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On December 20, 2014 two police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were shot and killed as they were serving their community. While this tragic event has broken the hearts of many Americans, it has also become enmeshed into our nation’s ongoing struggle about race. Opinions are many, but all too often deeply felt emotions and stereotypes impede much needed dialogue. The role(s) police officers play in all of this has become even more scrutinized in recent years. Much work needs to be done.
I have been employed in the human service field for more than 35 years. Over that span working with the police has been a key component of my duties. Initiatives like D.A.R.E., Safety Town, the Juvenile Hearing Board, Resource officers and community policing have all proven to be effective. In addition, the town’s police department has collaborated with and supported numerous community forums intended to create awareness about a myriad of youth related concerns. In short, my experiences with the police have proven to be extremely positive.
In East Greenwich we are lucky enough to have a community that has been relatively safe for some time. The reasons for this are many. The police department being one of those reasons. With this said, significant emphasis has been placed on keeping the community safe. Remember, Columbine High School was once considered a place where bad things did not happen. Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was also such a place. Preventing tragedies is essential – but all too often difficult to measure. Our department places great emphasis on this dynamic.
We might not have the racial conflict that boils over in many cities and towns, but local officers still are impacted by the scenes played out across the country. Because of this, many have begun to question how police officers conduct their business. What are cops really like? Are they out to get you? Because we have a populace that is heavily white does this create a negative dynamic towards minorities? Good questions. Having healthy discussions, rather than perpetuating misconceptions (from all involved) would help. Blame, fear mongering, violence and using tragedy for political gain gets us nowhere. We must have the courage to seek honest solutions.
For too many years African-Americans have experienced difficulties with our nation’s criminal justice system. Statistics abound detailing how disproportionate numbers of blacks have been imprisoned. Statistics abound detailing how African-Americans are pulled over for traffic stops at higher rates. Throw in our nation’s long history that includes slavery, Jim Crow, poverty, along with other concerns and it is understandable why many blacks distrust the legal system. Police officers wind up being the ones who enforce the rules society makes up. Are all cops perfect? Of course they are not. Have there been far too many times where wrongs have been committed? Unfortunately, yes. With this said, I still believe that the vast majority of officers are good people trying to do a difficult job. Sometimes the decisions they make are made in situations most of us would run from. For sure, there is much room for improvement. However, blaming them for systems that have been dysfunctional for years is unfair. A number of things need to change.
Putting cameras on police officers will only address a small portion of a complicated series of concerns. Issues like race relations, gun control, mental health, poverty and others still place cops on the front lines of a huge battlefield. More training will help. Having a department that reflects a community’s demographics will as well. Despite these important considerations, many underlying factors are either minimized or ignored. The police are not the cause for this.
It is easy to play Monday morning quarterback regarding actions police officers take. All of the “I would do this” or “He should have done that’s” uttered before TV screens are utterances made out of harm’s way. Again, this is not an excuse for poor policing or heavy-handed enforcement – it is more a call for recognizing the importance of those taking on a tough job. Most cops want to serve in an honorable fashion. Many are exposed to danger in doing so. We often laugh about the officer swilling down coffee and downing a few donuts. While that stereotype abounds, how many deadly car crashes have you attended of late? How many times have you responded for a domestic incident to break up hostile situations? Have you recently encountered someone carrying a weapon? Changes in policing might be in order, but without those willing to serve things would get pretty interesting.
Despite some contrary opinions, police officers are human beings. Many have families. Most enjoy movies, going out to eat and being with friends. From time to time they must go to places and situations most of us avoid. For this, we should all be thankful. The incidents where prejudice, fear and human frailty appear evident, are tragic and in need of correction. Castigating and ridiculing all those who guard our citizenry is unfair. Police Officers represent communities. Those communities must set expectations about police conduct. Blaming officers for societal ills is shortsighted and incomplete. We are all in this together.
P.S. Lieutenant Thomas Joyce (retired) and Sergeant John Carter, along with a number of school resource officers, have been especially helpful for me along the way. Their proactive measures and willingness to work with the community should be applauded.
Bob Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich Drug Program. He also served on the Exeter-West Greenwich School Committee, taught at Providence College Graduate School of Education and was a consultant at the Rhode Island Training School.