Will Dallas police shooting be the catalyst for needed change?
Friday, July 08, 2016
More than 50 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Dallas has once again become the center of national attention for a tragic sniper attack in downtown.
As investigators continue piecing together Thursday night’s events, America is left mourning the deaths of five police officers in the wake of a racially charged ambush during a peaceful protest. Many questions remain unanswered, but the biggest question may be: How can we fix this environment of hostility and anger between police and the black community?
"There are no easy answers to these problems," said Mark Bond, a criminal justice professor at American Public University and former police officer.
Kennedy's assassination shocked the nation during another period of racial strife in the 1960s. Months before his murder, he had pushed Congress to pass a bill that would provide constitutional protections to the rights of African-Americans and other minority communities.
The president's death actually helped galvanize support for the bill and allowed his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law spurred America forward from its period of segregation, yet tensions surrounding racial discrimination still permeate today in a powder keg that has been waiting to explode.
"All I know is that this must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens," Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a news conference Friday.
In 2012, the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer garnered national attention and generated anger and frustration. Tensions exploded to the forefront in 2014 with riots in Ferguson, Missouri, surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown. The powder keg was lit again in 2015 with protests in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
In the days before the sniper ambush in Dallas, two videos emerged showing police shooting and killing black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Revenge appears to be the motivation for the attacks, as Brown said Micah Johnson — the shooter who was killed by police with a bomb robot — told negotiators he "wanted to kill white people, especially white officers."
The fact that this act of terrorism against police occurred in Dallas is actually surprising because the Dallas Police Department has transformed into a model police force, with an express focus on de-escalation and community policing techniques. The last five years under Brown have seen sharp drops in the number of excessive force complaints and arrests, as well as a reduction in the city's murder rate.
"Dallas was random, and it had nothing to do with the officers or city," Bond said. "The shooter took advantage of the Black Lives Matter peaceful protest, knowing there would be a larger police presence to insure the peace and safety of citizens exercising their rights to protest for reform."
Now, in the wake of the deadliest day in law enforcement since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, where do police departments go from here?
Bond admits numerous changes need to happen, and it can begin with proper funding and training for law enforcement officers.
"Low pay, no continuing education benefits, officers' salaries so low that they are forced to work part-time jobs to support their family," he said. "Officers are working exhausted and under stress. We are forcing officers to make critical life-or-death decisions when they are exhausted and not cognitively functioning at their best because of fatigue, and we wonder why some officers are making mistakes."
Look no further than the Dallas Police Department, where young officers and veterans alike have been leaving en masse due to low pay and excessive workload. In May alone, more than 40 officers quit.
The news media and community leaders must do their part as well. Rather than fanning the flames of tension and emotion for ratings or political points, they should be looking for solutions.
"We don't feel much support most days," Brown said the morning after the attacks as he asked for the city to get behind the Dallas PD. "Let's not make today most days."
Officers themselves must also step up and take ownership of their role in this issue. Repeated altercations between black citizens and white officers are no mere coincidence. They are the product of a broken criminal justice system.
"Law enforcement as a whole has a problem and have demonstrated that they are unwilling to change because they feel they have done nothing wrong," Bond said. "In many times, by the rule of law they will be justified in using lethal force; however, the reality is that if the officer used emotional intelligence then it would not come down to forcing an incident into a deadly encounter."
Martin Luther King, Jr., was the major catalyst for changes that emerged in the 1960s. His leadership and advocacy of peaceful protests bolstered the Civil Rights Movement and ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
One can't help but reflect upon King’s words in this time of healing and sadness: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
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