S. E. Williams
There is a strange unease in the nation, a condition that often occurs during times of social unrest and clarion calls for change.
The recent assassinations of police officers in Texas and Louisiana by misguided individuals who claimed retaliation for the mistreatment and questionable deaths of Black people at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve them, has raised the stakes in a national quest for criminal justice reform. The pursuit has the potential to either perpetuate tensions or expand meaningful dialogue conducive to change.
Those at the forefront of the push for change like the Black Lives Matter Movement; and, police organizations that grapple with daily incidents of violence, stretched resources and growing concerns about snipers—each view the concerns of the other through prisms shaped by their own experiences and at times appear to be at a stalemate. Yet, recent events that include the sniper attacks on police and the questionable deaths of Black men at the hands of officers in Minnesota and Louisiana has forced Americans to seek a purposeful way forward with a greater sense of urgency. Many are convinced the effort must begin at the local level.
According to the nonprofit organization, Officers Down Memorial Page, so far this year, 66 officers have lost their lives in the line of duty nationally. There is no question the murder of police officers is a terrible crime or that citizens depend on them to maintain the rule of law.
This week in interviews with the VOICE, Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff and San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon spoke openly about the recent attacks on police and their departments’ commitments to maintaining open dialogue with members of their communities.
When asked to comment on these devastating events, both McMahon and Sniff shared similar concerns. Sniff stated, “The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department share deep sadness as we grieve alongside our brothers and sisters within those agencies involved in those most recent horrific incidents, now some of the deadliest attacks in recent U.S. law enforcement history.” He continued, “Sniping and shooting from ambush have always elicited the deepest feelings of helplessness, fear and vulnerabilities within our law enforcement community, because our profession is always so very vulnerable in our capacities as both emergency first-responders and as the ‘guardians’ of our communities.”
Sniff further explained how regardless of the various colors of uniforms, or differing patches and the various shapes of badges, “We are all in the end, one large law enforcement ‘family’, sharing the same responsibilities, dangers and the very same human vulnerability.”
McMahon echoed those sentiments. The agency, he said, is “deeply saddened by the senseless attacks upon law enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Our hearts and prayers go out to their families, friends and communities during this tragic time.”
When it comes to concerns about the safety of local officers in the wake of the recent attacks, Sniff was very clear. “Our staff will remain vigilant, without over-reaction or under-reaction, but above all remain focused on teamwork.” He continued, “Our staff within the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department are well-equipped, trained, and led. Our agency has made diversity and inclusion its by-word for many years, so that we practice routinely ‘community policing’.”
Sheriff McMahon also stressed the value of training in the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department. “Deputies receive ongoing training in defensive tactics, to include weaponless defense, less lethal options, up to lethal force options. Training is recurrent and is in line with industry standards. The department strives to provide our deputies with the best modern training available,” he shared.
According to McMahon, law enforcement has become extremely complex and deputies have to be prepared to make routine contacts; contacts with the mentally ill; and, to respond to terrorism. “Deputy’s safety is paramount,” he stressed. “We will continue to provide the best possible training and equipment to ensure our staff and the public is safe.”
Community policing has been heralded by many as the way forward to help bridge the gap and strengthen communications between officers and the citizens they serve. Most citizens are sincerely concerned about the safety of the officers and want to do their part to keep the officers and the community safe.
“Unfortunately we live in an age too often home to heightened polarization, extreme views, and the over-zealous, Sniff stated. “From top-to-bottom, your Riverside County Sheriff’s Department remains engaged in open dialogue with the communities we serve.”
According to Sniff, that dialogue–even on the tough issues before our nation regarding our criminal justice system – must continue to grow and flourish. “Our strength as a nation and as a local community,” he affirmed, “Is our unity even in the face of our differences. Open and ongoing communication remain key.”
McMahon expounded, “We ask the public to join us and do their part in helping to keep our communities safe with the officers who serve them.” He asked citizens to be aware of their surroundings. “If you see something that could create danger to our communities or our officers, call 911 immediately,” he advised.
Both sheriffs sought to dispel concerns expressed by some in the community that recent attacks on officers could slow response times to 911 calls out of an abundance of caution for their own safety—some fear this could leave members of the community at risk. Both sheriffs sought to dispel those concerns.
According to McMahon, department members will continue to remain extremely vigilant while providing professional law enforcement services to their communities. “The safety of the residents, as well as the safety of all law enforcement officials, remains our top priority,” he said.
Sniff expressed similar sentiments, “Our law enforcement agency remains committed to performing our duties to the communities we serve, including our publicly expected response to any emergency calls from our residents” he stressed.
Both Sniff and McMahon encourage members of their communities to reach out, talk with and support law enforcement officers from all agencies. As Sniff reminded readers, “In the face of tough budget cuts to front line public safety throughout our many communities, and especially in the face of rising crime rates today, this becomes now more important than ever before.” In addition, he stressed how important it is for members of the community to, “Follow the directions of our law enforcement officers from any of our various agencies.”
McMahon also encouraged area residents to get involved with their local law enforcement agency. “There are several volunteer programs offered to community members.” He encouraged. “Such as Citizens On Patrol, Explorer Scouts, Search and Rescue and the YANA (You are Not Alone) Program, just to name a few.”
In addition to community policing and other outreach efforts related to building better relationships between officers and the citizens they serve, is the need for local agencies to more closely resemble the makeup of their communities. This appears to be one area where many police departments around the nation have lost ground according to a national report released last August, ‘Diversity on the force: Where police don’t mirror communities’.
According to the report, many police agencies have actually lost ground over the last 25 years in this regard. Included among communities in the nation with the greatest disparities in diversity between the police and the communities they serve are the cities of Fontana, Ontario, Rialto and San Bernardino. To view this report in detail visit governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/gov-police-department-diversity.html.
Until recently the number of police officers killed in the line of duty in America had trended downward. According to the FBI, in 2015 that number fell by 20 percent nationally from 51 in 2014 to 41 in 2015. While young Black men, on the other hand, were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015. A study by the Guardian reported 1,134 deaths of Blacks nationally at the hands of law enforcement officers last year. As of July 7, 123 Black Americans have already been shot and killed by police this year.