We give our law enforcement personnel a literally impossible job.
We hire young men (usually) who haven't experienced much of the world, hide them behind a badge and a gun, give them remarkable powers and privileges, and tell them that they'll be a cop, an off-duty cop, or an ex-cop every hour of the rest of their lives. We ask them to be our primary social workers as well as our protection against petty fuckups and hardened sociopaths alike. We saddle them with a weapon-fetishizing cop culture and with training inadequate for such work. Then we wonder why so many either burn out or get cynical and hardened, treating the city like a war zone and the public, or at least certain segments, like the enemy. We pay cops to break our cities down into tribes—good guys vs. bad guys—and then, when something as elemental as race enters the tribal equation, we look away and cluck a lot when the inevitable tragedies erupt.
King County Sheriff Dave Reichert bristled last week after the fatal shooting of deputy Richard Herzog—a white officer, allegedly "executed" by a naked, unarmed African-American man with the officer's own gun. Here's Reichert: "I'm just going to be blunt about it and get to the point: Race isn't important. . . . We're sick and tired of being labeled as racist."
In other words, Reichert equated discussing race with calling people racists. And then he shut down all discussion.
The sheriff has since backpedaled, but all he did was express what many people were, and are, thinking. And then, there's the other side: Under the present King County inquest system, not one of the scores of law enforcement officers associated with a civilian death has been found culpable. Ever.
Herzog's death mirrors that of Aaron Roberts—like Matthews, a local African American with a drug-filled past. Last year, Roberts also reacted badly when confronted with police. In that episode, Roberts died.
This time, if the naked, unarmed Matthews had instead died when struggling for Herzog's gun, there would have been protest marches and powerless demands for better training and accountability. The inquest would, as always, be preordained, and another bitter stake driven though the heart of police- community relations.
When the cops' job description runs up hard against reality (and human frailty), they can't possibly always make good decisions. Outside accountability—and help—becomes essential. But only days before Herzog's death, the city of Seattle pulled another avoidance stunt. The Seattle City Council approved compilation of racial data in traffic stops. Afterward, Mayor Greg Nickels withdrew his support as well joining Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske and the Seattle Police Officers Guild in opposing it. Nickels' people (good liberals all) said bickering with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) over compiling racial data could undo the more broadly supported pilot proposal to put cameras in at least a handful (25) of patrol cars. Hint, hint.
I'm all for workers having bigger roles in running their asylums. But law enforcement isn't a plant floor; it's a publicly funded job involving guns and arbitrary decisions by humans. And many nonwhites have developed a deep mistrust and fear of local police.
That rift closes only with time and change, but the process can't start without some listening. Both effective policing and public safety are jeopardized when white politicians go running for cover and police and too many nonwhite citizens see each other as the enemy.
The Washington State Patrol (WSP) routinely tracks a great deal of information on its stops, including the name of the officer (another SPD bugaboo) and the perceived race of the person stopped. Strangely, the WSP does its job effectively and with a minimum of controversy, while accepting that some level of outside scrutiny comes with the terrain.
We should be so lucky. Until this region can begin honestly talking about law enforcement, race, and public accountability in the same sentence, there will be more rancor, more Aaron Roberts, and more Richard Herzogs. Nobody wins.