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Will Dallas And Baton Rouge Set Back Police Reform Efforts?


Police forces in riot gear keep watch on a demonstration in Omaha, Neb., on July 8. Participants were protesting the recent shooting death by police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Nati Harnik, AP
Police forces in riot gear keep watch on a demonstration in Omaha, Neb., on July 8. Participants were protesting the recent shooting death by police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

On Sunday, in the hours after the attack on officers in Baton Rouge, La., police reformers were quick to condemn the killings — and there were touching efforts to bridge the divide between the black community and police, such as a cookout in Wichita, Kan. Planned as a protest, it was repurposed as a community barbecue with local police.

"You see African-Americans hugging Hispanics, you see Hispanics hugging Caucasians, citizens hugging police, citizens hugging sheriffs. This is amazing," says one of the organizers, an activist named A.J. Bohannan. "I think that what happened in Baton Rouge made this event that much more important, so that we can get on the same page — so that those things that are in Baton Rouge don't trickle over into Wichita."

But nationally, the tone has not always been so conciliatory. The recent murders of law enforcement officers have been deeply unsettling and have damaged the progress reformers say they've been making.

Many police are angry, and some think the attacks were triggered by what they see as the anti-police rhetoric of Black Lives Matter. They say angry words lead to violent deeds.

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"You got one guy with a bullhorn who's screaming, 'kill the cops,' what do those other six end up doing?' says Keith Wenzel.

Most cops can't say things like this publicly, but Keith Wenzel can because he's now retired from the Dallas Police Department — though he's still a reserve officer. He says police have been demoralized, and he singles out Hillary Clinton for recently talking about "systemic racism" in law enforcement.

"Every cop right now looks in a mirror and says, 'Clinton's talking about me — Clinton doesn't even know me, or my friends, or my colleagues,' and yet, systemic," Wenzel says. "She has said we're all that way — he didn't say one or two, she said we're all that way."

Reformers are deeply worried that rank-and-file police will feel more justified in rejecting the basic political premise of the last couple of years: that law enforcement has a racism problem.

This worries police leaders, too — at least those who've bought into the reform process.

"What I've tried to tell officers that are just bitter and angry about what's happened, I say to them: 'Look, if we can't move closer so that we can continue to have these conversations, it's gonna mean that more police officers are gonna die out there,' " says Terry Cunningham is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

But right now, it's not easy keeping police in the room — figuratively, and literally. So President Obama has made that his mission: On Monday, he had police leaders over to the White House for several hours. And in the Oval Office afterwards, he made a point of saying supportive things.

"I strongly believe that there is no contradiction between us protecting our officers, honoring our officers, making sure that they have all the tools they need to do their job safely, and ... building trust between police officers and departments and the communities that they serve," Obama said.

According to Cunningham, that's just what police have wanted for the last seven years — "that kind of support and acknowledgement."

He is also pleased with the open letter that the president just sent to law enforcement, and one line in particular resonates with many police: "[W]e can no longer ask you to solve issues we refuse to address as a society." Just as Black Lives Matter wants police to acknowledge the reality of racism, police want them to acknowledge that the system is about a lot more than just cops.

Charles Ramsey, the former chief of police in Philadelphia, and the co-chair of the police reform task force that Obama set up after Ferguson, says it can't all fall on the shoulders of police.

"It's like all the ills of society, we wind up somehow being looked at as the people that need to solve them," he says. The president understands this, Ramsey says, and is reorienting his task force to take a broader look at the justice system as a whole.

"You know, this doesn't happen overnight," he says. "No one has a light switch that they can turn on and suddenly everything is different."

Ramsey thinks there has been some real progress over the past couple of years: More departments are adopting the recommendations of the task force, and training their officers in de-escalation techniques and how to control implicit bias.

Ramsey's co-chair on the task force, law professor and former U.S. Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, agrees that there's been progress.

"Of course these incidents will have an impact," says Robinson. "But ... persistence — and I would say stubbornness — in bringing change is essential."

But that progress hasn't been fast enough for many in the reform movement, including members of a group that protested last week outside the Minnesota governor's mansion.

Jacob Ladda says he's willing to concede that the police have a tough job — but he wants police to concede certain realities, too.

"We hear a lot of police saying, or their wives saying, that 'every day I work I risk my life,' " Ladda says. "Well, every time a black person steps out of their residence, they can lose their life, because that's what's happening."

The question after Baton Rouge and Dallas is whether police officers are still willing to listen to this.

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