Years ago, as a cub police reporter in Las Vegas, I rode along in a squad car to get a feel for the raw realities of law enforcement.
Las Vegas may be a unique place for someone in a uniform that symbolizes limits and authority. A lot of people come there to escape that stuff. But the lessons of that night apply fairly equally anywhere in the country.
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At one point, we pulled to the side of the road near the famed Glitter Gulch. As hundreds of people wandered around the squad car on the way in and out of casinos, the officer taught me a lesson.
The only thing keeping us safe right now, he said, is the basic decency and respect for the law among the majority of these people. They keep everything in check. If it weren’t so, police wouldn’t stand a chance.
But policing would be a lot easier if the few who lack such respect and decency had flashing warning lights above them.
Author George Orwell, whose famous book, “1984” explored the awful consequences of police and government abusing authority, struck a different tone when he said of police, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
The people of the Wasatch Front were reminded of this Sunday morning when gunfire shattered the calm of a quiet Holladay neighborhood. Now we mourn the death of one of those “rough men,” who really wasn’t so rough at all, unless that is a euphemism for brave and duty-bound. A husband and father of three, Unified Police officer Douglas Scott Barney was shot in the head while pursuing a man who had fled the scene of a nearby car accident. His colleague, officer Jon Richey, also was shot but has since been released from the hospital. The suspect, Cory Lee Henderson died in a subsequent shootout.
All of this happened within hours of police receiving a chilling phone call in Danville, Ohio. “My ex-boyfriend’s out in camo looking to kill a cop,” a young woman’s voice said. “He’s got guns on him.”
Not long after, officer Thomas Cottrell was found dead.
These are the first two officers to die in the line of duty in 2016.
For several months, Americans have been engaged in an intense discussion about police force, the training needed for confrontations, allegations of racial hatred and the militarization of law enforcement. These are painful, important topics, but they should be conducted in the right perspective.
Some officers are corrupt. Some abuse power. But most do not, and they face the potential of life-threatening danger every moment they are on duty, even when responding to a routine traffic accident. What is utterly and agonizingly bitter is that an officer has to go down for that lesson to become apparent.
Despite all the protests and what the Washington Post described Tuesday as a feeling of increasing anxiousness among police, fewer officers died in the line of duty in 2015 than the year before. The Officer Down Memorial Page reports 39 died by gunfire last year, compared with 47 in 2014. By comparison, in 1975, 144 officers were killed by gunfire.
As with so many other measurements of violence and crime, statistics show things are getting better, while the public dialog indicates the opposite.
But statistics don’t matter when faced with an officer down.
This time, there aren’t likely to be many questions about the use of force. This time, there will be no protests. The bad guy struck first.
But as Salt Lake City’s new mayor, Jackie Biskupski, said regarding a different investigation involving an officer who survived an attack and killed the suspect,
“We cannot circle the wagons against each other in an effort to improve our justice system."
What we can do is realize, as my officer friend taught long ago, that we all have a stake in law and order, and that the first thing to consider is how dangerous and unpredictable life is for those rough men and women we rely on so we can sleep at night.