Most people probably would hate to think of the lawlessness that could erupt if we didn’t have police keeping the peace. The looting that often occurs when officers are dealing with natural disasters is just a hint of the possibilities.
And yet, the level of distrust and even animosity between police and law enforcers at times reaches levels that could affect officers’ performance and in turn public safety.
The discord rises and falls, and fortunately it has ebbed since protesters and police clashed in the months that followed President Trump’s election. But the recent announcement that no federal charges will be brought against a New York officer whose chokehold on Eric Garner might have provoked a fatal asthma attack has opened an old wound, and gotten people talking again.
The Rio Grande Valley certainly isn’t immune to police-related violence. Last month, Mission Police Cpl. Jose Luis “Speedy” Espericueta died following an exchange of gunfire that also killed the suspect who had fired on him. Espericueta was remembered as hero in the days following his death.
In Brownsville, officials still are investigating the fatal shooting of a man last month by police who were responding to a report of an assault. Evidence suggests that the man, after leading police on a chase through city streets, tried to ram police vehicles with his own. The city has fought public efforts to learn more about the case, raising questions about their reasons for secrecy — questions that might be unfounded.
And a December fatal shooting by San Benito police led to a full shakeup of the department. In this case six officers, including the former police chief, fired into the man’s car after he had led them on a chase from San Benito to El Ranchito. Cellphone video taken by the unarmed man during the barrage of gunfire seems to contradict official police accounts of the incident.
If there’s a lesson in the three local incidents, and the varied public reactions to them, it’s that the public has high expectations for police conduct — perhaps too high; after all, even though they are highly trained, they are human and their reaction under life-threatening situations might not be known until they arise. Law enforcement agencies, for their part, must be open and honest about incidents. They might face less outrage following questionable incidents if they acknowledge errors and show that they are being addressed. This would go a long way toward reducing public fears that police will protect their comrades, even if they misbehave.
On a grander scale, law enforcement agencies and academies should always look for ways to improve their methods of testing, selecting and training new officers, in hopes of identifying traits that might lead to responses that are more severe than a situation requires.
Most importantly, people must respect those officers; cooperate and not be aggressive or defiant if they are stopped. Officers have a job to do, and interactions must be professional — on both sides.
Keeping our communities safe requires cooperation between police and the public, and both sides must do their part to build the necessary bonds of trust.