Rhetoric over police shootings reaches new high

Black Lives Matter protesters rally outside the California Capitol in support of Assembly Bill 953.
Black Lives Matter protesters rally outside the California Capitol in support of Assembly Bill 953. esmith@sacbee.com

For those of us who believe that lives matter, it has been a long, disheartening couple of weeks.

In Louisiana, Senior Trooper Steven Vincent died after he was shot in the head and then taunted by a stranded driver. Near Chicago, police Lt. Charles Joseph Gliniewicz was found lying, fatally injured from a gunshot wound, about 50 feet from his squad car. A dayslong manhunt for three suspects followed.

In Texas, videos surfaced showing sheriff’s deputies shooting a shirtless man with his hands up.

Elsewhere in Texas, deputy Darren Goforth was fatally shot in an apparent ambush. In response, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman told reporters: “We’ve heard black lives matter, all lives matter. Well, cops’ lives matter, too. So how about we drop the qualifier and just say lives matter?”

A few days later, at a Black Lives Matter rally at the California Capitol, hundreds of people waved signs declaring “Stop Murder by Police” and “We Aren’t Targets.”

This is what passes for police-community relations these days. Once merely spirited, the rhetoric has reached inflammatory, unproductive and, some would say, dangerous levels.

Police feel like they’re under attack by minority groups. Minority groups feel like they’re under attack by police. Adding fuel to the fire are Republicans politicians who, in recent days, have flirted with the idea of labeling Black Lives Matter as a hate group.

Lost in all of this are the facts.

The popular, if unproven, narrative is that everyone in the Black Lives Matter movement is inciting violence against police officers, or at the very least making an already tough job tougher. Officers feel as if they have targets on their backs, a scary feeling.

“The spike in unprovoked ambushes and murders on police officers across the nation demands further public attention,” Marc Debbaudt, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, said in a statement. “Where is a sustained public outcry?”

And yet, according to the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, shooting deaths of officers are actually down 13 percent nationally, compared with the same January-to-September period last year. Three have died in California this year.

That hasn’t stopped police officers in various cities from waging mini-boycotts, which some people speculate has allowed the homicide rate to rise in many cities this year, including Los Angeles.

Whether that’s true remains to be seen. But, for now, putting stock in inflammatory rhetoric and then escalating it is a dangerous, unproductive thing – for anyone.

In California, we should focus more on efforts that can inject some facts into this hyperbolic debate.

Last week, for example, California Attorney General Kamala Harris launched a website that allows anyone to search death-in-custody data going back to 1980. The database lists the deceased by race, gender, approximate age and cause of death, as well as by the jurisdiction involved.

Building on that effort to make police operations more transparent, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, is pushing Assembly Bill 953, which would require police departments to gather and report data on traffic stops to ferret out racial profiling.

While many law enforcement agencies already report such data in California, the difference would be using that information in a more targeted way to push for reforms. The bill, which cleared the Assembly and Senate Appropriations Committee, is modeled after a similar law and successful project in Connecticut.

Also helpful are efforts in Sacramento and other cities to increase diversity in police departments and improve ties with the community.

Facts and trust can bring back an honest, productive dialogue between law enforcement and the public about what’s actually going on, allowing the public and police to place blame where blame is due.

Our goal should be to reduce police-action shootings and to keep police officers safe. We can do both. But neither will happen until both sides can agree on the facts of the problem, ratchet down the rhetoric and start working in the same direction on a solution.