Thursday, February 14, 2013

'Stop or I'll Shoot' or 'Stop AND I'll Shoot' ?

Some of the best people I know are or have been police officers. I will mention only one by name, Robert Taliaferro, because he is deceased. Bob was legendary for his dependability, industry, dignified carriage, grace and generosity. He also had a finely honed sense of humor.

I know other current and retired police officers who had or are creating distinguished careers in public service as protectors of society. I am aware of instances where they have arrested people and then gone and found them jobs. They haven’t all been saints; at least one former classmate who became a police officer lost his job for an act of bad judgment.

But none of these police friends of mine, whether rank and file patrolmen or upper-level supervisors, has sought to defend the behavior of those Cleveland police officers on the night of November 29, when “the perfect chase” resulted in the deaths of two unarmed suspects at the hands of 13 police officers.

I find myself thinking that that incident is far more egregious than last year’s vigilante slaying of Trayvon Martin. I find it far worse than the videotaped beat down of Rodney King in 1992 by a gang of Los Angeles police officers.

Yesterday I read the so-called Manifesto of Christopher Jordan Dorner, the former Navy reservist and ex-LAPD cop who went on a murderous rampage after apparently snapping at what he deemed unacceptably racist and hypocritical treatment by former colleagues that cost him job, reputation, sanity, and ultimately, it seems, his life.

The Manifesto for me was compelling. Mental health professionals will no doubt find Dorner’s final document fascinating. It rambles from childhood memories and riffs on gun control, to allegations of bias in the LAPD, his views of former presidents [Bill Clinton was his favorite but he also admired George H. W. Bush], Hollywood and television stars, General Petraeus, future political candidates [he favored both Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie], and much more.

What gave verisimilitude and substance to his diatribe were his detailed recitations of common terminology derisively used by his fellow officers to describe both the public they were hired and sworn to protect and serve, and the nation’s Commander in Chief, who just so happens to be the nation’s first African American president. While Dorner was clearly delusional with respect to his final days, his description of the prevailing precinct atmosphere during his LAPD tenure was laser-sharp. He named names as he detailed how some officers who had been implicated in the beating of Rodney King had eventually been promoted.

Unmistakably racist and nasty attitudes can feed a culture where disrespect and brutal behavior become normalized. If, as it said of our life chances, our attitude determines our altitude more than aptitude, we should not be surprised when prejudice overtakes process and unbridled pursuit turns lethal.

I expect the tragic and unnecessary deaths of Timothy Russell and Malinda Williams will prove to be a watershed moment in the history of the Cleveland Police Department.

I think it is up to us, the citizens of this county, to ensure that it becomes such a moment.

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