According to the nonprofit organization Mapping Police Violence, 27 percent of the people shot and killed by police officers in 2021 were Black. (Only about 13 percent of the overall United States population is Black.) It seems like we’re not even finished grieving one innocent Black or Brown person killed at the hands of police somewhere, then we’re confronted with another somewhere else.
It would be nice to think that the murder of George Floyd under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee would have changed some of that. But not even Floyd’s death, which galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement, has moved the needle in favor of more justice and peace for anyone.
Experts who’ve tracked officer-involved shootings since 2013 note that 2022 is (so far) the deadliest year on record, with 1,176 people killed by law enforcement nationwide. As in previous years, about one-quarter of the victims of this police violence were Black.
And one-fifth of the total number of killings in 2022 took place against victims who were never alleged to have done anything wrong, or in the course of police conducting a mental health or welfare check. In about one-third of officer-involved killings, the victim was running away from police when shot and killed.
The race of the officers involved doesn’t even matter, as we saw in the case of the five Memphis police charged with second-degree murder for beating Tyre Nichols to a bloody pulp during a traffic stop. The type of “elite” unit to which these officers belonged is common across the country, using often brutal tactics in an effort to suppress crime in “hot spot” urban areas.
Being the change
Given all this, it’s hard right now to accept that there are good police officers out there. But it’s true.
Police who work a community beat can be very in tune with what their community members want and need—if they make the effort.
In 2022, the Lansing State Journal in Michigan published firsthand guest editorials by some of these public servants—many of whom were men and women of color—who really do care. One wrote about consistently walking up and down streets and through neighborhoods to get to know local residents and business owners, just focusing on people and having conversations.
Several others discussed participating in programs for youth, where officers share their professional and personal struggles with young people in the community, and listen as the youth express their own struggles, as well. There is frank dialogue about the nature of policing and what it means in these young lives and in their communities.
Another officer spoke of this “Exchange for Change” program in terms of how important it is for police to let themselves be vulnerable in talking with young people. He emphasized that through their discussions, he and the young people he serves have come to see one another as individuals. This officer noted that a young man who never previously would have spoken with him before actually came up after the program to initiate a conversation.
Taking the time
On night-shift duty in 2019, in a part of Alabama with an unusually high drug use rate, a 20-year veteran officer responded to a call involving an extremely disoriented woman at a gas station. The woman admitted she was a longtime drug user.
The officer could have slapped the cuffs on her and dragged her off to jail. Instead, he sat down beside the woman and talked with her. He later said it was obvious that what she really needed was help. He ensured that the woman reached a hospital for treatment and connected her with a local organization specializing in helping people overcome addictions.
Risking everything to help
In 2020, a woman in Ogden, Utah, called 911 to ask for help. Her husband had threatened to kill her. The two responding officers found the man on his front porch, and when they arrived, he barricaded himself inside his home. They tried to get to him, but he fired at them through the door, killing the 24-year-old, second-generation officer who was just trying to keep a member of the public safe. The officer was hailed as a hero in the community.
Giving a child a chance at life
In 2023, a female officer in Georgia received a departmental award after successfully administering a life-saving maneuver that stopped a four-week-old baby from choking.
Modeling the right decisions
It’s obvious that officers like these take their responsibility to “protect and serve” seriously, that they genuinely care about the people in their communities, up to putting their own lives at risk on a daily basis.
It’s important to note that, in each of these cases, the officers were faced with a decision: to arrest or to help. To jump into action or remain passive. To talk or put up a wall of silence. To put themselves on the line or to back away from danger. A different officer’s decision could have led to a very different outcome.
For sure, they’re part of a system that’s often corrupt and in need of vast reforms, but front-line officers like these are dedicated to doing a hard, dangerous job while staying grounded and real. If we want real change, it’s time to leverage these perspectives to help make it happen.