All Words Matter

This past week I worked through a conversation with a good friend. I have known her for nearly fifteen years, and through that time she has been extremely open, welcoming, and kind. She is a feeler; she has a good soul and a big heart. Her life affords her very little real proximity to people of color, her views tend to be more conservative, and especially in recent times, she desperately believes that she wants a fairer and more equitable America. I believe that she does as well. Unfortunately she, like many Americans, is struggling with the language barrier that exists between the privileged and the deprived; I also struggle with it. The dominant culture in our country is fixated with the precision, and the control, of the words that others choose to use. Mark Twain, one of America’s greatest thinkers and writers said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Despite the beauty, precision, and allure of that idea, maybe Twain was wrong. Maybe the difference between the almost right word and the right word is in the mind and heart of those who speak the words and the grace we choose to show them. And I would argue further that the person or people of greater power, privilege, or status should be willing to show greater grace.

When some of us hear Black Power, we want to hear militance and dominance rather than a call for empowering the disempowered. “Power,” to the oppressor, means dominance, and to the oppressed it means freedom. When we hear “Gay Pride,” we fear a usurpation, or appropriation of our “universal” morality, rather than an expression of the freedom to love fully and openly. Just as “Women’s Rights” is not an attack on men, but

a call for equality. However, the language of the privileged demands the status quo. It calls for peace, even if it impedes justice. It calls for those in systemic hardship to suffer in silence, aim to assimilate, or “just work harder.” It perpetuates the myth of meritocracy; the belief system that was foisted on the masses after the victors had already gathered the spoils. Back to me and my friend. Our conversation that day focused on the language of “defend and defund” rather than “defend vs defund.” She wanted the “defunders” to use more precise, or what I saw as more palatable language like reform or rethink. I was more concerned with understanding where both sides were coming from, and what they were trying to say. Here are my words; I will try to be precise.

Part 1 - Defend the Police

It is incredibly sad to hear about good police officers who are killed in the line of duty. Officers who are upholding their oath to serve and protect, all of the citizens of their communities are role models who we should compensate well, outfit and protect with the appropriate equipment, and celebrate well after lives of service to the ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” In 2019, according to the FBI, ninety-eight (98) police officers were killed in the line of duty. Of those ninety-eight, nearly half, forty-eight, were killed due to the felonious acts of others. The recent shooting, and subsequent paralyzation, of Officer Shay Mikalonis in Las Vegas, has reignited the hopefully obvious, though sometimes disingenuous, cry of “Blue Lives Matter.” The lives of police officers most definitely matter. They should matter to those they swear to protect and should matter to the system. Being a good police officer demands the courage and the ability to put your life on the line in defense of others, and that is honorable and should be defended. Edgar Samaniego, the man accused of shooting Mikalonis, if guilty, should, and if history tells us anything, will pay for that egregious crime. Officer Mikalonis and his family deserve justice; so do Breonna Taylor and her family. She was sleeping when her life was violently and wrongfully taken. If you don’t believe they both deserve justice, you should seriously ask yourself why.

According to the Washington Post, also in 2019, nine-hundred and ninety-nine (999), civilians were shot and killed by police; fifty-five (55) of them were unarmed. That database also states that since the start of 2015, 353 unarmed people have been shot and killed by police officers. That number doesn’t include people like African-Americans like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddy Gray, George Floyd, or Elijah McClain. Nor does it include Caucasian-Americans like Timothy Coffman or Tony Timpa, because none of them were shot; they were all, however, victims of excessive force.

Murder is Brutal, But Not All Things Brutal Are Murder

While the flame of the protests and the riots have been lit by murder, police misconduct and brutality along with the unserved justice provide the perpetual kindling that keeps the fire burning. It’s perpetual because we rarely deal fairly with the injustice we see in plain sight, and deny the stories of the disenfranchised by seeing their pain as either dishonest or deserved. Complicating matters is that it is nearly impossible to find accurate numbers of police misconduct. Accurate numbers would illuminate the issue, but would likely further erode public trust. The system thus protects itself by not reporting fully and fairly. As the public, we should be demanding more transparency and more accurate information. Transparency and the successive accountability for wrongdoing will make the system feel fairer. People recognize that mistakes, human error, and poor judgment happen, but every time ownership and accountability aren’t taken and justice is denied, the seeds of distrust are further nurtured.

There are many good and moral officers aching to do the right thing. There are officers who try to take a knee in solidarity with those who want justice or officers that pick up a 73-year-old man who was wrongfully knocked down by a less empathetic fellow officer. But the brotherhood says “get up,” “keep moving,” and “it is them versus us.” Those moments of humanity are stolen from the individual and are seen as a betrayal to the fraternity. Those moments could save lives and earn greater public trust across all demographics. We need more of those moments; moments of the officer shooting hoops with the boys in their neighborhood or racing with the young kids in Kingston, New York.

