What Police Need From Us

Keeping watch over a prayer vigil on Friday.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Dallas Police Chief David Brown said something on Friday that needed saying. After updating the public on a sniper attack that targeted white police officers -- killing five officers and injuring at least six -- Brown spoke about the heroism of police who ran toward gunfire “with no chance to protect themselves, to put themselves in harm’s way, to make sure citizens can get to a place of security.”

Police officers all over the country take such selfless risks every day. They are not especially well-compensated for it. Their major reward derives from the satisfaction that comes from protecting people and the respect that society accords them for performing a dangerous but indispensable public service. Public support for their profession is essential to attracting and retaining people who will serve with honor and integrity.

“Please join me in applauding these brave men and women who do this job under great scrutiny, under great vulnerability,” said Brown, “who literally risk their lives to protect our democracy.”

Normally, that request would not be especially noteworthy. It is a ritual of American life that the murder of a police officer is followed by expressions of appreciation for the sacrifices they make and the work they do. But this time the ritual is playing out against the sense of resentment against the police that spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.

This week, there were two disturbing police shootings of black men, in Louisiana and Minnesota. And on Thursday evening, marchers took to the streets of Dallas and other cities to protest. Over the past two years, these kinds of demonstrations have helped focus public attention on the use of excessive force by police -- and they have led to changes in the way police departments operate.

Dallas is a perfect example. Under Chief Brown, the city has embraced many of the very reforms that protesters call for: training officers to act with restraint and de-escalate tense situations, reporting incidents of excessive force more transparently, and adopting community-oriented policing tactics.

Yet officers in Dallas, as elsewhere, still feel under siege. Marchers chanted, “No racist police, no justice no peace!” One carried a sign that read “Blu Klux Klan.” Marchers in other cities have routinely characterized police as racists, and some have included especially virulent and incendiary language.

There are, of course, racists within police departments. But probably no more than in most other professions, especially as departments become increasingly diverse. When protesters paint with a broad brush, they increase tensions with police, and that can lead to events beyond their control. The officers in Dallas were not the first to be assassinated by a gunman motivated by retribution for police killings.

To be clear, demonstrators are not responsible for the deaths of the five officers, or the injuries suffered by police and civilians. Only those who plotted and carried out the act are. But it’s not enough to condemn the attacks and those who committed them. More is required -- and that is why Chief Brown’s heartfelt plea at the end of his press conference must be heard across the country.

“We don’t feel much support most days,” Brown said. “Let’s not make today ‘most days.’ Please, we need your support, to be able to protect you from men like these, who carried out this tragic, tragic event.”

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.