Opinion Columns & Blogs

Police need to be better paid, trained and better prepared

It seems like most of my columns lately have had a common, sad recurring theme about how divided our country is these days. Already this year we’ve been engaging in pitched battles with one another about issues like who we support in the presidential election and where we stand on trans/gay rights issues. And now we have been divided along racial lines after the latest in a series of amateur videos showing white police officers shooting unarmed black men went viral and five white police officers were slain during a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, Texas, shortly thereafter.

This is an opinion column, and normally when I discuss issues here I try and offer constructive opinions on how I think those issues might be addressed. I’m having a very hard time doing that right now. Things seem so bad, people’s attitudes are so very negative, and the anger is so deep that it’s hard to tell where the road back to sanity and mutual respect might lie.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie “No Country for Old Men” where Tommy Lee Jones’ character (who is a Texas sheriff) is asked why he is thinking of quitting his job, and he responds by saying, “I feel overmatched.” That’s how I feel about what’s going on in our country today — overmatched.

But since I haven’t yet retired from my job of writing these columns I will try and say something constructive about what might be done to address the white-on-black police shootings that are causing so much animosity between law enforcement and the black community right now.

First of all, we need to look at the process for hiring and training police officers and make sure we are hiring and retaining the best possible candidates and that they receive the highest quality training. As a rule I don’t think we are paying our law enforcers enough, and in some cases they don’t seem to be properly trained to handle the myriad of complicated situations that develop while they are engaging the public.

Addressing that problem won’t be cheap, so people who live in communities with low-paid, poorly trained police officers should be prepared to open their wallets and pay for improvements. These are people who put their lives on the line for us daily, and if we want to minimize the kind of unfortunate police-involved shootings we’ve been seeing in the news, we should think of it as a wise investment.

Obviously some of that training would involve learning to recognize one’s internal prejudices (we all have them) and how they affect one’s dealing with other people. There should also be extensive, hands-on instruction on the use of lethal and non-lethal force and when each is appropriate. Officers who don’t exhibit the willingness to put that training into practice in the field should obviously be removed from duty.

That’s all well and good as a way to try and reduce the incidence of inappropriate use of deadly force, but there’s a bigger problem that the current controversy is masking. The “institutional racism” that some people are blaming for harassment of young black males by the police does not tell the whole story. Far too many black men are attracting the interest of the police because far too many of them are involved in genuine criminal activity. That, unfortunately, is a much bigger and more complicated problem, and one that can’t be completely solved by changes to government policy.

That problem springs from things like persistent poverty, lack of education and the absence of fathers in too many homes — things that effect all races but plague African Americans at an especially high rate. Even if we could somehow attain perfect, color-blind treatment of law enforcement in all cases these problems would still cause far too many black men to end up in the custody of the state. But on that subject I am truly feeling overwhelmed, and I hope someone smarter than me has some answers for it.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com.