|Brent Thompson, one of the officers slain in Dallas.|
In the 1980s, when such things were still possible, I spent a Christmas Eve riding along with two Chicago cops in the 2nd District—the area around 51st and Wentworth. The central memory of that night is that I was scared—particularly charging up the darkened stairway of a six-flat—and I was with two cops.
Police have hard jobs—that doesn't get said enough, because it's obvious, and because it's beside the point in the steady drip-drip-drip of abuse-of-authority cases we see in Chicago and across the country. When innocent black people are being murdered on camera by police, the fact that most officers are doing their duty somewhere else isn't particularly relevant.
The difficulties police face is a fact we only only acknowledge when something like Dallas happens, when officers are killed in the line of duty and suddenly their perspective snaps into view—it's a job that can get you killed if you're not careful and sometimes even when you are careful.
It is a truly shocking crime, because it cuts at a basic assumption in American life: respect for the police. The officers themselves decry criticisms that are leveled them, with increasing volume and frequency, thanks to the undeniable evidence of cell phone video technology. They consider themselves misunderstood, victims. What they don't realize is that these criticisms stem from disappointment: we expect the police to be heroes, we want them to be heroes, to do the right thing. And they usually are. But they are also human, and mistakes happen. Even those police who are caught on camera shooting people without justification are not, I believe, acting out of racism so much as out of fear. They're trying to get home at the end of their shift, and they know—unlike the public, they don't have the luxury of being able to forget—that not everyone does. Or they're hopped up from whatever chase or scuffle happened before the camera was trained in their direction, and they do the wrong thing.
Or, sometimes, they're poorly trained or aggressive jerks. There's that too. This tragedy does not erase the dire situation we have with police and minorities in this country. It only adds a new chapter.
The situation is still the same. Police have more power and authority than other people—they enforce the law. More so, they embody it, and if they feel they are being held to a higher standard, they are. That's what they signed up for. What we need to understand is that we are all, cops and civilians, facing the same problem here: how to combat crime without hurting either innocent people or police officers. Right now, decency requires we honor these fallen officers and their grieving families—look at Brent Thompson's face. A father and grandfather, he just looks like a good guy, and deserved to go home Thursday night, not to the morgue. Think of him, and his four other slain brothers in blue, and remember the debt that society owes to its heroes. They died trying to keep their city safe. Our thorny law and order problems will be right where we left them, waiting for us, when we're through. Already, the various factions are trying to twist this horror to their benefit, with union officials claiming, incorrectly, that this is an outgrowth of disrespect for police, while critics observe that the shoe is on the other foot. That helps no one. What would help, if we could muster the strength to do it, is if we could only realize that, police and civilians, black and white, are all in this together, bound by a common humanity and citizenship in this great country of ours. We will all succeed or fail, live or die, together. When will we understand that? Not anytime soon.