A Federal Response to Police Violence

It seems prescient now that Nancy LeTourneau chose yesterday afternoon to write a piece calling for a federal response to the civil rights challenge of our time, which she characterized as “both the over-incarceration of black and brown people and the police abuses that have been capturing the headlines once again.”

As she noted, “most of the control over these issues is currently in the hands of state and local governments” and “progress is – at best – a patchwork, and tends to come in jurisdictions that are probably already in the lead on addressing them.”

As if to drive home the urgency of LeTourneau’s point, later in the evening a sniper shot numerous law enforcement officers in Dallas, Texas, killing four policemen and one DART officer, and wounding seven more cops and two civilians. It was the deadliest day for American police officers since September 11, 2001.

“We are working very diligently on processing the crime scene to find evidence to bring any other suspects to justice,” [Dallas Police Chief David Brown] said.

But during the overnight standoff, the suspect told a police negotiator he acted alone and wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers, Brown said.

“He said he was not affiliated with any groups,” Brown said. “He said he did this alone.”

The police were in the area because a rally was being held to protest the deaths of 37-year-old Alton Sterling in Louisiana and 32-year-old Philando Castile in Minnesota. Both black men lost their lives at the hands of cops in what certainly appear to be unjustified shootings.

The Dallas police chief seems to understand the urgency of the situation:

“We’re hurting, our profession is hurting,” Brown told reporters at the news conference. “There are no words to describe the atrocity that occurred to our city. All I know is that this must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens.”

I am sure that there are unique and preexisting tensions in Dallas that fed into this, and it’s also perhaps the responsibility of a deranged mind, but the police chief isn’t wrong to see the atrocity as emblematic of a more general lack of trust. After all, the immediate impetus for the protests wasn’t anything that the Dallas police had done. People were in the streets to complain about something much more systemic and widespread.

Historically, the aftermath of a cop killing isn’t a time of thoughtfulness and reflection. It’s a time when people rally around the fallen officer and the department he or she served. Discussion of possible underlying causes is very unwelcome, as it might be interpreted as some kind of justification for a murder. Yet, perhaps the very scale of this incident is sufficient to break that rule.

It won’t be easy, particularly since the shooter so clearly expressed an anti-white racial motivation. This is a real invitation for people to rally to their tribe, whether that be the men with badges or just whites vs. blacks.

To avoid that, we need good, solid leadership on all sides. The Dallas police chief already recognizes that there’s a larger issue here, and he and other defenders of the police don’t need to be battered over the head with the argument that they’ve brought this on themselves. That will make them withdraw at a time when they might be open to discussion. At the same time, the temptation will be there to blame the protesters for stoking so much hate that they motivated this attack. That will make the protesters harden their positions and stop listening.

As LeTourneau documented, the administration has been very active in working on this issue, but they’re limited in what they can accomplish without more congressional authorization. Our current Congress can barely pass a bill to rename a post office, but we’ll have a new Congress in a few months. With the right makeup, the next Congress may find a law enforcement community that is willing to work with them on finding some federal solutions.

In the meantime, our thoughts should be with the families of the victims in Dallas, as well as with the families of the victims of police violence.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.