The Universal Notebook: Black and blue lives matter

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One morning last month I came down to breakfast to find my youngest daughter in tears at the kitchen table.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” I asked.

“When is it going to stop?” she replied, holding up the front page story about Dallas police officers being shot and killed.

I had no answer for her, but, of course, I knew exactly what she meant. The cumulative effect of violence in this country, from mass shootings to killings of and by police, is taking a terrible psychic toll on all of us. The tension over police violence in black communities seems to have reached the boiling point and retaliation against law enforcement just exacerbates the problem.

While it should be obvious to any decent human being that nothing justifies the recent deadly attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, it should be just as obvious that the police have some of their fellow officers to blame. Every time a police officer uses deadly force unnecessarily, it inflames communities and provokes retaliation.

The last couple of years have seen a rash of high-profile incidents in which police officers have taken the lives of black men under highly questionable circumstances.

Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, for stealing a box of cigars and resisting arrest. Eric Garner was choked to death by police in New York for selling cigarettes on the street. Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times after slashing the tire of a police cruiser with a three-inch knife. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by Cleveland police while playing with a toy gun in a city park. Walter Scott was shot in the back while fleeing a traffic stop in North Charleston, South Carolina. Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police while allegedly being given a “rough ride.”

The two most recent controversial police killings involve allegations that the deceased were carrying guns.

Alton Sterling was selling CDs on the street in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When police arrived to investigate allegations that he had threatened someone with a gun, he was tasered, brought to the ground and then shot to death while being held down because police said Sterling was trying to reach for a gun in his pocket.

Philandro Castile was pulled over in St. Paul, Minnesota, for a faulty taillight, though police later said he was stopped because he looked like a robbery suspect. Castile, who had no criminal record, informed police that he had a license to carry a gun and that he had a gun in the car. At that point the officer apparently panicked and shot Castile four times as he sat in his car with his girlfriend beside him and her 4-year-old daughter in the backseat.

In most of these cases, the police officers were not indicted despite the appearance that some of them escalated the violence by mishandling the situation or overreacting. Police officers deserve a great deal of respect for the difficult jobs they are asked to do, risking their lives for relatively little reward, but they also must be held accountable when things go wrong.

Law enforcement is a dangerous job, but, perhaps surprisingly, not one of the most dangerous, those being loggers, commercial fishing, pilots, roofers, trash haulers, farmers, steel workers, truck drivers, electrical workers and taxi drivers. Loggers suffer 110.9 deaths per 100,000 compared to 13.5 per 100,000 for police. The difference, of course, is that the deaths in these more dangerous professions are all accidental.

Still, despite the recent attacks on police, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has fallen steadily since the 1970s. Close to 300 officers were killed in 1974; last year 123 died.

As with just about everything in America these days, the killings of and by police officers seem to have polarized people. On one side we have the Black Lives Matter movement. On the other, those who counter that All Lives Matter. But that’s exactly what Black Lives Matter means: All Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, Too. People of color are being disproportionately victimized by those in power. Not to recognize this is either willful ignorance or extreme prejudice.

For good people, there are no sides to take in this matter. When police use excessive force or unfairly target minorities, they must be condemned. When angry young men target police officers, they must be condemned.

Black and blue lives matter.

When is it going to stop? My guess is not until law enforcement departments are able to weed out the bad apples, those officers who are temperamentally and professionally unfit to serve. Perhaps not until the police departments in predominantly black communities are themselves predominantly black.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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