By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Ask a citizen which country lost 7 government officials to assassination in the last year. They might be surprised to hear that it is us. The United States of America. Shocking? Newsworthy? Alarming? Not when the dead are police officers.
These officers were not arresting anyone. They were doing the most ordinary things. Florida Trooper Joseph bullock was assisting a motorist. While doing some paperwork and waiting for a tow truck an hour had passed when the driver walked up and killed him. Nevada Trooper Ben Jenkins also stopped to help a stranded motorist. The motorist shot and killed him. McAllen, Texas officers Edelmiro Garza and Ismael Chavez were lured to a call and shot on arrival. Sgt. Ricardo Perez-Ortiz was surrounded and murdered by a gang on his way to work in Puerto Rico. St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Tamarris Bohannon was attempting to locate a victim on a call when shot and killed. Fayetteville, Arkansas Officer Stephen Carr was waiting for a fellow officer in the police parking lot when approached and shot dead.
By definition, assassination is the killing of an important person for political purposes. The symbolism of a police officer makes them a target of politically motivated extreme action. Other attacks that appear motivated by nothing other than a person’s status as a police officer include the recent shooting into the home of two police officers in New Jersey, and the shooting of two California deputies in Los Angeles sitting in their patrol car.
Political extremists are fueled not only by internal beliefs but a sense of permission from identifying with a group. When extremists sense validation for their attacks they can act from a sense of collective consent to justify their acts of violence. In the current season of hostility toward the institution of policing, the symbolic presence of law enforcement reflects in the mind of the extremist the rhetoric heard daily on the news and social media.
Blaming the heated language of the anti-police movement may well be criticized as failing to hold the killer accountable for their own decision, or attempting to shame those exercising their 1st amendment rights. The distinction between rioters and protestors is important, but a third category of inciters needs to be added to reflect the nature of recent protests. Hearing shouts of “kill the police”, “f*ck the police”, and other exclamations is far different from hearing “no justice, no peace” or “stop police brutality”. The messages are distinctly different. The message heard by those who choose to attack and kill someone in uniform are distinctly different.
The count of police officers killed by ambush does not include the many other assaults and murder attempts on police officers. Although these may not be covered by most media, there will undoubtedly be new incidents of unprovoked attacks on police officer between the time of this writing and its publication.
Inflammatory and dangerous rhetoric doesn’t come from only the brick throwing rioters. The tacit permission to harm police officers to further the cause of police reform, defunding, or abolition comes from people in power. Proposals from elected officials to disband the police – preposterous on its face – work towards making police officers non-persons, non-essential, and self-perpetuating racists. Non-personhood is an essential element of prejudice and violence committed on groups from indigenous Americans, to African-Americans, to Jews in this country and, of course, during the Nazi era of Germany. Academics and some political leaders have endorsed looting as a symbolic and justifiable act of justice. Sweeping generalizations by cultural icons like LeBron James and Trevor Noah speaking of police as universally racist and brutal inflame those who are ready to believe every officer is a threat to freedom and their killings are morally justified. Lawlessness is lauded and law enforcement is branded as hate.
During the height of activism against the war in Vietnam, returning soldiers were reviled, spat upon, and ostracized. This disdain for servicemen lasted for many decades. It manifested itself not only in airports where soldiers were called baby killers, but was reflected in poor veteran services and factored into veteran’s PTSD of the era. The national conscience eventually turned to revering our military veterans. Yellow ribbons blossomed for returning troops from more recent military battles, the problems of homeless veterans has garnered attention, and mental health services and suicide prevention are of higher quality and availability.
If police officers can stay alive and in service to their communities, they may see a day of national repentance when their sacrificial service is once again appreciated. The boisterous minority will be a small voice as the majority of Americans will become bold about their support of quality law enforcement. That day must come sooner rather than later or the assassination of our public servants will continue.