Law & the Courts

The Dallas Massacre

Dallas police take cover during the attack, July 7, 2016. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/via Reuters)
While a gunman targeted law-enforcement officers, they saved others’ lives.

Thursday night’s attack in Dallas marks the deadliest day for American law enforcement since September 11, 2001. An ambush that started just before 9 p.m. local time, toward the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration, left four members of the Dallas Police Department and one member of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit police department dead, and seven other officers and two civilians injured. The gunman, 25-year-old Micah X. Johnson, who before he was killed told a hostage negotiator that he “wanted to kill white people, especially police officers,” was so successful only because of the bravery of Dallas’s finest, who spent the evening monitoring Black Lives Matter protesters, then rushed to shield demonstrators when shots rang out. On a week marked by intense hostility against our law enforcement, Dallas police reminded us of the courage and selflessness displayed by the vast majority of America’s men and women in uniform.

Police have yet to release the identities of the three suspects in custody, who are believed to have conspired in planning the attack. But about the motivations behind this episode there can be little doubt. Dallas police chief David Brown has said that the perpetrators clearly “planned to injure and kill as many law-enforcement officers as they could.” Johnson, who appears to have been the lone gunman, was a Facebook fan of the African American Defense League, which regularly called for violence against cops. Recent posts encourage readers to “ATTACK EVERYTHING IN BLUE EXCEPT THE MAIL MAN” and “sprinkle Pigs Blood.”

Responsibility for this vicious, cowardly act lies solely with the killer (and perhaps his fellow conspirators). But this tragedy should be a clear indication that it is long past time to lower the temperature of our conversation about the interactions between law enforcement and the black community.

This tragedy should be a clear indication that it is long past time to lower the temperature of our conversation about the interactions between law enforcement and the black community.

The need to do so has often been lost on members of Black Lives Matter, a poisonous minority of which has even encouraged violence against police. In New York City in late 2014, protesters chanted: “What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want them? Now.” Not long after, Ismaaiyl Brinsley assassinated two NYPD officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, in their patrol vehicle.

The reactions to the recent officer-involved shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., which prompted the demonstrations in Dallas and elsewhere, have been an example of the willingness of Black Lives Matter and their allies to make declarations in advance of the facts. It is far from clear whether the officers acted justifiably, and the available evidence raises serious questions. We understand the passions evoked by these tragic encounters. Nonetheless, Black Lives Matter activists immediately labeled the deaths “murder” and appropriated them to a well-known narrative of an “epidemic” of police violence against black Americans. Meanwhile, Minnesota governor Mark Dayton blamed Castile’s shooting partly on “racism,” and President Obama decried “racial disparity in the justice system.” Events in Ferguson and Baltimore have shown the imprudence of these sorts of knee-jerk pronouncements.

That is not to say that there are no legitimate criticisms of police. The community relations crucial to effective policing could be better, without question. There are bad cops, whose recklessness — or worse — should be subject to more-vigorous discipline or, if necessary, prosecution. And there are sensible reforms on offer from more thoughtful activists to which law enforcement should be open. In fact, the Dallas Police Department has been a model for police reform. Excessive-force complaints against the department dropped by 64 percent between 2009 and 2014, and arrests and officer-involved shootings also declined, in tandem with a decline in the city’s murder rate, which reached an 80-year low in 2014.

Replicating these results across the country will not be possible if police or those skeptical of them incline toward antagonism, rather than conciliation. But the conduct of Dallas’s police is a reminder of why we should do so: Whatever the unfortunate truth in a handful of individual cases, the vast majority of law-enforcement officers are honorable public servants, who put their lives on the line, day in and day out, for their fellow citizens — white, black, and otherwise.

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