By Dennis Riley
At a late December 2014 press conference called shortly after the murders of two New York City police officers, Patrick Lynch, the President of the city’s Policemen’s Benevolent Association, insisted that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had “blood on his hands.” The implication, of course, was that the blood on the mayor’s hands was the blood of the two slain officers.
As I thought about that statement over the next couple of weeks, I kept coming back to the same two questions. First, did the mayor really have blood on his hands? Second, what about Officer Lynch’s hands? Were they completely free of blood stains?
What exactly had Mayor de Blasio done to get the blood of those two officers on his hands?
One, he had “sympathized” with New Yorkers who had protested the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who had died as a result of a chokehold applied by an NYPD officer in the process of arresting Garner for selling loose cigarettes on a street corner.
The mayor had wondered aloud whether the failure to indict any of the officers involved represented a failure of our legal system.
Two, he had told the city that he had sat down with his son, Dante — a handsome young man whose Afro would instantly remind you of Freddy “Boom Boom” Washington on Welcome Back, Kotter, if you were old enough — for what has come to be known as “the talk” about the potential dangers involved for young black men involved in encounters with the police. In other words, he acted as a caring father and stood up for the first amendment.
I don’t think Officer Lynch can make any better case that the mayor’s statements led to the shooting of those two officers than Spiro Agnew when he claimed that those of us protesting against the Vietnam War were responsible for continued American casualties, or George Wallace when he blamed Martin Luther King and Ralph David Abernathy for the injuries to the men and women who tried to walk across the Edmund Pettis Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965 to protest the fact that, despite 100 years of the 15th Amendment, they could not vote.
This is not to say that First Amendment–protected protest comes with no risks. Historically, the most likely risk seems to come from law enforcement overreaction. But not every protestor has the will to respond to that overreaction peacefully, and not every protestor even has the intention to do so. Leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee eventually turned to the Black Power movement with a few even ending up with the Black Panthers. The protests they inspired then were very different from the ones they inspired and led for SNCC.
Then there is always the possibility of people joining a protest intending to turn it into something law enforcement has to confront. Smashing windows doesn’t seem to be a very First Amendment activity. Still, most of the time the vast majority of protestors behave in ways that cannot be said to have led to bloodshed.
And what about Officer Lynch’s hands? Presidents of police unions, joined by a substantial majority of the rank and file of those unions, rush to support any officer accused by anyone of using lethal force unnecessarily. Remember the “I am Darren Wilson” bracelets worn by Ferguson police officers as protests over Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown mounted last summer? If every law enforcement officer in the country knows that he or she will receive unqualified backing from his or her union for the use of force in almost any situation imaginable, could that not possibly lead to a set of officers being a little too ready to use that force?
I understand that officers have to make what we always refer to as “split-second decisions” about the use of force. I also understand that these are matters of “life and death” and that the death in question just might be the officer’s death. No, I don’t think I do understand the pressure that would put on someone. To understand that you probably really do have to be there. So I don’t think it would be such a great idea to always presume that a police officer had another reasonable choice available and, therefore, that he or she should be presumed to have used “excessive force” and be subjected to punishment.
But it’s not such a great idea to continue to assume that the force was always needed, always appropriate, and that to question its use is to court the disaster of dead police officers. Remember, the man accused of shooting the two NYPD officers had tried to kill his girlfriend earlier that same day and was described by his family as someone with a history of mental illness. That doesn’t seem to have a clear connection to protesting the death of Eric Garner or the decision of a grand jury not to indict the officer who wrestled him to the ground even as he gasped that he could not breathe.
In the end we are up against one of democracy’s greatest difficulties. Laws have to be enforced. They have to be enforced by people who are empowered to use, well, force. These people have to be trained to use force wisely, humanely, and, hopefully, as a last resort.
But no matter how much training or what kind of training, they will sometimes use it. We need to figure out how to make sure that they have used it wisely, humanely, and as a last resort. Then, and only then, can we hold them accountable for exercising the ultimate authority we can grant to any official — the right to shoot a fellow citizen.
Enough out of me.
Dennis Riley has been teaching about American government and politics since the year Richard Nixon was inaugurated as President of the United States.