We can no longer ignore it. Criminals have graduated from "Saturday Night Specials" to automatic weapons. They run about in daylight holding up convenience stores and in darkness turning our neighborhoods into Beirut. We send our soldiers out onto the front lines every day. Every time a police officer puts on his uniform to go to work he knows he may never come home again. And if that doesn't constitute a war, nothing does.
This war is a Vietnam. Because we are not winning it, because sometimes the wrong people get killed or maimed and because the war in some cases, reduces the moral purpose of its soldiers to that of the beast they are trying to
What happened in Los Angeles to Rodney King, that grainy videotape beamed into our living rooms, has shocked all of America. Wait a minute, we each said to ourselves, there is something off-center here.
This is not how America is supposed to work. This is not what we are all about. Most of us refused to accept that videotape as America's home movie of the 1990s. And we all looked for excuses. There's got to be a good explanation for this, we said. There just has to be.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D., Del.) said of the matter: "I can assure you that for every citizen who watches that videotape and feels a sense of anger and rage, there are 10 times as many police officers who watched it and also felt a genuine sense of rage, because they knew what would come next. That the people would look at them and say: 'You wear a blue uniform. Are you like that?' And they know they are not."
Most of us know it, too. We know there are thousands of police officers who have never assaulted or beaten suspects, who went into law enforcement because they honestly feel it is a way to do something about our horrendous social problems, a way to make a difference in the world and serve.
As the mother of a state trooper who also tested for many municipal police jobs, as well as the FBI, I know of the careful screening process law- enforcement applicants endure to be considered for jobs that are highly competitive. When my son was being investigated for a municipal law- enforcement job the detective doing the investigation asked his family and friends, "What is the worst thing you can say about him?"
Those who finally do get by all the tough hurdles and go into police work cannot be mutant RoboCops, wanting only to carry guns and destroy.
So then, wherefore a Rodney King? Why are we now hearing about five officers in New York City indicted on murder charges in the February death of a 21-year-old Hispanic man? Why are 50 people demonstrating in Plainfield, N.J., and alleging that a policeman beat up a 14-year-old black male?
I can think of reasons, without benefit of a degree in either sociology or
For one, yes, there is police brutality. It exists as surely as the dark side of humanity exists, as surely as power corrupts. There are simply some bad cops, as there are bad priests, bad doctors and bad psychiatrists who are willing to pervert their oaths. This reasoning does not justify what happened to Rodney King, of course, and we should never accept this or any reason. But let's not spit on all the police badges in the country because of the few who dishonored theirs.
If we do, we fall into a greater danger in this war down the street, the same danger we fell into in Vietnam. Turning on our own soldiers.
America takes too easily to witchhunts. Look at the trends. For a while there we were down on the military. Now the military can do no wrong. Well, now it's cops.
And this is no way to support our soldiers in blue on the front lines, those intrepid souls who, as Biden once said, "must have their psyche tested every day, must be part psychiatrist, part counselor and must make an instant decision, when responding to a domestic quarrel, if that guy is going to come through the kitchen at him with a butcher knife."
Could any of us make such instant stand-up decisions? Our police must make life-death decisions in half a second. They need our support.
So what is the solution? Many solutions are being tried now, from putting cops back on walking beats to revamping police academy tactics to involving police in social services.
Biden has recently presented a bill authorizing $1 billion to state and local law-enforcement agencies to be used at their discretion. The bill, introduced March 11, has yet to be voted on in the Senate.
If it is approved, perhaps some of that money should be used to evaluate police officers who serve in inner-city battle zones on a yearly basis. Perhaps they should be debriefed the way returning prisoners of war are. Perhaps police in lesser war zones could be evaluated, or have their humanity tested, every three or four years.
Perhaps shifts could be stabilized, too, so officers don't constantly switch from a week of nights to a week of days, then back again. Shift work puts a strain on mind and body.
But perhaps we could begin by just simply acknowledging the war down the street. We should form grass-roots support groups for our police now that they feel so demoralized.
They should be investigated and prosecuted if found guilty of police brutality, yes. But we should support those who feel a genuine sense of rage over the Rodney King incident. Maybe all we need to do is wear a small blue ribbon on our lapels, the meaning of which would be, "I don't support a police state, but I support my police."
They know, as do we, that the enemy is out there. We need to win this war. But the enemy is crime and poverty and drugs and violence. And not the police. Above all not them.