It’s been a heavy few days in America. After the graphic videos of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling surfaced, Daily Show host Trevor Noah highlighted a common misconception that seems to be running rampant in America this week. He said, “If you’re pro–Black Lives Matter, you’re assumed to be anti-police, and if you’re pro-police, then you surely hate black people. It seems that it’s either pro-cop and anti-black or pro-black and anti-cop when in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we should all be.”
After the recent tragedy in Dallas, where seven police officers were wounded and five killed by a spinner, it is even more important to assert the importance of needed changes regarding police interactions with the African-American community as well as respect and safety for our law enforcement officers.
When I say that there is a problem in our country with law enforcement and their treatment of African-Americans, I am speaking from experience. I myself have experienced harassment and my constitutional rights being violated by a police officer during a bogus traffic stop. That is the reality of being black in America. However, that doesn’t make me insensitive to the difficulty and dangers of being a police officer.
Hillary Clinton got it right when she called for greater respect for law enforcement as well as national guidelines on the use of force. Instead of all the vitriol I’m seeing on the media and online, we need more people invested in creating solutions to the problems our country is facing. Let’s be clear: It is possible to provide fair policing to African-Americans and ensure our law enforcement officers receive the necessary support to make them safer while on the job. Those two issues aren’t mutually exclusive.
First, as Hillary Clinton suggested, all officers should be required to pass a standardized national curriculum. Currently, each state and jurisdiction has different training requirements for officers. Training usually consists of 12 to 14 weeks of classes on state laws, local ordinances, constitutional law, and civil rights. Officers are also taught traffic control, self-defense, firearms, and emergency response. A couple of months in the police academy is not nearly enough training for the type of complicated issues that officers now face, including special populations, mentally ill citizens, heavily armed citizens, and unfortunately, terrorist threats. And without a national standard for what constitutes excessive force, there is space for confusion that puts officers at a greater risk for criminal and civil liability while in the line of duty. This needs to change.
Second, there should be an age requirement for officers working in the field. The age of officers is rarely discussed; however, research shows that younger officers are more likely to be involved in excessive use of force and shootings. In Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson was 28 when he fatally shot Michael Brown. New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo was 29 when he put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold. Brooklyn police officer Peter Liang was 27 (and on the job for less than 18 months) when he fired his gun in an apartment stairway and killed Akai Gurley. The risk of shootings declines as an officer ages. Being a police officer comes with a heavy responsibility, and studies show that older officers are better equipped to handle these duties. (I was unable to confirm the age of Jeronimo Yanez, who recently shot Philando Castile, or the ages of officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake, who were involved in the Alton Sterling shooting.)
Third, officers should earn a livable wage, and moonlighting should be closely monitored. Currently, the median annual police patrol officer salary is $52,690. Due to low base salaries, many police officers augment their income through a variety of special pay, including time worked on nights and weekends or special security assignments such sporting events or concerts. However, long hours in a stressful occupation can not only increase health risks for officers but put them at increased risk of injury to themselves and the community. Currently, there are no federal guidelines to the number of hours a police officer can work.
Last, there should be a national protocol that police departments must follow after an officer-involved shooting that includes turning all information over to a neutral party such as the FBI or Justice Department. Far too often, police departments are allowed to collect evidence, witness interviews, and body camera footage that is then turned over to their local district attorney’s office. This relationship does not provide the level of transparency sufficient for the current climate and further incites distrust between law enforcement and the public.
I am saddened by the loss of life around the country and heartbroken by the divisive rhetoric. We have to do better. As Americans and as humans, it is our duty to embrace the well-being of all fellow citizens, independent of whether they have black skin or wear blue uniforms.