LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Much work needed to repair community tensions

We have seen four police officers slain in a recent nine-day period. We see crowds of Americans chanting: “What do we want? Dead cops.” “When do we want it? Now!” It is a bad time for police, and a sad time for America. Of course, much of this animosity comes from the outrageous conduct of some bad cops, seen on TV screens coast to coast, but, as I have written before, this — the entire decayed relationship between the police and those they serve — stems from our misguided and ineffective “War on Drugs.”

Decades of police “jumpouts,” and stopping and searching primarily young black men, have frazzled everyone’s nerves. On top of that, the widespread dysfunction of our criminal-justice system (also attributable to the “war on drugs”!), with its mandatory minimum sentences, convictions of the innocent (we see about three exonerations every week), its rush through cases, producing so much injustice, has deeply eroded trust and confidence in the whole justice system.

To be sure, for decades, prosecutors failed their responsibilities to hold errant police officers accountable, just as they still ignore egregious cases of prison abuse. But unquestionably, there is a discernible shift in the right direction; we see that many prosecutors know that nobody is above the law — not police, not public officials — and all who commit crimes must be prosecuted.

These days, the Dover Police Department is getting a bad rap. Inaccurate media reports, combined with inaccurate hasty statements by some officials, have compounded the problems. The immediate issue (since it is tragically clear that an end to the war on drugs is far off) is not what causes the problems, but what is the cure?

It is only right that police focus their attentions in high-crime areas. The overwhelming majority of police treat citizens civilly, do not bully or intimidate people, and try, under difficult circumstances, to solve crimes.

This majority must report those who might abuse their authority, and leadership must diligently hold them accountable. It will be difficult to repair the damage done, in Dover and across the country, but it is possible.

In Dover, Mayor Christiansen and Chief Bernat are committed to doing right. They must continue increased police training (i.e., on how to confront the mentally ill), and they must remind the “troops on the street” that they are not “troops,” they are police, and they serve all citizens, and the public’s perception of their being fair is key not only to keeping the peace, but to solving crimes. I point out that Chief Bernat was not the chief at the time of the clearly criminal attack on Lateef Dickerson by a Dover officer.

On the streets, all involved should ask themselves one simple question before they act — every time with every action — is it right — is it fair?

And both elected officials and the press should curb their rush to report “something,” and take the time to be sure they know the facts before reporting or commenting. There is no denying that “tensions are high,” but now is the time for reflection and correction, getting back to basics — more “feet on the street,” to ensure that no more lives — neither civilians’ nor police — are taken needlessly. Remember Aretha Franklin: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Police must respect everyone’s rights, and civilians should respect the police, laboring under challenging circumstances to keep everyone safe.

Ken Abraham
Former Deputy Attorney General
President of Citizens
for Criminal Justice

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