Justice Is Required on the Path to Peace

The police officers I know personally are all good people. They take their jobs seriously, genuinely care about the safety of the public they serve, and treat people fairly. And yet I also know that there is a serious problem with policing in our country. The advent of video cameras, whether used by citizens or the police officers themselves, has changed the game.

Over the last several years we have seen a series of videos that show shootings of citizens, mostly young black men, under highly questionable circumstances. The latest incident, involving LaQuan McDonald in Chicago, has caused an intense scrutiny of police tactics. I don’t think any reasonable person can watch this video and conclude that LaQuan’s killing was justified. The officer has been charged with murder and the police superintendent has been fired. There are calls for the mayor to resign. State legislators are pushing for changes in police procedures.

But in most cases nothing has happened.

In Baltimore a high profile case in which a young man died after being transported in a police van has resulted in a hung jury. Other officers will also be tried in the case. A man being choked to death by an officer in New York City using a strangle hold explicitly banned by police procedures resulted in no indictment. The death of an unarmed 12-year-old, Tamir Rice, shot in a Cleveland park less than two seconds after police arrived, also resulted in no prosecution. The officer’s previous supervisor had put in writing that he was unstable and not suited for police duty.

These are deeply troubling cases. They are also the stories of real people whose lives can never be replaced and who have moms, dads, spouses and kids overwhelmed by grief. There may be legal technicalities in some of these cases but that does not change a deeply disturbing reality. Unarmed citizens, mostly African Americans and often young, are being shot and killed by police in ways that do not seem justified to many of us.

Since we have heard about these cases mostly as a result of video cameras, we can hardly help but wonder what has been going on and what may still be going on in the thousands of cases that haven’t been recorded. Rumors of such incidents have circulated for years. Now we have seen them displayed on television.

We are going to see changes in the coming days. Cameras are going to put more and more incidents before the public eye, and over time, policing will change. I don’t believe that police officers are bad people. Actually I believe they are mostly good people. But we have some unhealthy patterns in our society, and discrimination in law enforcement is one of them.

Equal justice under the law is an absolute necessity for the operation of a true democracy. We are in a time of awakening about police practices, criminal justice issues and mass incarceration. Groups like Black Lives Matter are right to push hard on these issues and demand change. If we want peace in our streets we will have to have justice as well. We can’t have one without the other.



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