What police – and the policed – need to do

Published 7:17 PM EDT, Wed July 13, 2016

Story highlights

Mark O'Mara: Our alarm over instances of violence between police and policed distract us from addressing systemic problems

If we refuse to change out-of-control gun access, he says, we need to take steps to achieve justice within this flawed reality

Editor’s Note: Mark O’Mara is a CNN legal analyst and a criminal defense attorney. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

Since the tragedy of five police officers being shot dead by a sniper in Dallas, there has been more sporadic violence, and dozens of arrests in otherwise peaceful marches.

In this time of heightened tension between police and the people they protect, everyone seems to be waiting for the next blowup: Will it be another anarchist sniper, or perhaps an out-of-control traffic stop that leads to a shooting?

We cannot let these disturbing distractions pull us away from the tough work we Americans, together, have before us.

The harsh reality is that no number of protests, no level of outrage will stop the problems we are now living with and suffering through.

It’s not enough to merely zero in on video evidence that provides examples of the daily indignities and lethal dangers that men and women of color face when they interact with police.

And we can’t only pay attention when police, in the course of protecting communities in a nation where citizens carry guns, are themselves shot down.

Doctors know that killing one cancer cell cannot cure a patient; we need to look at the criminal justice system as a whole, rationally determine its shortcomings and faults, and address them holistically. While that sounds like a grand solution on which we can probably all agree, there are enormous roadblocks.

To get over them, we must first acknowledge what is real: In the past five years, we have seen the undercurrents of African-Americans’ decades-old fear of cops come revealed in lurid color. An unlikely ally has surfaced this long-term infection: video.

Whether images come from a body camera, dashcam or a bystander’s cell phone, we are now forced to confront the negative interplay that takes place too often between law enforcement and our nation’s black citizens.

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We are also now forced to confront the fear police have for their own safety: The Dallas officers’ murders are the most recent demonstration of why.

What’s more, our cops, compared with other departments around the world, are trained that in an interaction with a citizen, the use of a firearm is simply a next step up the spectrum of force. That’s in large part because we live in a much more violent and gun-laden society than almost any other civilized society.

Since it is apparent that we are not going to disarm ourselves – based on our unwillingness, after massacres like Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and now Orlando, to adopt sensible gun regulations – both the police and the policed must learn better to live with those premises.

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We unfortunately cannot avoid the next negative interaction, but we can steel ourselves, know that we will handle it, and keep in mind the end goal: We must have a criminal justice system that focuses on justice, equal justice.

How can we achieve justice within the framework of this country’s flawed reality?

–Occasionally body cameras, dashcams and citizens’ cell phones are going to capture the sometimes dirty underbelly of law enforcement. But we must require such recording devices for all law enforcement. So far, we have done it on a city-by-city, tragedy-by-tragedy method. For example, when Ferguson happened, the Department of Justice launched a $20 million pilot program funding body cameras. They work, and a cop shouldn’t be on the street without one, for everyone’s benefit.

–We must be willing to understand, and give certain deference to, the extraordinarily difficult job we demand of our men and women in blue. We will not always like what we see on these videos, but policing is not a pretty job. We also must better accept that we have empowered our employees, law enforcement, for all practical purposes, to be judge on the street. There are two authorities that can incarcerate a citizen, by our very own Constitution: judges and cops.

The latter’s authority is just as strong, and more swift, than judges. Since it would be ludicrous to change that (How effective would our police be without the power of arrest?), we must better learn to respect it. We do not need to agree with the command of an officer. We can even believe that it is improper or racially biased against us, but we do not have the right to resist it – not on the street; that’s what courtrooms and lawyers like me are for.

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–We must do a better job of vetting, training and funding our police cadets. They must be better trained in their methods of interaction with the public, whether it be in non-, quasi-, or completely criminal situations. We know that, expensive as it is, community policing works. While it can be initially inefficient and expensive, it is undeniable that when law enforcement attends the community meetings, walks the beat, gets to know the people they interact with, the interactions go better.

It has been said that Alton Sterling had been selling CDs outside that shop for years. One question that raises is, how could police not know him? And if they did know him, could that or should that have informed how they handled him?

We must acknowledge that the next Tamir Rice or Alton Sterling case is waiting out there, and will be our next headline unless and until we accept the frailties of our criminal justice system and commit the extraordinary resources necessary to hire good cops, train them to be the cops we want them to be, and pay them to stay in the position of being a good cop risking their lives for us, so that they may re-earn the respect of those they interact with.