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Black lives and police lives both matter

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

It’s not, and never should have been, an either or proposition to say black lives matter or police matters matter. The slaying of a police officer must and should be denounced with the same vigor, passion and outrage as the unwarranted slaying of an unarmed African-American. The sad thing is that from virtually the moment that the black lives matter movement exploded on the scene in the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri there has been a low intensity verbal war over whose lives are more important, and when an officer is gunned down or an unarmed black is gunned down who, or even whether there should be an outcry. The debate is silly and dangerous.

Last December, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund which is a national organization dedicated to tracking the number of officers killed in the line of duty, and promoting awareness of the dangers to law enforcement and commemorating those slain, sounded the alarm that the number of police officers murdered in 2014 had leaped to 120. This was a 20 percent increase over 2013, and it reversed a decade long trend. The brutal killings of two New York City police officers the same month along with the killing of a Tarpon Springs, Fla. police officer less than a day later upped that number to 123 (126 for the year).

Though the number of officers slain so far in 2015 has plunged from the stunning number killed in 2014, the killing of officers has seemingly resurged with the slaying of officers in Tennessee. Louisiana, Texas, and Illinois. When one officer is gunned down ambush style as was Houston Deputy Daron Goforth it will draw instant headlines and rage. It should. However, it should not draw a finger point of blame at the civil rights organizations that have been at the forefront of protests over police killings. There is certainly no evidence of any conspiracy, or plot by police abuse protestors to wink and nod at the killing of police officers, let alone to target them for attacks.

Nearly every activist organization at the forefront of the protests over the killing of Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Ezell Ford, as well as their family members, instantly condemned the killings of officers. Civil rights groups have made it abundantly clear that anyone who tries to in any way intimate or justify the killings as some kind of retaliation or evening the score for the deaths of the blacks killed is sick, a provocateur, and a vicious murderer.

Civil rights groups have been emphatic that attacks on police officers are despicable and outrageous and reinforce the false and irresponsible notion that civil rights groups are anti-police. There’s always been the recognition that police officers have a tough, and dangerous job, and the overwhelming majority of officers do not harass, abuse, or engage in misconduct, and that they take seriously their oath to protect and serve communities and that includes communities of color. The protests have always been aimed at the few officers who don’t and those officials who shield them.

There are two other good reasons why those who denounce the killing of unarmed blacks by a police officer must just as swiftly denounce the slaying of a police officer by a deranged or misguided individual. This heinous act could derail the growing public recognition that police violence is a major issue that cannot be ignored. The first steps were being taken toward a national dialogue among law enforcement, including use of body cameras, a grand jury system overhaul, a systematic tracking of civilians killed by police, and a revamp of policies on the use of force by officers.

There is also the concern that the killings could heighten tensions between police and minority communities, with deadly consequences. At times when officers have been killed in the line of duty, some police officials have recognized that danger and quietly reminded officers to uphold the highest professional standards. This is crucial, because an officer killing stirs anger, outrage and fear among many police.

The other reason is that a failure to speak out when a police officer is killed leaves the advocates for police reform wide open to the knock of a double standard; namely picking and choosing whose lives are important. Nothing could erode public sympathy and support for the victims of unwarranted police violence faster than that charge.

Officer safety is, and must, be of paramount importance to those who fight for police reform. Positive and proactive police-community relations, dialogue and engagement is a two way street. If there’s the sense that one side doesn’t give a hoot about officer’s safety and lives, then the well will be hopelessly poisoned. That’s a surefire prescription to escalate the cycle of fear and violence between police and African-American communities. When that happens, we all lose. Yes, black lives and police lives both matter, and it’s an absolute must for us to keep saying that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.