color!