A call for mutual respect between police and citizens

Megan Grossman, Contributing Writer

Betty Shelby, a white, Tulsa, Okla. police officer, fired one fatal shot on Sept. 16 on Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man who, for at least one full minute, did not comply with police instructions. The incident, captured and released on tape, reignited a heated debate as to the degree of police violence deemed reasonable, particularly with regard to racial disparity. Charges of manslaughter were brought against Shelby, who, if convicted, will serve a sentence of at least four years in prison. In a television interview, Crutcher’s twin sister took issue with statements indicating that in this decision, District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler was “quick to judge.” She stated that if the situation had been reversed, and a citizen had shot a police officer, that no one would argue a quick judgment of guilt.

Although I have utmost compassion for Crutcher’s family, and view the circumstances as unbearably regrettable, I also believe that Crutcher’s sister inadvertently presents a point worthy of consideration. Police officers are first responders specifically called into conflict situations where they are formally and experientially trained to manage the worst. By definition, an officer’s job entails the defensive interface with unpredictable people in instances of heightened emotions and often altered states of mind.

Of course professional officers, whose job it is to restore order to situations up to and including the use of weaponry, should be assessed differently than a citizen who shoots an officer. To what degree of anarchy would society succumb to without the over 1.1 million nationwide police officer presence? Relative to the peril that such professionals face daily, do they not deserve the opportunity to state reasons for their judgment before being publicly tried based on out-of-context footage and with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight?

Regarding use of police force, CNN law enforcement analyst believes “you don’t have to actually wait until a handgun is pointed at you because you’re talking milliseconds of a decision as to whether you’re going to pull your trigger, or that individual is going to pull their trigger.” I don’t profess to know the justifiability of this case; I am happy that it will be tried through due process. As to the validity of the racial protests that are further fueled by this recent tragedy, the FBI reports that: 1) 40 percent of cop killers are black and 2) that a police officer is 18.5 times more likely to be killed by a black citizen than is a cop killing an unarmed black person. These statistics are influential to both the on-duty officers’ mindset and the public’s perspective.

Certainly the killing of any unarmed citizen indicates excessive force. It seems relevant that a second officer on this scene, who reportedly intervened simultaneously, shot a taser. It strikes me that, given the current climate of increasing volatility and escalating violence, every effort is not made by those accused in conflict situations to comply fully with officers’ commands. I do not understand the mentality behind defying police instructions in a heated situation. I also fail to see how, particularly in contemporary times of dash cameras, public scrutiny, and social media, police officers would be inclined to fatally shoot citizens without perceived reasonable cause. I believe that the greater force at work is a dysfunctional cycle of mistrust among police officers and the communities they serve.

According to President of the National Urban League Marc Morial particularly poorer citizens have lost hope in this country’s future and no longer trust investigative processes and law enforcement accountability. This, in turn, leaves law enforcement officials frustrated by resistance from citizens. Per Morial, “anti-police rhetoric has deadly consequences.”

Instead, Morial insists society should focus on a philosophy of community policing that addresses social and economic issues and allows the building of relationships among police and their community leaders. As demonstrated by this model of law enforcement in New Orleans beginning in the 1990s, increased familiarity, via street beats and youth involvement, not only leads to increased judgment, but is also a point of intervention in the breaking of cyclical distrust between officers and citizens. This week’s news alone demonstrates the mounting tension of society. If we could take the awareness gleaned through a destructive period of polarizing posturing and rioting to now shift the focus constructively to the realization that there are no winning sides to choose in the cycle of violence, we could all become a piece of the evolving solution.

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