Proportional Response

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a41f726b05591a56da4d18Politicians on both sides of the aisle are praising President Trump’s decision to bomb an airfield in Syria in retaliation for Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons against his own people. The air strike is being called a “proportional response” to the egregious attack on the part of the Assad regime. If anything, it’s significantly less heinous than the wholesale massacre of innocent civilians using a slow and painful method of murder.

While I’m not sure I join the pundits in praising this recent U.S. military action, it has gotten me to thinking about the idea of proportional response. This idea goes back to Biblical times, wherein Jewish law specified the so-called “eye for an eye” administration of justice. What many people don’t realize is that this law was not meant to incite violence but rather to contain it. Therefore, if someone took an eye from you, you were allowed only to go so far as to take an eye from him, not to kill him or his whole family.

In recent history, America has seen a decrease in tolerance for proportional response. Take, for instance, the recent assault on an innocent United Airlines passenger who refused to give up his paid for seat on a flight. Instead of trying to coax the man off the plane, flight attendants called the police to board the plane and forcibly remove him. He was yanked out of his seat, made bloody as his face was banged against the handset, and literally dragged on the floor out of the plane. The entire incident was caught, of course, on cell phone video and has been broadcast all over television and the internet. One would think United – and those officers – would know better.

Yet even with the installation of body cameras on police officers, incidences of  police abuse seem to be increasing. Routine traffic stops and minor infractions, such as illegally selling cigarettes on the street, are met with disproportional and sometimes deadly force. Why?

Certainly there has been a racial component to many instances of police overkill (literally, in the case of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times). But whether dealing with individual suspects, performing house raids in the war on drugs, or even responding to street protests, the police have become increasingly militarized – using armored vehicles, assault weapons and grenades, and often going in guns blazing to deal with ordinary criminals. For instance, a Georgia toddler was severely injured by a flash grenade in a raid on the home of a suspected drug dealer.

The war on drugs itself has been responsible for mass incarceration and the creation of career criminals who, due to Draconian “three strikes “laws, are spending most of their natural lives in prison for minor drug infractions. Meanwhile, we are witnessing an epidemic of people addicted to opioids prescribed by their own doctors. Yet Trump’s new Attorney General Jeff Sessions has shown indications that he wants to ramp up the “war on drugs” that has done so little to reduce crime, addiction, or the proliferation of weapons in our country.

I certainly believe in the right of law enforcement officers to defend themselves from armed criminals and to use SWAT teams in very dangerous, high risk situations. But the normalization of these military tactics and responses is a danger to innocent people who may be swept up in a raid or peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment right to assembly. More importantly, I believe that violence begets violence, whether we are dealing with military conflicts around the world or our own citizens here at home.

Our government, our laws, our military, and our law enforcement agencies should keep in mind the concept of proportional response in dealing with transgressions. They should seek to de-escalate conflict wherever possible. Such policies would increase respect for the men and women entrusted with keeping the peace and keeping us safe.

 

 

 

 

Restoring Trust Between the Community and Law Enforcement

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My name is Sal Lejarza.  My dear friend and high school classmate Mary invited me to serve as her guest blogger for today, and of course I am very honored and gratified to do so.  As I have served over 23 years as a civilian administrator for a suburban New Orleans police department, Mary asked me to provide my views in light of recent police-related incidents around the country as well as from the last several months.  A couple of those incidents happened over the summer in Baton Rouge, just about 70 miles from my home.

There is no need to rehash individual incidents as most of us know the circumstances.  We do know the following: minority-group citizens (particularly African-Americans) as well as law enforcement officers both feel under siege.  Too many of both are being killed or injured.  Rather than point fingers of blame at one another, which solves nothing, law enforcement professionals and community leaders must seek dialogue to solve the problems at hand.

In the suburb where I work and live, this is exactly what we have been doing for years.  Our city’s population (approximately 70,000) is about 65% white, 25% African-American, 8.5% Hispanic, and the remainder are Asian (Indian/Pakistani/Arab/Far Eastern), including a small but vibrant Muslim community.  And with such a diverse citizenry, we had almost a 39% decrease in crime in 2015 compared to 2014!  How does that happen today?

