I am a black man, and I am a retired police officer who spent more than three decades in uniform. I have been deeply affected by both the police shootings of young black men and the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings of police officers. Everyone I have spoken with – Left, Right, black, white, police, and civilian – agrees that all of these shootings are tragedies, and that we urgently need to come together in order to try to understand and reconcile the differences that have divided our country so dramatically. Why, then, have so many media outlets, including The Hill, made a spokesperson of the one black police officer who wants to escalate the conflict?
Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin declares “This is a war, and Black Lives Matter is the enemy.” He sees the police as “front-line soldiers” battling Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, allied “revolutionary Marxist forces” attempting to overthrow the government.
In fact, to move forward we need to recognize that it was the simplistic idea of a war that got us into this mess in the first place. As top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman admitted in 1994, President Nixon declared the War on Drugs as a pretext to criminalize people of color. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The federal government supplied grant money and military technology to police departments, pushing them to fight the War on Drugs within black communities. While paramilitary-style SWAT raids are only appropriate in rare circumstances and with the right training, they became an everyday fixture of the War on Drugs. As the American Civil Liberties Union documents in its 2014 report War Comes Home, SWAT teams are deployed most often to execute routine search warrants. Each one of these encounters can change the way those targeted – and their children - view and interact with police forever. Black faces became increasingly common in the halls of justice, and blacks increasingly saw the police as an oppressive militarized occupying force instead of as members of the community.
Fighting the War on Drugs has also magnified the real dangers and challenges of being a police officer. Criminalizing drugs pushes the market underground, into the hands of cartels and gangs. Drug-related gang violence endangers innocent bystanders and police every day, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder plagues police departments. Though far too many police lose their lives in the line of duty, the biggest killer of police isn’t homicide - it’s suicide. Officers are 150% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. One violent interaction with a citizen can also change the way a good police officer interacts with every person he or she meets thereafter, both on and off the job.
We have to recognize that policing is not a war. The War on Drugs poisoned police-community relations, bringing us to where we are today. The last thing we need is Sheriff Clarke declaring a civil war between good and evil.
It is in everyone’s interest to find a way forward, reconciling the past by acknowledging challenges and failures on both sides.Instead of seeing our fellow Americans as the enemy, we all have to ask ourselves, “What can we do better?”
Major Neill Franklin (Ret.) was a police officer for 34 years and is now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement officials who want to end the War on Drugs.