In the new reality for police in the United States, every Tom, Juan, Dick and Harry is arming up.
I’m sure that everyone who is tuned into the news in any way at all has heard about the Justice Department ruling on the use of excessive force by the Albuquerque police. I personally have been aware that this issue has been simmering for more than two years, and the problem is not confined in New Mexico to Albuquerque.
In fact, I have heard an appalling story about the consequences of an exchange at a bar here in Santa Fe between some off-duty officers and a man who had moved here from Texas. A Texas accent can sometimes get you into trouble in New Mexico.
Then just recently there have been two stories about the police firing at vehicles driven by women who made a run for it rather than submit to a traffic stop. In the most recent case, a young woman named Jeanette Anaya was killed by a policeman who fired 16 shots at her after an early morning chase at speeds up to 87 miles per hour on neighborhood streets.
A grand jury determined that the shooting was justified, although it is unclear whether Anaya did actually commit a traffic offense. There was cocaine in her system and a warrant out for her arrest on a misdemeanor charge, so maybe she panicked. After the officer actually got her stopped, she apparently tried to back up on him when he was between the two cars, and that was her fatal error.
There was a combination of things afoot, including the fact that this happened at around 1:00 in the morning when judgment is not at its best for anyone. When things get weird, adrenalin floods the system, and anything can happen if a gun is handy.
But back to Albuquerque. The Justice Department found reasons to be outraged by police conduct regarding 37 cases involving 23 killings over the past four years. The entire community is in an uproar over the most recent case, the killing of a mentally ill homeless man named James Boyd who had been booked many times for violent outbursts.
The Justice Department has defined 44 remedies designed to reform the police force. And thank goodness. This is one of those times when the intervention of Big Government, as they say, is very welcome in the face of the failure by local and state government to address a serious problem.
But New Mexico is not the only state where this kind of dysfunction is high profile, which brings me to my personal thesis: We need to look at the role the community is playing in creating this problem.
Surely serving on the police force is getting to be an increasingly nerve-racking career. For one thing, every Tom, Juan, Dick and Harry is arming up in this nation. They are inspired by a wide variety of anxieties including paranoia about a government takeover. Imaginations are fueled by machismo-glorifying violence in movies and video games and by all the crime news that gains such good ratings on TV.
So police must be ever more concerned at every traffic stop that the driver may have a gun in the glove box. And what about the man reacting to their intervention in domestic violence? There are all sorts of hazards. Friday’s paper reports that a homeowner in Albuquerque shot at the police he had called for help when he suspected a robbery was afoot. He thought they were the bad guys.
You may smile ironically at that last sentence, but no wonder the police are edgy. And it’s not only the guns, of course. It’s the drugs, the drinking, and all the mental illness that is not being adequately provided for nationwide, much less in New Mexico.
Just recently there was a case in Santa Fe where a man walked into a restaurant with a gun in his holster. The gun was made out of wood, but he was arrested after he pulled it on the bartender. The man was jailed, probably briefly, and he said it was just a joke. “Are you nuts?” one wants to ask. And the answer is “Yes.” There are, in fact, a whole lot of nuts out there.
This does not, of course, in any way excuse brutal or unconstitutional police conduct. However, we should be concerned about moving into the zone of stigmatizing the police in general.
We really need these folks, and until there is evidence to the contrary in any particular moment, we would be wise to cooperate rather than provoke. Law enforcement is now on notice that their culture needs to change and that wrongs will be redressed.
It’s also a good time to access some empathy. There are some very fine people in law enforcement, and I know two personally. None of us would want to be discredited or damned by the misbehavior of someone else in our arena of operation. And we don’t want the obnoxious or the criminally inclined to imagine that they now have a cheering section in a disgruntled populace. This situation has been bad; we want it to get better, not worse.
And to repeat. Thank goodness for intervention by the Feds. We really needed it.