On the law enforcement end, our police department does three things right.  First, we strongly vet our police officer applicants.  Anyone with a remotely questionable background is not hired.  This minimizes the probability of negative occurrences in the future.

Second, all of our police officers undergo constant and thorough training annually to brush up their skills as well as to learn new methods and issues that confront the law enforcement profession.  The key is to keep that training as contemporary as possible.  A well-prepared police officer is a very professional police officer!

Third, and just as vitally important, our department has a very active community relations bureau that communicates and interacts with various civic/community organizations, including but not limited to neighborhood organizations, churches, schools, and social service entities.  Police officers can’t do it alone. Citizens must provide them with additional eyes and ears in order to keep their neighborhoods safe.  This is why our chief and police officers frequently meet with these groups in order to get the public’s pulse on problems while finding ways to solve them.  No police department can be successful without a community relations component.  Our department also offers various programs for citizen involvement (Neighborhood Watch, Citizen’s Police Academy, and Women’s Self-Defense Classes, just to name some).

These are just some of the ways our police department has been successful in keeping crime down while (and I emphasize) building public trust. Yes, more police officers, equipment, and technology help, but building public trust as we have done makes keeping our community safer so much easier.

Some police departments around the nation may not have the resources to do what I’ve outlined above.  Then what?  This is where citizens can make a difference.  Many have mobilized to form 501(c)3 non-profit organizations to raise funds and work with their local law enforcement agencies on various programs, including but not limited to the purchase of crime-fighting equipment, training, and community outreach.  Working together in this fashion, law enforcement and the citizenry can build trust with one another while solving daily problems in a positive manner.

Another way citizens can become involved is more direct: becoming a police officer.  After the terrible murders of police officers in Dallas, that city’s police chief challenged law enforcement protesters to effect change by becoming police officers; many of those protesters accepted the challenge and submitted their applications.  Those individuals will now get a view from the other side.

Law enforcement and community leaders are better served when they talk to each other instead of at each other.  Building mutual trust as I’ve outlined above will not happen overnight, but the process must start as soon as possible if we wish to solve the problems at hand.  As the saying goes, “You can attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.”

 

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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As New York City mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at a slain police officer’s funeral recently, police officers outside the church turned their backs on him. Most commentators decried the disrespect shown by the officers toward the mayor. On the other side of the divide, members of the NYPD have felt that de Blasio’s previous remarks were disrespectful to police officers. It seems clear that respect is a deeply felt need of all human beings.

If you had to choose, which would you pick: love or respect? That’s a trick question. Without respect, it’s hard to feel loved. When a husband tells his wife, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that,” he is questioning her intelligence. He may love her dearly, but she will not feel it. Likewise, when a woman berates her husband, or parents berate their children, calling them “stupid” or belittling their feelings, the lack of respect overshadows any love present in the relationship.

The inherent dignity of the human person demands that we respect each other. So why is it so difficult?

People love sarcasm and mockery. From a young age, kids learn to jockey for power and status by mastering the art of the put-down. Variations on “Yo mama . . .” have been around since time immemorial. In fact, a whole musical genre, the rap face-off, consists of verbal insult flinging. Some of America’s favorite comedians have relied almost completely on sarcasm and insults for their humor. Don Rickles comes to mind for the older set and possibly Daniel Tosh or Chelsea Handler for the millennials.

Name-calling is another problem in our culture. If I disagree with you on a political issue, for example, then you must be an idiot or a Nazi. People can’t seem to resist hitting below the belt when they argue. It may be human nature to put others down, but disrespect breaks down the foundations of our civilization.

Disrespect is dehumanizing. If I think of homeless people as hobos or bag ladies, I reduce them to pathetic losers. I don’t have to ponder the fact that they have nowhere to rest their heads on a cold winter’s night. If I use a racial slur, I reduce people to stereotypes, and I’m not forced to reach out and try for tolerance or understanding.

Aretha Franklin certainly said it all in her rousing classic “Respect.” Find out what it means to those around you, and then practice it every day.