Police lives matter, too

Why do we often cheapen the value of police lives?

On Dec. 20, two New York police officers were killed while sitting in their cruiser. On Christmas night in Durham, N.C., Police Officer T.J. West was shot as he exited his vehicle. Three days later, two Los Angeles police officers were shot at while traveling in their cruiser. And this week, a man brought a loaded gun into a Baltimore police precinct at, he said, the behest of the Black Guerilla Family gang, which the FBI has warned is targeting white officers in Maryland.

2014 was a deadly year for police officers, with line-of-duty deaths up by more than 10 percent compared to last year, according to The Officer Down Memorial Page. The most striking statistic is the fact that the number of police officers killed by gunfire in 2014 is up 57 percent compared to 2013. Unfortunately, it appears that violence against the police is a trend that is getting worse, and it will affect the way police officers do their jobs.

For years and years, we have tried to explain away the murders and attempted murders of police officers. "That's what you signed up for," we say. I was a police officer for six years, and the idea of getting murdered was not in the recruitment brochure. Why do we often cheapen the value of police lives?

Society has gone through a systematic dehumanization of police officers. Let us remember that this profession has been demonized long before the protests in Ferguson. For example, in 1988, the band N.W.A. released a song called "[Expletive] tha Police." The song features lyrics that encourage the killing of cops: "I'm a sniper with a hell of a scope, Taking out a cop or two, they can't cope with me." The sentiments of this song are alive and well today. When a person at a party says, "The problem with black people is ..." we call them racists. However, it has become acceptable to use similar broad generalizations about police officers across the nation. Just like with racism, the group on the receiving end of a stereotype feels disrespected and anonymous. This has a cumulative negative effect on the individual officers spread throughout our country. We see it affecting police morale, and we also see some police officers becoming defensive and reacting with equally negative rhetoric.

This stereotyping behavior also has an effect on citizens. We can say that the killer of the NYPD officers was mentally deranged and try to explain it away. Were the shooters in Durham and Los Angeles, who also tried to commit police murders, mentally ill? We cannot explain away every murder of police officers by blaming mental illness. At some point, we have to accept that hateful speech is inspirational for some people. Hateful speech leads to demonization. Demonization leads to dehumanization. Once a group is dehumanized, it is much easier to throw a bottle or fire a shot.

We don't have to change our attitudes or opinions about the police. However, we must remember that the working parts of this equation are all human in nature. If we demand more community policing, more foot patrols, less police shootings, we have to understand that the necessary ingredients to make that happen involve both the community and the police. As long as the police are publicly crucified on the whole, based on individual cases, and then murdered in the streets, change will not happen. The necessary conversations that might lead to change can't even happen. We as a society are alienating police officers instead of inviting them to join the conversation. So we must ask ourselves, have the current strategies really made any progress with police and community relations? Let's leave the emotional responses, stereotypes and violence against the police at the door and start seeking a better understanding of the complexities of the police/community relationship.

Burke Brownfeld is a former Alexandria, Va., police officer. His email is bsbrownfeld@gmail.com.

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