July 11th, 2016
On Friday morning, I woke up and deactivated my Facebook account, frustrated by the highly charged, divisive rhetoric appearing in my stream from friends and activists on opposing sides of the Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter argument. Over the weekend, in the wake of the Dallas shootings, I’ve watched along with the rest of the country as renewed protests and hundreds of arrests took place. The stark exposure of our national fault lines is distressing, and while there is hope, you have to search hard to find it.
I’m a retired police professional, a 20-year-veteran of California law enforcement. I’m also a criminal justice reform activist, a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. So the diversity of my social media friends reflects my values—values which now appear to be at war with each other.
I greatly fear that the violence of this past week will further exacerbate the deep divides in our society. The loss of five police officers protecting Black Lives Matter protesters in Dallas can now be added to the losses of the scores of people of color, including Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota, who have recently fallen victim to the troubling state of police-community relations in America—and yes, in too many cases, to enforcement strategies based on structural racism. Every one of these deaths is not only tragic in itself, but also further poisons relations and entrenches opinions.
By now, I’m emotionally drained from continually trying to explain to friends, allies, opponents and interviewers how I can be both pro-law enforcement and pro-Black Lives Matter.
I’m exhausted from continually having to explain why it’s not President Obama’s fault that officers lost their lives; that there is no statistical basis for a so-called war on the police; that Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that police lives don’t matter; that most police officers are not racist or bad.
Not that I’m looking for sympathy; I chose this fight through my work at LEAP. The deep divisions in our country that make such explanations necessary have resulted from many issues, including both overt and structural racism. Post-Ferguson in 2014 I wrote about how the War on Drugs has poisoned community policing and shifted us away from policing by consent. I largely blame our inability to admit to our policing failures, to accept that whether or not we intended to damage or marginalize communities of color, that is what has occurred.
The formation of Black Lives Matter is a direct outcome of our poorly designed criminal justice and economic policies. One of my graduate school professors, Elliott Currie, wrote in his book Crime and Punishment in America (2013) that our over-emphasis on punishment, above all else, is just “an attempt to sweep the problem of America’s poorest communities under the rug.”
In addition to the undoubted failings of law enforcement itself, it’s clear that the police have also been given an insurmountable challenge, a task which, like Sisyphus with his boulder, we will never be able to complete. That’s because law enforcement cannot change the many socioeconomic issues that contribute to crime.
We put pressure on law enforcement agencies to produce lower crime rates, something we take as an indicator of a healthy community. Yet we ignore the fact that law enforcement budgets compete with funding for other badly needed programs, such as education, mental health services, community after-school programs, and the creation of jobs and infrastructure. Together, these programs have been shown to prevent crime and to make a community safer far more effectively than an emphasis on law enforcement alone.
For example, according to a report by the organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids*, researchers estimated that three out of 10 high school students drop out of high school, or to fail to graduate on time. By increasing that high-school graduation rate by 10 percent nationally, the researchers predicted we could prevent over 3,000 murders and nearly 175,000 aggravated assaults in the United States annually.
Recognizing that public safety is a multifaceted challenge, the responsibility of not just the police but a whole range of agencies and services, will require a significant shift in police culture and management. If we truly understood that our role should simply be to limit negative community interventions, improve community interactions and be accountable to our constituents, we could reduce the violence that impacts both communities of color and the police.
The war of words about whose lives matter more serves no useful purpose. Yet that doesn’t mean that initial responsibility for putting things right should fall equally on everyone. Instead, I believe it’s down to us, the members of the law enforcement profession, to start the reconciliation process—because we are the ones in the position of power.
In the current climate, it may be surprising to hear that many of us have already taken steps to do so, embracing reform rather than rejecting it. In a cruel irony, Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who has worked hard and effectively around civil rights, community relations, violence reduction and transparency, is an example of what professional policing can aspire to be. His leadership has seen a dramatic reduction in excessive force complaints, and the publication of information about (increasingly rare) officer-involved shootings in Dallas—the kind of openness that can help re-establish trust.
“Police officers are guardians of this great democracy,” he said during a news conference on Friday morning. “The freedom to protest, the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression— all freedoms we fight for, with our lives. It’s what makes us who we are as Americans. And so we risk our lives for those rights. So we won’t militarize our policing standards, but we will do it in a much safer way every time, like we chose to do it this time.”
Read more from The Influence:
“We ought to think that we are one of the leaves of a tree, and the tree is all humanity,” Pablo Casals, the Spanish musician, once wrote. “We cannot live without the others, without the tree.”
Reflecting on these words after the tragic events of last week, I tried to focus on potential solutions, rather than the divisive language and anger—understandable though much of it is.
I found hope in some sane, unifying voices. For example, in this article by Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, he stated that “despite their very different perspectives, participants in both movements [Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter] have essentially the same concerns.”
And Van Jones, the activist, attorney and author, explained in this video that both law enforcement and Black Lives Matter share many of the same feelings, that it’s open season on them.
The entertainer Trevor Noah made a similar point:
These voices of moderation and understanding are right. We as law enforcement professionals have an opportunity—as well as the responsibility—to find the common ground necessary to reconcile, to listen and to change policing for the better. It won’t be easy, but we have to do this to heal our country’s wounds and save lives.
*Christeson, B., Lee, B., Schaefer, S., Kass, D., & Messner-Zidell, S. (2008). School or the Streets: Crime and America’s Dropout Crisis. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, 1-12
Lieutenant Commander Diane Goldstein (Ret.) is a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs. You can follow her on Twitter: @.