A tragedy beyond color

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eugene Robin­son

— Black lives mat­ter. Blue lives mat­ter. Both state­ments must be made true if the heart­break­ing loss of life in Dal­las is to have any mean­ing.

The killing spree that left five po­lice of­fi­cers dead and seven oth­ers wounded should be clas­si­fied as an act of do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism. The shooter, iden­ti­fied as 25- year- old Micah Xavier John­son, ap­par­ently be­lieved he was com­mit­ting an act of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence. Our duty, to honor the fallen, is to en­sure that John­son’s vile and cow­ardly act has the op­po­site im­pact from what he sought.

John­son, who was cap­tured on video shoot­ing one of­fi­cer in the back, was killed when po­lice, who had tried un­suc­cess­fully to ne­go­ti­ate his sur­ren­der, sent a ro­bot his way bear­ing an ex­plo­sive de­vice. Enough about him, ex­cept this one thing: He said he was mo­ti­vated by ha­tred over the deaths of two more black men — Al­ton Ster­ling in Ba­ton Rouge, Louisiana, and Phi­lando Castile in Fal­con Heights, Min­nesota — at the hands of po­lice.

The slain po­lice of­fi­cers were pro­tect­ing a law­ful, peace­ful demon­stra­tion to protest those same deaths. As the crowd, per­haps more than 800 strong, marched through down­town Dal­las, there was anger but no real ten­sion. Cer­tainly there was no sense of dan­ger; po­lice were not wear­ing riot gear or rid­ing in ar­mored ve­hi­cles. In­stead, of­fi­cers chat­ted and took self­ies with the demon­stra­tors. They had no fear of en­counter and di­a­logue.

The great irony is that Dal­las is some­thing of a model. Mayor Mike Rawl­ings was right when he told re­porters that Dal­las is “one of the pre­mier com­mu­nity polic­ing cities in the coun­try.”

Since Po­lice Chief David Brown took over in 2010, com­plaints of ex­ces­sive force by of­fi­cers have dropped by nearly two- thirds. Po­lice shoot­ings have been halved, from 23 in 2012 to just 11 in 2015 — and only one so far this year, ac­cord­ing to Po­lice Depart­ment data.

Brown hap­pens to be AfricanAmer­i­can, but that’s not the most sig­nif­i­cant thing about him. What’s im­por­tant is that Brown was quick to un­der­stand that the chasm be­tween po­lice of­fi­cers and young men of color was real — and that it could be bridged.

His of­fi­cers un­dergo train­ing in how to de- es­ca­late con­flicts rather than heat them up; they learn to speak calmly when ap­proach­ing sus­pects in­stead of im­me­di­ately bark­ing or­ders. When there is a


po­lice shoot­ing, uni­formed pres­ence around the scene is ramped down as soon as pos­si­ble. The depart­ment, un­like many oth­ers, keeps track of po­lice shoot­ings and pub­lishes the fig­ures on the city’s web­site. And Brown keeps look­ing for new ways to im­prove re­la­tions be­tween po­lice and the com­mu­nity, re­al­iz­ing that di­ver­sity is not a des­ti­na­tion but a shared jour­ney.

The Dal­las Po­lice Depart­ment is not per­fect, of course. But its ef­forts to im­prove the way of­fi­cers in­ter­act with cit­i­zens stand in con­trast to the ap­palling po­lice work we saw in the cell­phone videos record­ing the deaths that prompted protests around the coun­try.

Ster­ling was on the ground in front of a con­ve­nience store, re­strained by of­fi­cers and pos­ing no ap­par­ent threat, when he was shot to death. Castile, pulled over in a traf­fic stop, was ap­par­ently reach­ing for his iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to hand it to the of­fi­cer who shot him.

The video of Castile’s fi­nal mo­ments was streamed on the in­ter­net by his girl­friend, Di­a­mond Reynolds. In her nar­ra­tion, she says Castile in­formed the of­fi­cer that he was li­censed to carry a firearm. It is no stretch to imag­ine that to the of­fi­cer, this meant Castile was an armed and dan­ger­ous black man. Which leads me to a ques­tion I shouldn’t have to ask: Does the Sec­ond Amend­ment ap­ply to AfricanAmer­i­cans too? Where is the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion state­ment de­cry­ing the fact that an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen might have been killed for ex­er­cis­ing his con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected right to keep and bear arms?

But the so­lu­tion is not more guns. The so­lu­tion is to end the un­der­valu­ing of lives, both black and blue.

Poor, trou­bled, crime- rid­den com­mu­ni­ties are those that most want and need ef­fec­tive polic­ing. But the par­a­digm can­not be us ver­sus them. It has to be us with us — a re­la­tion­ship of mu­tual re­spect.

I hope po­lice of­fi­cers around the na­tion see how rapidly and com­pletely the peo­ple of Dal­las — in­clud­ing those in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment — have ral­lied around their city’s be­reaved Po­lice Depart­ment. I hope they un­der­stand that com­pas­sion for Ster­ling, Castile and oth­ers killed by po­lice in no way mit­i­gates the na­tion’s pro­found sor­row for the brave of­fi­cers killed in Dal­las. Such tragedy is beyond color.

Eugene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@ wash­post. com.

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