By JOHN TEAGUE
The July 7 events in Dallas, Texas can’t help but evoke something. I’m not especially given to sadness or grief; I have another, rather undefined emotion, and I hear other cops who share mine: it’s akin to consternation mixed with a bit of dread, and not so much for us cops as for our collective, American future.
Regardless, what happened punctuated something that’s been haunting my conscience for at least the last two years. It isn’t the killing of police officers—occupational violence is part of the job description; it’s the random killing of them. If we’ve turned a corner where the occasional, indiscriminate killing of cops is a new normal, the consequences will be dismal, and I don’t mean for the cops—we’ll adjust our tactics—but for the communities we serve, and firstly in the poorer neighborhoods, where the mostly good people are most in need of good policing.
The vast majority of peace officers patrol alone, and they’re used to keeping the threats to their safety in front of them. The consequence of having to safeguard their flanks and rear is that cops will be less willing to expose and invest themselves in recalcitrant neighborhoods. Some folks may think they’ll be unaffected, but deteriorating neighborhoods have a pernicious way of metastasizing whole communities.
So, what’s to be done about it? There’s no doubt some change in policing is required because the present strategy of policing people instead of problems inevitably leads to over-policing, too much law enforcement. That seems commonsensical now, but we didn’t understand it until relatively recently.
For decades, arrest-and-punishment seemed to work and to make sense. Maybe it did in what seemed to be a relatively homogenous culture; however, our culture is not homogenous, except that almost every man and woman—regardless of his or her race or station in life—longs for the same things: among them are security in one’s home and person, a good job, and an optimistic future for their children.
The police play a significant role in securing the ability to achieve those desires, but we should play a role that is at the same time more significant and less unintentionally harmful. Instead of quickly defaulting to arrests, law enforcement has been steadily, and with quickening speed, moving in the direction of fixing root problems. It’s a moment that’s been coming for two decades.
Yet at this crossroads, there are also some who profit from the teased-out narrative that cops are inherently bad for communities and people of color, and they—wittingly or not—provoke angry, impressionable people into becoming angry, dangerous people. If this continues—if there is a new normal—then high-risk and at-risk communities, and ultimately all of us, will experience more crime.
Two things need to happen. People need to protest softly without letting agitators define the narrative. And policy-makers must resist the urge to wrangle the police, hobbling them into the same old tried-and-failed tactics; rather, they need to let us continue on the path of change. But because they’ll be pressured to take action now, policy-makers can work with law enforcement to define the outcomes and set benchmarks for getting there.
Because the systems that right wrongs are often downstream from police work, there isn’t always immediate reward, but occasionally we right wrongs that only we who are in the right place at the right time are able to make right. For this reason, America needs cops. She needs them to police smartly and justly, and to be present and unafraid, even, like in Dallas, to protect those who protest them.
(John Teague is Chief of the Keizer Police Department.)