Police must work to earn public’s trust

No one can deny that there is a serious crisis involving law enforcement and the black community in this country.

The Black Lives Matter movement has claimed that police have used excess force toward black people that has resulted many deaths. On the other hand, recently several police officers have been killed in cold blood.

The public as a whole has recognized the seriousness of the matter and has pleaded for better relations between the police and community. Better relations are based on trust, and right now there isn’t much trust in many communities. When trust is questioned, it takes much time and effort to gain back that trust.

Any life that is wasted is bad; but behind this unfortunate situation, a very serious underlying issue has emerged — the questioning of authority (legitimacy of police). Let me explain.

The police are the first group of individuals that represent the authority of government. For the most part, the general masses do not directly deal with the federal or state government. Rather, they deal with local law enforcement on a daily basis.

Police issue traffic tickets, respond to 911 calls and handle day-to-day law enforcement. Police maintain order and preserve the peace. Based on this, the police are the first contact that everyday people have with authority. If we do not trust our police, how can we trust our government? Because of this, the current crisis goes beyond the police and is reflective of our attitude towards government.

I remember when I was growing up in Taiwan more than 60 years ago. The police were considered the protectors of people. On every street corner, there were police booths. Each booth contained one or two police officers. People would go to these booths if they needed any sort of help, including directions, lost personal property or conflicts with others.

Interestingly enough, during this time, police did not carry guns but rather had a whistle and baton. When the whistle was blown, people stopped and listened. The police also patrolled the neighborhood. The assigned officers knew the name of every family on their beat. Correspondingly, the people in the neighborhood knew the officers’ names as well. It was not unusual for some families to invite the officers for tea. This epitomized so-called good relations.

Of course, that was a long time ago. I am sure things have changed in Taiwan since I was a young boy, but still there is no similar crisis there. In preparing for this column, I did some research and learned that there are still many countries where law enforcement does not carry guns. These countries include England, Norway, Iceland, Ireland and New Zealand. Of course, police are armed in special situations.

We would be naïve to ask our law enforcement to disarm themselves. Due to the uniqueness of our society (crime rate, racial diversity, economic decline and many other factors), our police face tough challenges. Because of this, police officers are armed and trained to use their weapons. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2013 alone, there were 461 justifiable homicides committed by U.S. police.

Not only were human lives lost, but many of the families of the deceased sued the government for damages. We, as the taxpayers, end up footing this bill.

Due to this crisis, the community, law enforcement and society at large are all aware the terrible circumstances. Everyone agrees that the strained relations between the police and community need to improve. Police departments in many cities have done self-assessments and retraining and scholars also have offered suggestions, but nothing seems to be working.

Unlike other countries, the police establishment in this country is a state affair. Federal government is not involved in these matters. Because of this, it is difficult to come to a uniform solution.

On the one hand, local law enforcement has stressed better relations, but we continue to see police brutality almost on a daily basis. Just last month James Blake, a retired professional tennis player, was slammed to the ground by an NYPD officer.

The video was played on national TV. Of course, the police commissioner and the mayor of New York apologized to Blake and tried to justify the action by saying it was a case of mistaken identity which raises the question of whether this would have happened to John McEnroe, who is white.

The United States believes in and practices the theory of the rule of law. In general terms, the rule of law means that we are all equally subject to law. It also means we are all equally protected by law.

In order for this to work, law has to apply equally to all. When the police violate this principle, they lose their legitimacy. When legitimacy is lost, trust is lost. The unfortunate result is the current crisis we face today.

Yu-long Ling is a retired Franklin College professor and an expert in foreign policy. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.