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The $1,070 message [Editorial]

One of the first traits police recruiters ought to look for in their candidates is empathy. After all, at the heart of law enforcement is understanding the behavior of human beings and without some insight into what motivates their actions — for good or ill — it would be impossible to gain their trust or anticipate their conflicts, let alone protect and serve them.

That's one of the reasons it's so disappointing to read that the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 70 which represents police officers in Anne Arundel County, has chosen to donate $1,070 to an online defense fund for Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, an incident that has drawn national attention and continues to stir rioting and protests in that St. Louis suburb.

The union first attempted to donate money to provide meals to police officers working long shifts since those protests began. That would have been understandable. But when it was suggested instead (by the national FOP) that the money be put to the 28-year-old officer's defense, the Arundel union decided to help foot the legal bill for Officer Wilson who has neither been indicted nor arrested by state or federal authorities.

O'Brien Atkinson, the local union's president, told The Sun's Pamela Wood that the donation is merely to guarantee that Mr. Wilson has adequate legal representation. "It's not about anything more than making sure that our fellow officer has due process, which sometimes is hard to come by when you have a media stir and a lot of political attention."

That response is disappointing on a number of levels. First that Mr. Atkinson has so little faith in the legal system that he perceived a police officer as being at a disadvantage (during a "media stir" or at any other time) but secondly, that it shows no awareness of the political implications of donating a significant sum — more than has been typically donated through the online campaign on behalf of the officer — to the residents of Anne Arundel County.

Mr. Wilson certainly has a right to due process and legal representation should any be required — and it's not unreasonable to expect some will be eventually if eyewitness testimony that he shot Mr. Brown as the teen-ager offered arms-raised submission proves to be true. But the people of Anne Arundel County also have a right to expect their police officers to understand the message, whether it was intended or not, that comes with that contribution. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it can be seen as an endorsement of Mr. Wilson's behavior.

Anne Arundel Police Chief Kevin Davis was right to express similar misgivings last week by issuing a statement in which he personally opposed the decision to donate money to Mr. Wilson. While embracing "the necessity for due process for police officers and all citizens," Mr. Davis, a lifelong FOP member, said he had to "disagree with the FOP president."

We suspect some, if not many, in the rank and file of the department do, too. After all, the county is no stranger to its own difficulties with race relations. Most recently, the acquittal of Matthew Pinkerton in the fatal shooting of Kendall Green of Glen Burnie last year has caused protests and a call for a federal investigation. Mr. Pinkerton is white, Mr. Green was black and was said to have been involved in a romantic relationship with Mr. Pinkerton's wife.

Historically, the diversity of the county police department has not matched that of the county which is approximately 16 percent African-American. Still, race relations have improved in recent years and were thought to have gotten better under Chief Davis. His willingness to take the unusual step of denouncing the Wilson donation is likely to help preserve that progress.

Nationwide, Officer Wilson's defense fund has found no shortage of supporters with many seeing this as an opportunity to make a political statement — often not so much as solidarity with police as in opposition to protesters. The fund to memorialize Mr. Brown, who was laid to rest on Monday, is reportedly not as large as Officer Wilson's $300,000-plus and counting fund. The donations to the latter have sometimes included not-so-subtle messages of racial intolerance posted on Twitter and elsewhere.

That seems like company that Arundel officers might not want to keep, particularly given that the donation's impact on Mr. Wilson's defense is minimal compared to the potential harm it can do to community policing efforts closer to home. Other police unions in Maryland refrained from donating for that reason, Lodge 70 should have done the same.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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