Killing Police in the Era of Black Lives Matter

The execution of the Sheriff’s Deputy in Harris County, Texas was horrible. All sensible peoples’ hearts go out to the officer’s family and his co-workers. But, the Harris County DA and the Sheriff immediately moved the murder from the arena of tragedy to the cesspool of contemporary political rhetoric.

“We’ve heard black lives matter; all lives matter. Well, cops’ lives matter too,” Hickman said. “At any point where the rhetoric ramps up to the point where calculated cold-blooded assassination of police officers happen(s), this rhetoric has gotten out of control,” said [Sheriff] Hickman.

“It is time for silent majority in this country to support law enforcement,” said Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson at a news conference Saturday afternoon. “There are a few bad apples in every profession, (sic) that does not mean there should be open warfare on law enforcement. What happened [Friday] night is an assault on the very fabric of society. It is not anything we can tolerate.”

People in pain often lash out. One hopes, however, they lash out at those who may bear some responsibility for their pain. Not so, for the officials commenting on the murder of the Harris County deputy. The sheriff and DA did not emphasize increasing access to mental health treatment or reducing the easy access of anyone and everyone to firearms. Instead, they used this tragedy and tried to attack the Black Lives Matter movement. I am sure they will just scratch their collective heads when someone asks why the minority community has no faith in the criminal justice system. (See my earlier post entitled Black Lives Do Not Matter for a historical perspective on the necessity of this movement.)

It did not matter that the killer has a long criminal record and a history of serious mental illness. He was declared mentally incapable of standing trial for an assault charge in 2012. He has also, in the past, assaulted law enforcement officer and committed weapons offenses.  “Miles apparently has a lengthy criminal history including six previous arrests; two for using force against an officer, including a Harris County deputy.” According to the Houston Chronicle.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) did not give Shannon Miles his criminal record; BLM did not fail to get this Miles the help he needed to deal with his mental health challenges; BLM did not make it possible for Miles to get a .40 caliber automatic. BLM had nothing to do with Miles emptying that pistol with its high capacity magazine into the deputy’s back.

Remember the earlier killing of two NYC officers. The police there used the same rhetoric. The man indicated that “he would make some pigs fly” before he murdered the officers. He seems to have mimicked some of the BLM attitudes and phrases. However, the man had a history of mental illness and a criminal record. What eventually emerged later was the fact that the perpetrator had threatened suicide earlier on the day of the murders. His girlfriend cared enough to talk him out of the suicide; he was so overwhelmed with gratitude he then shot her. After the police shootings, he went into the subway and successfully finished what he started earlier in the day. He committed suicide.

Why then do we get the politicization of these tragic deaths? What is the underlying dynamic here? After reflection, it becomes clear that what we see with these responses is a variant of traditional occupational sociology. When attacked, members of every occupation consider themselves victims. When criticized, members of the occupation do not look inward; they do not assess their occupational norms or even the reality of their work. They puff themselves up and indignantly denounce those who criticize them.

Police unions are no different. Police unions are almost completely unresponsive to anything but the protection of their members. The wagons are circled, and they battle all critics—colleagues, perpetrators, or victims. Obstinate resistance, obfuscation, and deflection standard tactics. Tragedy becomes an opportunity to strike out at critics and attempt to place some of the blame for that tragedy on the critics in order to discredit those who voice their dissatisfaction with the occupation and its practitioners.

The situation makes it very difficult for the average citizen when it comes to criticizing the police. Police do, in fact, risk their lives for us each day. Even though the odds of death on the job are low, we all feel like such ungrateful wretches when we criticize them. And, they know it. Police play the “danger card” with regularity.

The danger is truly out there, but it is not the core of their activities. We have roughly 900,000 people in law enforcement in this country. For the last decade, an average of 149 officers died each year in the line of duty, and that includes all federal law enforcement officials, as well as state, local, and federal correctional staff. What is not emphasized is that every year somewhere around half of police deaths do not result from the action of hostile citizens; they occur in auto accidents.

So, policing is truly dangerous work, but so are other jobs. People kill police, but usually an almost equal number die in auto accidents. Homicide is different from an accident, even if it’s voluntary manslaughter by a drunk driver. But, other workers are regularly homicide victims . In 2013, well over 4,000 Americans were murdered while on the job, roughly 50 times the number of police who are murdered each year.

However, the occupational culture of policing ignores those traffic deaths and the reality of the danger in other occupations. These violent confrontations with citizens and violent deaths at their hands form the core of the image police project to the world and to themselves. Officers don’t come from across the country to stand at attention and salute when an officer is killed in a traffic accident. That honor is only for police victims of homicide. These are the deaths that build the image of the occupation. These deaths are emphasized. It is the ultimate example of playing the danger card for all it is worth. The statement above is not meant to diminish the sacrifices or the respect due those that make that sacrifice. It simply an statement about how those deaths are put to use in the police’s struggle to place themselves beyond criticism.

Strangely enough, when BLM goes to the streets after police involved homicides, they are in essence reading from the same script as police. Black lives are taken in many ways every day, but those lives stolen by police are treated differently. The folks in BLM have their own pantheon of symbols and symbolic meanings. They use specific deaths as examples of the need for their organization and the validity of its core claims.

But, we must all remember something. The same day that the death of Deputy Goforth was reported, an area television station that reported his murder also reported:

• a shooting that left one dead and two wounded,
• the death of a woman shot in the head and driven to the hospital where she later died,
• a man shot by another man in a road rage incident, and
• a different Harris County deputy being flown by helicopter to a hospital after being struck by a drunk driver.

These incidents occurred with no fanfare. The sheriff made no statements; the DA called no press conferences; no angry crowds filled the streets. Those deaths did not become sparks that lit political fires, though their blood was no different from the blood of those who lit those fires.Their deaths went unheralded, exactly like thousands of others each year. So go the dynamics of social movements, social conflict, and occupational politics. Some deaths are touted as having social meaning; other death are just people who have stopped breathing.

Sources:

Quotations from DA and Sheriff (www.chron.com)

Information on NYC shootings. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_killings_of_NYPD_officers

Data on police deaths and http://www.nleomf.org/facts/officer-fatalities-data/daifacts.html

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