by Michael Mozelle
Several weeks removed from the funerals for slain New York Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, Americans should begin reflecting on the controversy around racial tensions and police policy that began in Ferguson, Missouri. I do not intend to imply that those who took part in protests regarding the deaths of unarmed African-Americans are responsible for the acts of one individual. But the man responsible for murdering these two officers made it very clear that he was inspired by these events.
An August 2014 article in the Cavalier Daily, in retrospect, highlights how many people seemed to determine their opinions about what happened in Ferguson before all the facts were truly understood. In the article, various people assert that non-lethal crowd control measures, such as tear gas and rubber bullets, were “extreme” and “used in periods of rioting and peaceful protest.” These types of non-lethal weapons should only be used in extreme circumstances, but the critical reactions of many observers to such tactics display a lack of familiarity with police procedure. When facing a large protest, which could at any minute develop into a violent riot, police only have so many tools available. It should be remembered that these police are responsible for protecting other citizens, property, themselves, and even the protesters from danger.
Yet such non-lethal capabilities are not always sufficient to protect officers, particularly when they are isolated on patrol. Police officers must not be overly hesitant when lethal force is necessary, even while lethal force is an absolute last resort. The larger national response to events in Ferguson, MO and New York suggest a lack of support for police using these tactics when needed. Yet police officers must not be made to second guess their decisions or hesitate when their life or the lives of other citizens may be in danger.
After the grand jury in St. Louis leveled no charges against now former officer Darren Wilson, further rioting resulted in the destruction of property and vehicles, even causing flights into St. Louis International Airport to be delayed due to reports of automatic gunfire. Knowing that this sort of violence can break out puts additional pressure on police, who will also be blamed for not acting decisively enough if riots cause too much damage.
During a forum with local citizens and community leaders called “Could Ferguson Happen Here” on August 27 of last year, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longodescribed how and why his police department could use similar crowd control measures. Now that all the facts are seemingly out in the Ferguson case and they fall squarely in support of Wilson’s account, the same community leaders expressing concern at this meeting should organize a similar forum to show support for the police in Charlottesville. A police force is a public service that is accountable to citizens, but we share a responsibility to treat those men and women who perform that public service with the respect and understanding that they require to do their jobs.
On November 25, 2014, a crowd gathered outside the Charlottesville Police department to protest the grand jury result finding Darren Wilson clear or any wrongdoing. While it is understandable that one might have disagreed with the grand jury result (though this author does not), displaying this kind of hostility towards a police department that was not connected to the Ferguson shooting is unnecessary and disrespectful. The insinuation here, that police across the country are guilty by association, is problematic, to say the least.
In 2014, 47 police officers will killed by gunfire in the line of duty, an increase . Three of these deaths were in Virginia. While a sharp uptick from the 30 killed by gunfire in 2013, the level is similar to the 48 killed in 2012 and sharply lower than the 68 in 2011 and 59 in 2010. There is a clear danger to police officers from firearms, and the United States has a relatively well armed population. According to a Pew survey, about 38 percent of Americans in the South own guns, only slightly higher than the national average. Perhaps surprisingly, 22 percent of Americans who identify as Democrats and 23 percent who identify as liberals own a firearm. The survey had a 2.3 percent margin of error. This requires police departments to be prepared for combating a wide range of threats.
By comparison, 467 people were killed by law enforcement using firearms in 2013. Of these, 317 were white while 133 were black. This does indeed show a clear overrepresentation of black deaths compared to whites in law enforcement related shootings, so this author does not intend to imply that concerns over race are completely unwarranted. Instead, advocates for fairer treatment of minorities, as well as general citizens, should understand the pressures that police officers operate under before condemning all those who wear the badge.
Police departments across the country follow the basic motto that they exist to protect and serve, which brings additional responsibilities for officers that go beyond fighting crime. They are representatives of a government, and ideally, of a community. College towns, such as Charlottesville, are full of active and idealistic youths seemingly waiting for a cause to champion. The incidents in Ferguson and New York provide a sobering lesson that one should understand a story’s full background before rendering judgment.
This article represents the opinions of the author only, and not those of the Virginia Policy Review. This author previously lived in Va.’s 10th Congressional District.