Cooler heads need to prevail in law enforcement debate

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This moment we face is like no other in American policing. There has never been a moment in my career when the collective gaze and consciousness has been as fixed on policing as it is right now. We are experiencing what is arguably the most difficult and challenging time in American policing history.

Community policing, police legitimacy, police reform, culture change, use of force, de-escalation, militarization, Black Lives Matter, fair and impartial policing, constitutional policing, blue courage, unconscious bias, de-policing, the Ferguson effect, body-worn cameras, citizen oversight, policy change, warrior vs. guardian— are just a few of the buzzwords we hear constantly.

But what do all these words mean to us in law enforcement and to society? This is the increasingly complex moment in which, we, both law enforcement and communities, collectively find ourselves.

{mosads}I have devoted my entire adult life to policing. This is not just a job or a profession, but a calling. Law enforcement officers put our lives in harm’s way on a daily basis to protect freedom and democracy, confront crime, and ensure the safety of our communities. We do this because we took an oath to safeguard our fellow citizens. We believe in that oath, and we feel an allegiance to and pride for the citizens we protect and the communities we serve.

Law enforcement officers are the street-level arbiters of justice 24/7, rain or shine, 365 days a year—we never close our doors. Not only are we charged with protecting the public, but many of the nation’s social system failures are laid at our feet, including homelessness, unemployment, and mental illness.

The stress our officers are experiencing every day is insurmountable.

The country is experiencing failures of one social system after another in providing the most basic and vital services to our communities. Far too often law enforcement is tasked with addressing the impacts of those social issues. Today, law enforcement and first responders are being asked to do more than has ever been expected of any single governmental entity.

Our nation find itself in a very complex web of protecting lives, providing a myriad of social services, and intervening in one crisis after another. Law enforcement is charged with tackling the gravest of community challenges. And yet, we have been confronted by what I consider is the most disheartening and serious phenomena of all: watching so many of our communities, particularly communities of color, call into question our trustworthiness, our commitment, and our legitimacy.

While disheartening, this should not be a surprise to any of us. This has been brewing for decades. We have seen moments in our history when there has been similar civil unrest. However, there is something different about what we have experienced over the past two years. What we are seeing is a culmination of a sense of injustice and loss of dignity that so many have experienced, not just at the hands of the police, but by a social system that has let many people down. Each incident we now see is a flashpoint that has exploded into increasing unrest, greater mistrust, and calls for major reform.

We have seen demonstrations in every corner of the country and in many nations around the world, accompanied by a momentum that grows with every perceived miscarriage of justice.

I believe the country is faced with one of the gravest crises to ever confront police and many of our communities, and it increases my resolve for us to do what is needed to bridge the divide we are experiencing. In searching for that path forward, I ask that we not rush to judgement or accusations.

Statements by many, from all perspectives, that presuppose guilt or inflame public opinion have only served to exacerbate the problems we face. We must tamp down the incendiary rhetoric and the hyperbole. It doesn’t matter what your politics are; we must find a way forward. We can and must examine the words we use as we continue these important conversations.

Far too often, we hear comments about statistics—particularly about use-of- force by police or on police. While the issue of data collection is an important one, right now is not a time to focus on statistics. This is about emotion. This is about people’s lives.

It is only through respectful, thoughtful conversations that we will find the solutions necessary to move forward. And it is through these continued difficult discussions that those solutions will be implemented and communities can begin to heal.

Rather than let each of these incidents to divide us, this is a time for us to come together as a community and share our grief and look for solutions.

Cunningham is the chief of police for the Wellesley, MA Police Department, and President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Follow him on Twitter @wellesleychief

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Black Lives Matter BLM Body cameras civil rights community policing demonstration police brutality police reform Police shootings policing Protest
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