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No One Is Safe From Backlash When Criticizing the Police, Even the Police

Even the media is not immune in the rare cases it acknowledges there are real issues.

Millions March in New York City, December 13, 2014. (Photo: Alan Greig / flickr)

In early December, an Instagram photo of Richmond, California Police Chief Chris Magnus began to circulate online. The uniformed police chief was holding a sign with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter during a peaceful protest. He, along with the Deputy Chief, had gathered with the 150 protestors outside a community center in one of hundreds of similar protests that had happened since two grand juries had failed to indict officers in the killing of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York City.

Under Chief Magnus’ watch, the police department had averaged only one police officer involved shooting since 2007. The record of no officer-involved killings since 2008 had been broken just two months before when a suspect was killed during a pursuit and subsequent struggle with an officer. The chief was so revered that the suspect’s family invited him to the funeral.

Nevertheless, when the photo appeared, the local police officers association took offense, saying that his participation in the protest while in uniform was a violation of law (it wasn’t). They were disappointed that the chief had chosen to participate in a political statement. As the backlash continued, Chief Magnus responded by asking, “When did it become a political act to acknowledge that ‘black lives matter’ and show respect for the very real concerns of our minority communities?”

Apparently it happens the minute anytime someone acknowledges those concerns exist.

Nashville, Tennessee was also the site of protests last month. One Nashville resident, who considered himself pro-cop, was upset with the police response. He was so incensed with Metropolitan Nashville Police Department Police Chief Steve Anderson’s refusal to take a harder stance, he emailed him. The fact that the chief had allowed the peaceful protests to happen without police interference and served the protestors coffee and hot chocolate while they listened to their concerns was unforgivable. In his letter, he said he was upset that the protestors were not arrested and that he no longer felt safe in the city. Police Chief Anderson responded with a very public letter saying that the police were responsible to all of its citizens and that all were deserving of respect, even if their opinions differed.

Even the media is not immune in the rare cases it acknowledges there are real issues.

A cartoon that appeared in the Bucks County Courier Times in Pennsylvania depicted children lined up to speak to Santa Claus. The children, who were black, smiled as Santa was holding the hand of the first one in line to pull him toward him. The little boy’s Christmas wish is for Santa to “keep us safe from police.” The cartoon by nationally syndicated cartoonist Chris Bratt incensed the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 in Pennsylvania, who, after condemning the paper and the media to hell, demanded an apology for the racist cartoon. The paper nor the cartoonist apologized, the latter highlighting in an editorial that the venomous letter only highlighted how law enforcement viewed so many with disdain.

Law enforcement seems to have no boundaries when expressing that disdain.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio acknowledged that the grand jury decision to not indict the officer that killed Eric Garner was not the outcome many had hoped for, he asked for calm as the protests continued. He then made a statement showing that he understood the concerns of the protestors.

“Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years, about the dangers he may face,” De Blasio said. “A good young man, a law-abiding young man, who would never think to do anything wrong, and yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face – we’ve had to literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”

The NYPD immediately took offense, saying it was wrong of the mayor to teach his son that he had to be extra careful around police officers who had just been caught on video killing an unarmed man. The leaders of a local police union called for the Mayor to apologize and to tell his son that he should respect police officers. He was told to not show up at the funeral of any NYPD officers in the future. Unfortunately, just weeks later, two officers would be killed for the first time since 2011. When the Mayor paid his respects at the hospital and performed his civic responsibility at the funerals for the two officers, several NYPD officers turned their back to him in a blatant display of disrespect.

As the father of two black children, the Mayor and his wife know firsthand a salient fact about life in America for the black and brown in our nation. In speaking about his 17-year-old son, he spoke as a parent of a black child that knows his son will not be afforded the same leeway to be a teenager, or a human being, as non-black people are. Every parent of a black child has to have the same talk the De Blasios had with their son. Yet, it was shocking to those who have never understood that to hear a white man and a mayor of a major city say it out loud.

The protests have helped highlight a long known issue with law enforcement in America. As the police chiefs in Richmond and Nashville show, it is possible for those within to acknowledge a problem and make real changes. Yet the public is demanding more, calling on their elected officials to take a stand and make real reforms. However, as the current situation in New York City shows, it’s easier said than done.

It also raises the question: If elected officials, the media and even the chief of police risk being attacked for criticizing the police, who is really safe in America?