by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department
*This post is part of the ACSblog Symposium on Policing and Race Relations.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown demonstrated dignity, poise, humility, and courage in his remarks following the shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas, Texas on Thursday, July 7. As of this writing, an unknown number of gunmen had opened fire in a sniper attack on police officers who were on duty at a protest march following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. on Tuesday, July 5 and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. on Wednesday, July 6. It was indeed heartening to see the courage Dallas police officers displayed in responding to this horrific attack—scores of officers instinctively mobilized to confront the gunmen while shielding the protesters from harm.
Compounding the tragedy in Dallas is the department’s support, endorsement and respect for the rights of individuals and groups to speak freely, to assemble and to protest. The Dallas police department, unlike too many of its counterparts elsewhere, hold First Amendment rights as sacrosanct, and see it as a duty and a responsibility to protect individuals and groups in the exercise of their constitutional rights. Thus it is a tragic irony that such an unspeakable atrocity should occur in a city like Dallas.
Chief Brown’s courage and the courage of Dallas police officers were not in evidence however, in Baton Rouge or in suburban Minnesota where police officers shot and killed two African American men, the latest such killings that have become for many the routinized manifestations of the fractured relationship between the police and communities of color in the United States. A homeless man had called police in Baton Rouge after Sterling had apparently rebuffed his asking for money, and responding officers wrestled Sterling to the ground and shot and killed him. In Falcon Heights, a police officer stopped Castile’s vehicle for a defective taillight and the officer shot and killed Castile as he reached for his diver’s license and registration.
That we have become inured to events such as these senseless and unnecessary killings of African American men and women by police makes them no less consequential. Whether it is Staten Island; Hayward, California; Baltimore; North Charleston, SC.; Waller County, Texas; Cleveland; or Ferguson, Mo., we are (and have been) witness to the deterioration of the perceived legitimacy of the law enforcement function and its continuing viability in a constitutional democracy.