NEW YORK — Demonstrators marched to the gates of the Minnesota State Fair last weekend, raised a banner reading “Black Lives Matter” and chanted, “Pigs in a blanket! Fry ’em like bacon!”
Deputy Darren H. Goforth, a 47-year-old father of two, was gunned down last week near Houston, a slaying that Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson contends signals open warfare on law enforcement.
A Birmingham, Alabama, police detective pistol-whipped unconscious last month said he hesitated to use force because he didn’t want to be accused of needlessly killing an unarmed man.
As mourners gathered Friday for Goforth’s funeral, law enforcement officers throughout the country say they feel under siege after a string of deadly attacks on police. This distrust of police, coming in the wake of controversial deaths by officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, helps fuel the bloodshed, they say.
“It’s almost a radical rhetoric causing officers to say, ‘Wait a second, I’m out here to serve the public. I saved a little old lady from a purse snatching. I gave CPR on the highway and saved somebody. Now, I’m a villain?'” said Chuck Canterbury, president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, a union representing more than 300,000 officers.
That perception has bad guys putting targets on their backs, according to Canterbury and other officers.
But the raw numbers — at least, in terms of officers being gunned down — tell a different story.
Nationally, police shooting deaths are down 16% this year, compared with the same period last year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. There have been 26 firearms-related deaths this year, including two in training accidents, and 31 in 2014. Traffic accidents — followed by shootings — are the leading cause of police deaths.
“Do police officers feel under siege? Yes, they do feel that way. I’ve heard a lot of them say that,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor and an expert on policing.
“But there’s no evidence of the so-called Ferguson effect — that police are hesitating to do their jobs — or that criminals are being emboldened by the rhetoric. They’re not doing their jobs any differently. The job is harder in the last year, but they aren’t just lying down.”
Goforth’s death, followed quickly by that of Lt. Joe Gliniewicz on patrol in Fox Lake, Illinois, has drawn national attention to the issue. It’s become part of a heated political debate over police and community relations, with critics of the Obama administration — such as GOP presidential hopefuls Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz — blaming the White House for what they say is a rise in anti-police rhetoric.
President Barack Obama, who made a condolence call to the slain Texas officer’s widow, Kathleen Goforth, has said, “Targeting police officers is completely unacceptable — an affront to civilized society.”
Deputy’s boss points to ‘dangerous national rhetoric’
Darren Goforth was pumping gas into his patrol car August 28 when a man identified as Shannon J. Miles approached from behind and shot him 15 times, officials said. In 2012, Miles was found mentally incompetent to stand trial in another case.
Goforth’s uniform made him a target, and a “dangerous national rhetoric” is partly to blame, said the deputy’s boss, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman.
“This rhetoric has gotten out of control,” Hickman said the morning after the shooting. “We’ve heard ‘black lives matter,’ ‘All lives matter.’ Well, cops’ lives matter, too. So why don’t we just drop the qualifier, and just say ‘Lives matter,’ and take that to the bank?”
“Black Lives Matter” became a rallying cry of protesters around the country last year after a white police officer in Ferguson killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown, and a black man named Eric Garner died from an apparent chokehold by a white New York police officer.
“It is a very tough time to be a police officer at this moment,” said Cedric Alexander, the DeKalb County, Georgia, police chief, and former national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
This year, three slain officers were targeted because they were law enforcement, according to Canterbury. The attacks came at a time of unprecedented hostility toward the police, he said. In 2014, nine officers were ambushed and killed, he said.
“Now you have people in social media saying, ‘Fry him, glad he’s dead,’ ” Canterbury said.
This climate was on the mind of a 6-year police veteran when he was pistol-whipped unconscious in Birmingham.
“A lot of officers are being too cautious because of what’s going on in the media,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous over concerns for the safety of his family. “I hesitated because I didn’t want to be in the media.”
‘A visceral hatred of that uniform’
Former Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said at a panel discussion this week that the recent crime surge in his city is partly attributable to officers feeling that “no one is standing up” for them.
Six Baltimore police officers have been charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury while being transported in a police van. Gray’s death in April sparked days of unrest in the city of more than 600,000 people about 40 minutes northeast of the nation’s capital.
Batts, who was fired in July, said anti-police sentiments have had a chilling effect, making officers around the country hesitant to leave their patrol cars.
“In some parts of Baltimore there is a visceral hatred of that uniform that I used to wear,” he said at Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland. “You could feel it.”
Reacting to the recent deaths, law enforcement agencies have taken to social media to drum up support.
A Boston Police Department Facebook post this week said, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” asking “When Is Enough … Enough??? When Are We Going to Rally Around Law Enforcement??? When Are We Going to Stand Up for Police Officers???”
In Memphis, police posted a photo on Facebook of a black female police officer flanked by a young white woman and a young black man. Scrawled on the officer’s hand was the message: “Their lives matter.” On the hands of the young people “Her life matters” was written, with arrows pointing to the officer.
And the Houston Police Officers’ Union posted that it’s offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person who has spray-painted graffiti around the city depicting a police officer with a gun pointed at his head.
‘People are intimidated by police’
Canterbury, the national police union chief, said morale among rank-and-file members is low.
“Agencies all over the country are losing officers at a rapid pace,” he said. “They’re unable to hire. They are in some cases reducing standards so that they can try to fill jobs because they need bodies. I don’t know of a department in the country that is not having a problem recruiting.”
In Hawthorne, California, Sgt. Chris Cognac said police officers have to re-establish trust with the communities they serve.
“People are intimidated by the police,” he said. “They’re intimidated by the uniform, intimidated by the equipment we carry. … A lot of times we don’t really have the chance to talk to people.”
Harris, the professor, said a longtime “us-versus-them” mentality on the part of the police toward the public has been exacerbated by increased scrutiny of law enforcement. That scrutiny has included the U.S. Justice Department taking over operations of police departments and officers being sued and even indicted on criminal charges.
But Harris said it’s irresponsible to blame the deaths of officers on anti-police protesters or those spouting strong rhetoric.
“Any fatality, any shooting, any murder of a police officer is a tragedy for that officer, the family and society — and any one of them is one too many,” said Harris, who’s also a former prosecutor and defense attorney. “But there’s no evidence of an open war on police. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary.”