Outside of fairness, accountability is arguably the most important pillar of our justice system, and when we don’t hold the keepers of “justice” accountable, the system completely falls apart. People who enforce the law need to be at least equally accountable to the law, if not stewards and models of the law in the most perfect way. One of the questions on my citizenship test this past fall was, “What is the Rule of Law in the United States?” The answer was clear; the Rule of Law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are: publicly promulgated, equally enforced, independently adjudicated, and consistent with international human rights principles. It is much easier to defend officers and a system that fully champion the Rule of Law.

One Bad Apple Can Often Spoil the Whole Bunch

No one should want to punish the bad cops more than good cops; it is in the oath. If you care about justice, bad police officers can create a stink so strong that it should be unbearable to stand around. And if other officers stand in solidarity with them, how are we supposed to know who is creating the smell and how to get rid of it? The one bad apple theory as a defense of the system again falls short when we look at former officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke was a veteran of the Chicago Police Department who had twenty previous complaints of misconduct, before the day he murdered Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke arrived at a scene that seemed relatively under control and within six seconds he executed a young man who was clearly in distress. The initial report said that Laquan McDonald was shot just once, after he made a “menacing” move towards” Van Dyke. His fellow officers, some of whom were present, either supported him by lying, were complicit by their silence or suppressed the testimony of witnesses from the scene. Case closed; justifiable homicide.

And it was a closed case until others in the greater system found the courage that none of the initial officers displayed. Firstly there was the courage of the few witnesses who would not allow themselves to be coerced by power. Then there was the courage of investigative journalist, Jamey Kelvin, who decided to ask important questions to find the truth. Finally, there was the coroner that had the courage to say “there is something wrong here.” The police report he received said one shot, but the coroner found that the young man had been shot (16) times by the same weapon. No other officer shot, but they all engaged in the coverup. According to the Inspector General of Chicago, at least sixteen (16) other officers were involved with the cover-up. In addition to the officers, several other state and city officials helped to suppress the truth. How do we defend that?

The jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery. He could have received a maximum sentence of up to ninety-six (96) years. However, the judge decided to give him six years and nine months max, eligible for parole in just three. Is that justice? I can forgive officer Van Dyke for grossly overreacting to a situation; it’s problematic and criminal, but not willfully unjust. The cover-up and unconscionable defense of the bad act are what fuels distrust. According to the documentary 16 Shots, Van Dyke was the first police officer ever successfully prosecuted for the death of a black person in Chicago. I guess that is progress. My guess is that if he is found guilty, Edgar Samaniego will serve a just sentence and that will prove that blue lives do matter.

Another Bunch of Bad Apples

On this past Wednesday, three cops in Wilmington, North Carolina were fired for a conversation that was accidentally recorded in a police car. One of the officers said that he felt that a “civil war was coming” and he was “prepared” because he was going to “buy an assault rifle.” He continued to say that “we are gonna go out and start slaughtering them f***ing n***ers.” Who wants to defend that? Another cop in the same conversation called a woman he arrested a “n***er,” and said that “she needed a bullet in her head right then.” All three of them claimed not to be racist. Without that recording, all three of them would still be policing in a city that is 20% black. But at least their firing, if it stands, comes off as a modicum of justice.

The Oath

“On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the constitution, my community, and the agency I serve.”

Law Enforcement Oath of Honor

I am in awe of human beings who have the courage to willingly put themselves in harm’s way to serve and protect other people and uphold the law. I am inspired by the courage of all the policemen and women (as well as firewomen and men, EMT’s, real journalists, etc) who run towards danger while others are running away. I am not sure I have the makeup to do that. I am not sure I have the constitution to stand tall in the face of having rocks and bottles thrown at me, whether I am in riot gear or not. I don’t know if I could stand calmly in the face of gun-wielding, anti-lockdown protesters shouting and spewing obscenities in my face, just for doing my job. That is a type of courage that I don’t believe I possess, and that is why I couldn’t and hence shouldn’t take the Oath.

Living by the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor is both brave and courageous, and we should respect and defend the police officers who do it honorably. It is also brave and courageous to stand up to a fellow officer who is clearly out of line. In the George Floyd case, Officers Kueng, Lane, and Thao chose brotherhood and fraternity over the rule of law. They are either co-conspirators as charged or men who lacked the true courage to be good policemen. They are men who lacked courage in a crucial moment, and betrayed “their badge, their integrity, their character, and the public trust.” And while it may be comforting to believe, or hope, that they were a small group of outliers in an immense pool of the nearly 800,000 law enforcement officers in this country, growing evidence keeps showing us that the system is much more damaged than we want to admit.

To be continued...

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