David Simon, the creator of The Wire (say that in hushed tones), wrote this before Missouri authorities revealed the identity of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. It reinforces the point that police and law enforcement professionals bear an enormous responsibility for the health of race relations in the U.S. But Simon also displays a healthy regard for the work of police, the burdens they bear, and the value to a democratic society. For the full letter go here (which is the most recent of three missives — thanks to our Hillsdale correspondent):
Understand that I am someone with a high regard for good police work. I covered a large municipal department for a dozen years and spent that time writing in detail on extraordinary efforts by professional detectives and officers, and, too, on systemic and individual failures within that same agency. I am not unsympathetic to the complex truths of practical policing.
To that effect, I’m offering no judgment as to the legitimacy of the police action in the death of Mr. Brown, nor am I critiquing your department’s militarized performance with regard to the resulting civil disturbances in your municipality. I leave the former for the more careful assessments of prosecutors and, presumably, a grand jury; the latter, I am sure, will be a subject of continued discussion within your community, in Missouri as a whole, and elsewhere in the country.
But for now, let’s simply focus on the notion that you, as head of a police department accountable to the citizens of your jurisdiction, actually seem to believe — along with local prosecutors — that it is plausible for a sworn and armed officer to kill a citizen and do so in anonymity.
Regrettably, I know that you are not alone in this astonishing breach of trust. More than a decade ago, some of our most authoritative federal agencies began a tragic retreat from basic accountability, shielding their agents from any scrutiny for their use of the most signficant power that a law officer can possess — the taking of a human life as an act of personal deliberation. Following the lead of the FBI, other large urban departments have since followed suit, or attempted to do so at points.
But the cost to our society is not abstract — and the currency in which that cost is paid is trust. Your department has shown that you do not trust the public with the basic information about who specifically has, in the performance of his or her duties, been required to take a human life in Ferguson. And that same public is now in the street demonstrating that they do not believe that Ferguson law enforcement can therefore be relied upon for anything remotely resembling justice. How could it be otherwise?
If you cannot see the contempt inherent in your policy, then you, sir, may need to reconsider both your own role and the premise of law enforcement in a democratic society. You may need to yield your position to someone who retains the basic notion that your officers, armed with the extraordinary authority of using state-sanctioned lethal force on fellow citizens, are equally burdened by a responsibility for standing by their actions in full. You, your department, and the prosecutors in your jurisdiction are now running from that responsibility. In doing so, you lose the trust and respect of your citizens, your state and the nation.