In an editorial today, the Seattle Times warns that “Police shootings threaten the public’s trust.” Yeah, true. But you know what else these shootings threaten? The public.
The Times goes on to caution against “armchair quarterbacking or efforts to prejudge the police,” and again, I’d agree that the we have not yet had enough time or facts to determine whether any or all of our region’s seven recent police shootings were completely justified or not. But it’s never too soon to put these events in context and attempt to discern some truth that might prevent more such tragedies from occurring in the near future.
And the obvious context is that our recent spate of police shootings comes in the wake of a string of tragedies that left six police officers dead in 2009.
Human nature being what it is, and the memory of their fallen comrades still fresh, it is perfectly understandable, if not necessarily forgivable, if when confronted with a perceived threat, local officers are a bit quicker to react with lethal force than they might have been only a a year ago. Likewise, it is also understandable if supervisors, politicians, the press and the public are more willing to justify such violent confrontations than they might have been before last year’s tragedies.
In other words, it is reasonable to ask if last year’s tragic slaying of six police officers played any role in facilitating the spate of police shootings we’ve seen this year? And it is incumbent upon our law enforcement officers to ask themselves whether the heightened sense of danger they must surely feel has in any way endangered the public they are sworn to protect?
It is not illegal to openly carry guns, knives and other weapons in Washington state, and the failure to instantly respond to police commands should not inevitably result in a barrage of bullets. Police officers are presumably trained to quickly react to perceived threats, but they should constantly remind themselves that the public is not. Deafness, inebriation, confusion, stupidity or even perhaps a misplaced trust in the restraint of the officers confronting them, need not result in tragedy.
Our police officers choose to put their lives on the line on our behalf, and for that they deserve our respect and support. But we should be wary of using last year’s tragic police slayings as any justification for the unnecessary use of lethal force.