Memo to Harrisburg: We can respect cops without a police state

BlueLivesMatter billboard

Since it’s been pointed out to me (repeatedly) that I’m incapable of writing a blog post without referencing the 1960s, let’s just get it out of the way in the first sentence.Respect for our local police, according to a new poll, is the highest it’s been since 1967. And the reason for the current spike is probably not that much different than it was 49 years ago. Call it a backlash: In ’67, a response to the notorious “Long Hot Summer” of rebellion in Detroit, Newark and other American cities and the rise of “Black Power movements; in ’16, reaction to (much less intense) unrest in places like Charlotte, Baltimore and Ferguson and to the#BlackLivesMatter movement.

There’s nothing at all wrong with respecting police for the right reasons. It’s true there’s been a lot of criticism in this space of certain policing practices — specific instances of police brutality and the proclivity of higher-ups and police unions to cover these up, of discriminatory practices like stop-and-frisk, etc. — yet I’d still count myself among the overwhelming number of Americans who respects my local police. I have always thought respect has to be earned, collectively and individually — and for the most part it is earned. Police officers do a stressful job that is occasionally quite dangerous and is often complicated, and most of them are underpaid for what they do.

However, the great backlash of ’16 has spilled over into the political arena, since every two-bit lawmaker in a tough re-election campaign now wants to glom on the surging popularity of the rank-and-file law-enforcement officer. That has dangerous potentially dangerous consequences for our constitutional rights and our civil rights. The other day, I mentioned how Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey — struggling in his bid for a second term — has partly hitched his wagon to an effort to give local police departments surplus military equipment which in most cases is the last thing they need.

Now, Harrisburg has jumped onto the so-called “Blue Lives Matter” bandwagon — a nice sentiment that shields its real purpose of turning our police into an elite class, with rights that regular citizens don’t have — in a big way. Our state lawmakers, at the end of a contentious session that’s now bled into the fall campaign, are fast-tracking two measures that would strengthen cops while weakening the 1st Amendment and undermining efforts to improve police-community relations.

My newspaper, the Daily News, had an excellent editorial on one of these bills recently, and I want to second what was written. Here’s an excerpt:

Another bad bill: one sponsored by Rep. Martina White, a Republican representing a district in Northeast Philly, that would forbid the release of the name of any police officer involved in a shooting that results in death or serious injury. The gag order would last 30 days, or until criminal charges are brought against an officer, and anyone who violated it could be charged with a criminal offense.

Keeping this information secret might please the Fraternal Order of Police, which supports White’s bill, but it is not in the public interest.

Given the events of the last few years, with so many high-profile cases of police shootings, this bill is an affront to all those concerned about the erosion of civil rights. Police are sanctioned to use violence and take a life when they deem necessary, but that power cannot prevail without transparency and accountability. By hiding the names of those police involved, this bill would further muddy uneasy relations between law enforcement and many communities.

The other bad bill wending its way through the Legislature would place strict limits on the public’s rights to view police body-cam footage. Both measures accomplish similar goals. Both poke a stick in the eye of transparency and the public’s right to know. Remember, one of the tenets of a civil society is that the state — specifically the police — have a monopoly on the use of violence, but with that awesome power comes with a lot of responsibility, including openness. The goal of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement is instead to make law-enforcement a privileged class, with rights that aren’t bestowed on the citizens they serve.

It’s not only possible to respect cops without establishing a police state in Pennsylvania — it’s absolutely essential. Hopefully Gov. Wolf — who has already displayed some courage on the social injustice of the death penalty — will muster up the extra gumption to veto these awful bills if they get to his desk.

http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/attytood/Memo-to-Harrisburg-We-can-respect-cops-without-a-police-state.html