Law officers’ challenges go deep, even locally

Law enforcement is a demanding calling, full of pressure and dangers that most of us “civilian” citizens really don’t have a clue about.

Cops have to deal with frequent spiteful, verbal abuse from people they may actually be trying to help, who don’t appreciate their presence. They run the risk of physical attack nearly every time they engage with the public. They see things and hear things that would send many of us over the edge.

In their role, they face unique temptations: the opportunity to bully people, to collaborate with evil-doers who can offer tantalizing incentives for law enforcement to look the other way, to engage in self-protective behavior that may not be in the public interest. Departmental politics at work and job-related problems at home can add complications. It’s not an easy life, especially for those who truly dedicate themselves to serving the public, despite all those jokes about the doughnut shop.

The recent news from the streets hasn’t been good. It seems we’re in a cycle of events that have left law enforcement with a black eye. They include:

– The deaths of a series of black men shot by police in recent months – Eric Garner in Long Island, N.Y., John Crawford in Ohio, Eric Harris in Tulsa, Okla., and Walter Scott in South Carolina; and then, last month, the paralysis and mysterious death of Freddie Gray after a ride in a police wagon, which has resulted in charges, ranging up to murder, of six officers who transported him.

– A March Washington Post report that the Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000. The cases included those of 32 defendants sentenced to death, according to the Post, which added that of those defendants, 14 have already been executed or died in prison.

– The resignation of the Obama administration’s top drug enforcement official after the Justice Department found that agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration reportedly had “sex parties” with prostitutes hired by drug cartels in Colombia as far back as 2001.

We started this editorial in the manner we did for a reason. There are two sides to this story.

It’s certainly very understandable why many Americans – particularly those of racial minority communities who say they are often mistreated by cops – are angry and horrified by some of the events listed above. But even in the case of Scott, whose death was recorded on a video that leaves us deeply disturbed at the very least, we really need to avoid jumping to conclusions and pray that true justice will be served.

It’s too bad that we even have to say that, that we even have to question the motives and actions of people whose responsibility is to ensure the rule of law.

But any student of history can affirm that this isn’t the first time police in America have come under fire. The very nature of the business can easily lead to illicit behavior: bribery and collaboration with criminal elements they are supposed to be policing; bullying and beating of prisoners, giving arrestees “rough/joy/nickel rides” to jail, which increasingly appears to be what happened to Gray; lack of attention to duty or looking the other way; shakedowns; planting of false evidence. But despite the impression we get from watching cops-and-robbers shows and movies, we really believe the majority of America’s law enforcement officials to be upstanding individuals.

The reality is, according to a recent New York Times article, it’s not so easy to determine whether the number of these sorry incidents has actually risen. Official records and numbers are not always reliable and the instantaneous nature of modern social and news media have greatly increased public awareness of those incidents that have occurred.

Police officers’ difficult relationships with low-income populations is a major problem in the United States and one that we believe is systemic. The decline of families has been a major factor. Adult males lack jobs in poor communities and, as the rest of the family subsides on government aid, they often aren’t a big part of the picture ata home. They’re often idle, often angry and they often devote their energies to activities that get them in trouble.

Is it any wonder that their relationships with law enforcement tend to be negative?

These problems aren’t limited to a particular race or color or location. They can be as real here in Sweet Home as they are in Ferguson, Mo.

Perhaps understandably, local people who have been arrested sometimes complain about their treatment from our local cops. Nobody likes to be busted, whether it’s a traffic ticket or a more serious offense.

But when we hear police calls with someone in the background screaming things at cops that we can’t repeat here, we tend to suspect that their view might be tainted by the realities of the predicament they’ve gotten themselves into.

As your local newspaper, we spend a lot of time interacting with our local law enforcement officers and monitoring their activities. We see and hear them deal daily with people who are irresponsible, immature and often engaging in various antisocial behaviors. The reality of the job is that they have to be psychologists, street-corner judges, animal control officers, family counselors, role models – all while wearing bulletproof vests and cameras that record their every move and word, simply to protect themselves.

The rule of law is really what’s at stake in these cases of . If people can’t trust the folks authorized to enforce the law, whom can they trust? It really comes down to a question of morality, of character – of basics such as right and wrong. It right and wrong is simply subjective, the rule of law goes down the drain.

Allistair Price, a lecturer on the Faculty of Law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where the human rights record, until recently, has been much more spotty than in the United States, acknowledged in a piece he wrote on the topic that the rule of law isn’t something people are naturally inclined to support – until they lose it.

Here’s how he describes society without the rule of law: “Bribes are commonplace. There is little protection for the honest, hardworking entrepreneur. Some wrongdoers are prosecuted for their crimes, while others – apparently well-connected – are not.

“People start to rely largely on the patronage or mercy of officials to receive state-sponsored benefits. There is a clampdown on free speech: investigative journalists and editors are jailed for stories claiming to expose corruption.

“Most chilling is the lawless violence. Murderers are not brought to book. Worse yet, there are rumours of nameless officials knocking on doors at night and of people disappearing.”

Sound extreme? It can happen a lot faster than we’d like to believe. Price says that if we don’t want to experience what he’s just described, citizens must obey the law themselves. Laws must be clear and officials and judges must comply with them “impartially, without fear or favour.”

If that doesn’t happen, Price says, “then it becomes impossible to act within the law.”

It’s a community effort to make sure the law is working the way it should. We appreciate our local law enforcement operating in an equitable and forthright manner. Our legal system has plenty of flaws, as anyone who’s had experience in the court system can attest, but it’s still better than a lot of other people around the world experience.

If we want to maintain that rule of law described above, our responsibility across our nation, as well as here in Sweet Home – is hold our law enforcement officials to the standard they’ve taken an oath to uphold and support them in their efforts to do so.