Editorial: Police, public need to work together to stem tide of violence

It’s been a tough 15 months for our nation’s police officers – from Missouri, to Maryland and now to Minnesota.

Since the death of Michael Brown, followed by days of rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, until the recent death of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, law enforcement personnel are on the hot seat. Did police act maliciously? With racist intent? And the big question, was Clark killed while handcuffed?

These incidents have heightened anger toward the police, and have given fodder to those who claim officers are reacting violently and causing death or injury where it is not necessary.

The Black Lives Matter movement has elevated the debate. Many feel police officers target people of color, especially African-Americans, and use excessive force and profiling to drill down on black suspects.

We’ve seen incidents involving police and violence in many of our communities. Within the past few weeks, Fridley and Columbia Heights officers shot and killed a man who refused police instructions to show his hands and pulled a weapon on them.

In Plymouth, a police officer killed a man suffering from a mental health crisis after he tried to remove the officer’s gun from her holster.

In Robbinsdale, police shot and injured an 18-year-old woman who was wielding a large knife.

In New Hope within the last year, an angry man shot at two police officers at city hall and was subsequently killed.

Last year in Ramsey, police shot and killed a man who ran from them as they investigated a call of a suspicious person near a daycare center.

We’ve also seen Minnesota officers die in the course of their day. In St. Cloud this October, a sheriff’s deputy was shot and killed with his own weapon, as a hospital patient took his gun as they struggled.

A Minneapolis police officer was shot in February responding to a burglary in what police say may have been a targeted ambush on officers. Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick was shot and killed last summer in what started as routine traffic stop.

Organizations have rallied to support police officers. In Coon Rapids recently, hundreds of people gathered at a rally supporting police. A local car repair company has offered free “thin blue lines” painted on your vehicle, to support the men and women in blue and the thin line they walk every day. Apple Valley has launched “Operation Thank A Cop,” offering supportive bumper stickers to anyone interested.

While focus recently has been on race and racial issues, the day-to-day existence of an officer is complex. He or she deals with a vast range of situations.

Police and sheriff’s deputies will tell you that the most unpredictable call they respond to each day is the domestic call – not a riot or a bank robbery. These often involve individuals in volatile relationships, fueled into violence with drugs and alcohol. In 2012 in North Branch, a 46-year-old man was shot and killed by police when they responded to a domestic incident.

They will also talk about the difficulty and unpredictability of dealing with the mentally ill. When a Plymouth police officer shot and killed Derek Wolfsteller, 31, she already knew he was an individual in a serious mental health crisis. However, in his agitated state, he was overpowering and the officers at the scene felt their only resort was to shoot when he tried to take the officer’s gun.

We do not believe our law enforcement officers intend to incite a situation, or to seek out and maliciously target individuals of certain races or ethnic backgrounds.

We do believe that our police and sheriff’s deputies face an incredibly difficult choice in many situations. Consider seeing an angry man lunging at you – or at a group of children – with his hand in his pocket. You have three seconds to decide – is he a danger? Are the children in danger? Do I shoot? Do I let him continue?

The great majority of us never need to make a life or death decision in a few seconds. But our police officers do that all too often.

One police officer acting too quickly or reacting with excessive force can turn a difficult situation into a full-blown riot.

Police officers must be better able to diffuse a violent situation. We urge the supervisors in law enforcement to develop alternatives to guns and Tasers when dealing with difficult situations. There needs to be methodology law enforcement can use to contain an out-of-control individual beyond deadly force.

Police need to develop additional methods to handle the mentally ill. How do you subdue – safely – a 250-pound man whose illness has sent him into a rage?

We also urge the quick implementation of body cameras on all officers. We believe that in the great majority of cases, video will show officers acted appropriately.

Law enforcement leaders must continually recruit quality candidates for jobs, and work hard to bring diversity to their ranks.

It will take more than better training, however, to heal the fissure developing between people of color and police. As long as entire communities of people believe the police are the enemy instead of an ally, angry demonstrations like the one that brought Minneapolis freeways to a stop following the shooting of Jamar Clark will continue to happen.

Our police officers, sheriffs, state patrol and police chiefs will need to work diligently to improve their image in the community.

Police and the media can do a better job of telling “the other” story – situations where quick-thinking and level-headed officers saved lives, or brought a situation from volatile to orderly.

Our police need to be even more visible in their communities. Police officers should be walking side-by-side with community leaders.

And finally, we must not turn this into a race war. This is not police vs. black – this is all of us, people of all colors, standing next to our police forces – united against the real criminals.

All lives will be better if we work together.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board