WASHINGTON – Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. Both statements must be made true if the heartbreaking loss of life in Dallas is to have any meaning.
The killing spree that left five police officers dead and seven others wounded should be classified as an act of domestic terrorism. The shooter, identified as 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson, apparently believed he was committing an act of political violence. Our duty, to honor the fallen, is to ensure that Johnson’s vile and cowardly act has the opposite impact from what he sought.
Johnson, who was captured on video shooting one officer in the back, was killed when police, who had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate his surrender, sent a robot his way bearing an explosive device. Enough about him, except this one thing: He said he was motivated by hatred over the deaths of two more black men – Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota – at the hands of police.
The slain police officers were protecting a lawful, peaceful demonstration to protest those same deaths. As the crowd, perhaps more than 800 strong, marched through downtown Dallas, there was anger but no real tension. Certainly there was no sense of danger; police were not wearing riot gear or riding in armored vehicles. Instead, officers chatted and took selfies with the demonstrators. They had no fear of encounter and dialogue.
The great irony is that Dallas is something of a model. Mayor Mike Rawlings was right when he told reporters that Dallas is “one of the premier community policing cities in the country.”
Since Police Chief David Brown took over in 2010, complaints of excessive force by officers have dropped by nearly two-thirds. Police shootings have been halved, from 23 in 2012 to just 11 in 2015 – and only one so far this year, according to Police Department data.
Brown happens to be African-American, but that’s not the most significant thing about him. What’s important is that Brown was quick to understand that the chasm between police officers and young men of color was real – and that it could be bridged.
His officers undergo training in how to de-escalate conflicts rather than heat them up; they learn to speak calmly when approaching suspects instead of immediately barking orders. When there is a police shooting, uniformed presence around the scene is ramped down as soon as possible. The department, unlike many others, keeps track of police shootings and publishes the figures on the city’s website. And Brown keeps looking for new ways to improve relations between police and the community, realizing that diversity is not a destination but a shared journey.
The Dallas Police Department is not perfect, of course. But its efforts to improve the way officers interact with citizens stand in contrast to the appalling police work we saw in the cellphone videos recording the deaths that prompted protests around the country.
Sterling was on the ground in front of a convenience store, restrained by officers and posing no apparent threat, when he was shot to death. Castile, pulled over in a traffic stop, was apparently reaching for his identification to hand it to the officer who shot him.
The video of Castile’s final moments was streamed on the internet by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. In her narration, she says Castile informed the officer that he was licensed to carry a firearm. It is no stretch to imagine that to the officer, this meant Castile was an armed and dangerous black man. Which leads me to a question I shouldn’t have to ask: Does the Second Amendment apply to African-Americans too? Where is the National Rifle Association statement decrying the fact that an American citizen might have been killed for exercising his constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms?
But the solution is not more guns. The solution is to end the undervaluing of lives, both black and blue.
Poor, troubled, crime-ridden communities are those that most want and need effective policing. But the paradigm cannot be us versus them. It has to be us with us – a relationship of mutual respect.
I hope police officers around the nation see how rapidly and completely the people of Dallas – including those in the Black Lives Matter movement – have rallied around their city’s bereaved Police Department. I hope they understand that compassion for Sterling, Castile and others killed by police in no way mitigates the nation’s profound sorrow for the brave officers killed in Dallas. Such tragedy is beyond color.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.