After a depressing year in which we've witnessed case after case of unarmed black people dying at the hands of police, now we have the sad death of Sandra Bland.
The Illinois woman's apparent suicide in a Texas jail cell, days after a traffic stop, is baffling, as she was reportedly excited to start a new job at Prairie View A&M University outside Houston. An appalling glimpse at events leading to her death come from video, in this case from a state trooper's dash cam.
An investigation is on-going, but what is known so far is troubling enough.
Many are rightly questioning how Bland being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change could escalate into a physical tussle, with the trooper threatening to "light her up" with a stun gun, Bland's arrest and apparent suicide by hanging in jail.
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The dash cam shows an irritated motorist refusing to take a deferential attitude to an officer, the officer showing pique at not being shown deference, and the pair escalating tensions in a spiral from which neither was willing to back away.
Now is a good time to acknowledge that there are many in law enforcement who recognize this dynamic as a major problem in the relations between police and the communities they serve. They see it as something police must address by reforming methods and training.
They aren't getting caught up in dueling dialogues that pit #bluelivesmatter against #blacklivesmatter, as if all lives cannot simultaneously be respected while public safety is upheld. In fact, displaying respect for themselves as officers and the public equally is the hallmark of how they function.
Two such officers, Jack L. Colwell and Charles "Chip" Huth, for years trained officers in leadership at a regional policing academy in Kansas City.
They teach that every contact with the public that police make comes with a chance either to build or damage relationships. If that sounds too touchy-feely, not Dirty Harry enough, sit back. These two are well-seasoned, respected officers with more than 50 years of police experience between them in a wide-range of duties including patrol, investigations, street crimes and tactical squads.
In their book, Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect: Transforming Law Enforcement and Police Training, they argue police culture can breed a "cynical unwillingness to have a true sense of respect for the realities of the people we police and serve." The book is part descriptor of community policing, part research on human behavior and brain functions, and part analysis of policing procedures and culture. One chapter title, "I Hear Every Word You Say But I Can't Listen," is a succinct summary of one problem they see.
Colwell and Huth cite Bureau of Justice statistics indicating that up to 10 percent of the people who have contact with police feel they have been mistreated; up to 83 percent of people who had force used on them by police felt it was excessive. That's a lot of disgruntled citizens talking to each other, posting on social media, spreading mistrust of law enforcement.
Colwell and Huth ask officers to make a leap of empathy, to understand that where there is "rampant crime or gang activity, there must exist ethnographic, cultural, social, historical, anthropological and economic realities to sustain and support it."
That's not a popular view among many cops. Huth and Colwell struggled with pushback from officers who equate showing unconditional respect to everyone, even criminals, with weakness. However, they maintain that an officer who is confident in his abilities will not bully a citizen out of fear or feel the need to intimidate.
Besides, criminals are the least likely to respond to intimidation. And working from fear will ultimately compromise an officer's safety.
Law-abiding members of the public are not always happy with how the police treat them. They need the right to make those feelings plain, without fear that officers will use their powers and prerogatives to punish them.
How police react in every situation is crucial not only to their own safety, but to maintaining a bond that is sacred to policing: the consent of the governed. If we lose that, we all stand to suffer.