Without sufficient thought and care, the nation could too easily allow the cruel ambush killings Saturday of two New York City police officers to undermine the often tense but crucial national dialogue on race and policing that was spurred by the deaths of African American suspects earlier this year at police hands in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
It is hard to know whether to see the attack on Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu as in the same vein as other shootings of innocent people by unhinged gun-wielders — from Aurora, Colo., to Newtown, Conn., to Santa Monica — or as the baser act of a hardened criminal with a long record, contempt for human life and a hatred of police.
It is apparent from his social media posts, though, that Ismaaiyl Brinsley tried to connect himself to protests over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. And unfortunately, some police officers, shaken no doubt by the killing of their colleagues,are making the same connection Brinsley did. New York police union chief Patrick Lynch, for example, lashed out at “those who incited violence on the street in the guise of protest.”
But it is utterly unreasonable to suggest that people who have been protesting the use of excessive force by police are somehow responsible for provoking the actions of a cop-killer. To follow Lynch's argument to its logical conclusion, communities that have felt the brunt of abusive police tactics must not object, lest their demonstrations incite criminals or the deranged to attack police. That's a non-starter. There is a conversation taking place on race and policing, and it necessarily will include protests against injustice, real or perceived.
If that conversation is to hold any promise of being productive or transformative, it is important for Americans to remember that police officers each day face the prospect of the kind of attack that took the lives of Ramos and Liu. It is equally important for police to keep in mind that many people, especially in African American communities, likewise fear violence daily, not just from criminals but from the very officers sworn to protect them. That fear is based on decades of racially biased policing, not all of it relegated to the past. And there is reason for concern among all Americans that, while violent crime is declining, the killing of suspects by police is increasing.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was correct to call for a timeout from protests, pending the funerals of the slain officers. Going forward, though, the dialogue must continue.
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