It was with distress yesterday that I saw news reports of riots breaking out in parts of Baltimore after a funeral. Mourners buried the body of a man who died in police custody (and whose death has not been fully explained) and then gathered to protest. Some of the protesters turned violent, smashing police cars and looting stores. The police suffered some injuries, at least one of which may be quite serious, and a number of officers were sent to the hospital. I do not know how many non-police officers were injured.
This is a mess. A sad, tragic mess.
There are a few important things to point out. First, not all of the people protesting were violent. Not all of them are necessarily even thugs, as suggested by Baltimore’s mayor. Mob psychology can make even good people do things that are out of character. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but the good people who made stupid choices shouldn’t be thrown in with the group of opportunists who seized the chance.
Second, not all of the police officers are innocents. I know a lot of cops, and I believe they are good men and women. I’m proud to represent them in various matters. There are some officers, though, that have difficulty with the responsibility entrusted to them. They abuse their power and too often go unpunished. When the community sees this lack of punishment, it leads to disrespect for the police.
Many officers, however, believe they should be respected simply because they are the police—no matter how badly they may behave. The bad behavior, of course, leads to more disrespect, which leads to more frustration for the police…and a vicious cycle continues. The police become more militant (out of a perceived need), and the community becomes more estranged.
What we see on the news, lines of police officers in riot gear facing off against apparently angry protesters, is not the full picture. Among those officers are a few who would like to “show the criminals a thing or two.” Among the officers are also many who hope things don’t get out of hand so that no one is endangered. Among the protesters are a few who would like to “teach the police a lesson.” Also among the protesters are many who may be angry that their voice isn’t being heard but who reject violence. There was dramatic footage yesterday taken from a cell phone showing a protester who was stepping in front of the police line, turning and facing his fellow protesters and putting his arms out to encourage them to back away from the police. He was joined by a few other protesters doing the same thing.
What bothers me most about this situation is that the government leaders are most interested—appropriately—in restoring order yet will not have the same level of interest or dedication to solving the underlying problems of distrust between police officers and the communities. There needs to be an honest disclosure of police abuses and appropriate punishments for the guilty—just as there needs to be a fair prosecution and punishment of those who engaged in acts of violence. If government leaders are not willing to take on the uncomfortable duty of holding police responsible when they cross the line, then all the government is doing is making the situation worse. If the community sees a bunch of protesters punished (protesters, not thugs) but the police officers escape punishment, then the distrust and disrespect for the police will deepen. The problem will become harder to solve.
I do not know what the answers are. I don’t know how to get members of the community to begin trusting police officers again. I don’t know how to get police officers to understand that they will be more respected by acting as upright individuals. I do know, however, t
hat if something isn’t done soon, we will find ourselves living in a nation that experiences more violence on both sides of the line.