Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Trusting the Police?

We all want to trust the police. We expect them to do what they’ve been asked to do by society – protect and serve. Yet it sometimes feels like they’re not on our side. I’m from Minnesota, where we had the Jamar Clark shooting, the Philando Castile shooting and now the Justine Damond shooting. Other states have their own tragedies to report.

According to the Washington Post, and as of the time I write this, there have been 559 people shot and killed by police in 2017. Does that seem like a lot? It seems like a lot to me.

Granted, many (perhaps nearly all) of these shootings were justified. Some (perhaps many) weren’t. But the problem doesn’t seem to be getting better. If anything, it’s getting worse.

Black people have been getting shot by the police for years. They’re fed up with it, rightfully so. As a result, a few radicals have decided to arm themselves and take out police officers in retaliation for what they see as a systemic devaluation of black lives. That belief is in some ways understandable.

But now, with police officers increasingly presenting as targets, they’re becoming scared of the communities they serve. Little things, like loud noises, might cause them to fire their weapons. Shoot first, ask questions later.

I’ve heard older white people, who never were much afraid of cops, saying, “Whatever you do, don’t call the police.” They were mostly joking. But there was an element of truth behind their words, a subconscious fear of the folks sworn to protect them.

This has, for years, been the attitude of minority communities. They want to be able to count on the police, but they know of numerous incidents where the very people they expected to resolve a problem created an even greater one, shooting someone who needed a different kind of intervention, a calmer response.

Hard to blame them for that attitude. I’d feel the same way if I were black or Hispanic or Asian, if I were an immigrant or Muslim or noticeably different than the police officers who might show up to help in a time of crisis. Even I, a white male, feel a twinge of fear on the rare occasions when I interact with cops.

After all, they have guns. And their attitude often reflects the power they wield. They intimidate and they question and they radiate tension and unease, like they’re one small occurrence away from violence. How can that not cause fear?

So they’re afraid and we’re afraid. One loud noise, one flash of light, can mean the difference between living and dying.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. But it will be for the foreseeable future. We can make small efforts to decrease the violence – greater training in de-escalation, greater interaction between police and the communities they serve, greater use of body cameras and other technology to create more transparency and accountability.

But we won’t do the one thing that will guarantee a decrease in gun violence because too many of us have too much reverence for the Second Amendment. That’s the society we have chosen to live in, but the result is that it’s hard to trust the police, just as it’s hard for the police to trust us. No one knows when the other side might pull a weapon and then a trigger.


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