When I joined the Los Angeles Police Department some 35 years ago, it was common practice among officers that upon returning to our cars after handling a radio call, having lunch, or what have you, we would check the ground beneath it for the presence of a bomb. To me, with my paltry experience at the time, the exercise seemed silly. No one I knew had found a bomb under his car, why should I think I would find one under mine?
But this was the early 1980s, and the officers who trained me, many of them veterans of the Vietnam war, had come through the tumult of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers, and all the other revolutionary groups whose aim it was to overthrow the government and whose practices included attacks on police officers. These officers explained to me that some years earlier someone had indeed attempted to blow up an LAPD car, and that the device had been designed to detonate only when the car moved from its parking place. In other words, whoever planted the bomb intended to kill the officers as they drove away. Fortunately for those officers, the bomb failed to detonate when the triggering mechanism malfunctioned. It was only after backing out of the parking space that the officers saw the bomb on the ground and came to realize how close they had come to being blown to bits.
Things changed, and the time came when we no longer looked for bombs under our cars. But as the old saw goes, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. We are not, fortunately, experiencing the level of social upheaval seen the ‘60s and ‘70s. But for America’s police officers, the echoes of those bad old days are unmistakable. In 2014 came the assassination of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, whose killer, Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, had posted on Instagram of his intentions to kill police officers in retribution for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The next year brought the riots in Ferguson and smaller-scale violence at anti-police protests across the country. Earlier this month came the horrifying events in Dallas.
Then, early Sunday morning, a police car in Daytona Beach was firebombed, though we can be grateful it was unoccupied at the time. The burned car had been parked outside the local Islamic Center as a deterrent against potential backlash following the June 12 jihadist-inspired mass murder in Orlando. As it turned out, it wasn’t the Islamic Center that needed protection, it was the police car. A note attached to a signpost near the car referred to Black Lives Matter and the victims of two recent controversial police shootings, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It closed with a refrain familiar to anyone who has watched any of the recent demonstrations against law enforcement: “F*** the police!!!” Only hours later, Gavin Long took those sentiments to a deadly extreme when he shot six police officers in Baton Rouge, killing three of them.
Where can we place the origins of this fatal discontent? The Black Lives Matter movement originated during the Trayvon Martin controversy in Florida, then rose to prominence following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The facts in both these cases did not support the movement’s founding premise, that American blacks, particularly young men, are daily imperiled by racist police officers waiting for any excuse to gun them down. The fact that George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin, was not a police officer did not deter BLM activists from placing blame on the police. Nor were they deterred when Zimmerman was tried for murder and acquitted.
Similarly, the facts in the Michael Brown case did not support the contention that the officer acted unlawfully in shooting him. Multiple investigations proved the exact opposite: that Brown, after robbing a convenience store for some cigarillos, assaulted the officer who confronted him, tried to disarm him, then was shot when he was aggressively charging at the officer. Most of the evidence that vindicated the officer was known the very day of the shooting, and the rest of it was known within a week. But that didn’t stop the BLM activists from propagating the lie – and it was indeed a lie – that Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot in the back. So pervasive was the lie that when the truth was finally revealed, some refused to believe it and still do.
For some, it is now taken as a given that whenever an encounter between a police officer and a black person turns violent, the only explanation is that the officer was motivated by racial animus. This view is deeply rooted among people in the media, on college campuses, and in politics, including, sadly, President Obama. Examples of this thinking abound, but I present one that involved criminology professor David Klinger, a friend and former LAPD colleague. On July 8, Klinger was a guest on radio station KUOW in Seattle. Among the topics under discussion was “implicit bias,” which police critics claim influences an officer’s decision to shoot a black suspect when a white one would be spared. Klinger told of his own experience when, as a young LAPD officer, he shot and killed a man who was trying to stab another officer in the neck with a butcher knife. Host Bill Radke asked Klinger how he could be certain that he had not been influenced by implicit bias. “Was race a factor?” he asked.
If you’ve seen Klinger discussing police shootings in his many appearances on CNN, you know he is not easily perturbed. He answers even the most insipid questions with magnanimity and courtesy for reporters betraying their ignorance on national television. But I got the sense that Radke was fortunate the interview was being conducted on the phone rather than in person. Klinger informed him that it was not the man’s skin color that motivated him to shoot, but rather the glint of the knife that was about to penetrate another officer’s neck. Radke seemed dismissive of the claim, and it’s safe to assume Klinger will decline any future invitations to appear on the show.
Fractious as the radio exchange was, it was instructive. Klinger’s decision to shoot the man with the knife was clearly lawful and entirely proper, yet in ascribing a racial motive to the shooting, Radke typifies the mindset discussed above, which would hold that had Klinger not been influenced by implicit bias, he may have found some other way to prevent the man from stabbing his partner. This is a dangerous fantasy, but it is sadly common.
Equally common and equally dangerous is the tendency to conflate the murder of police officers with the police shootings that purportedly catalyzed them. At my local parish last Sunday, I was tempted to walk out of Mass when the priest, during his sermon, spoke of the “tragedies in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Minnesota,” thus placing the murder of police officers on the same moral plane as the shooting of Philando Castile, about which we know very little, and that of Alton Sterling, which appears to have been completely justifiable. On that same day, a radio host on the Los Angeles classical music station made a similar reference to these events.
The ignorance of a priest or a radio host can easily be overlooked. Not so the ignorance of the president, who not only conflates the events, but comes very close to attributing the murder of eight police officers to the collective guilt of police officers everywhere. “[I]f police organizations and departments acknowledge that there’s a problem and there’s an issue,” President Obama said on July 10, “then that, too, is going to contribute to real solutions. And, as I said yesterday, that is what’s going to ultimately help make the job of being a cop a lot safer.”
Which may in fact be true, as far as it goes, but in whose opinion will a police shooting be adjudged a “problem” and an “issue”? Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby thought she had an “issue” in the death of Freddie Gray, one that she hoped would propel her to some higher station in politics. She charged six police officers with a variety of crimes, including murder, yet in the four trials conducted to date she has three acquittals and a mistrial to show for her efforts.
The shooting of Michael Brown was neither a problem nor an issue in a legal sense, only in a political one. The same can be said for that of Alton Sterling, who had threatened someone with a gun and was attempting to draw it from his pocket when he was shot. But to the followers of Black Lives Matter, and to their enablers in the media and in politics, these facts can and must be ignored for the sake of furthering their preferred narrative.
No, it’s not 1968 all over again, but you have to be deaf if you don’t hear it rhyme.