There are so many tragic aspects to what’s transpired over the last few days in America. It began with the kind of images that we’ve seen far too many times in this country — cellphone video of black men being killed by police officers. The killings of five police officers in Dallas on Thursday only serves to compound the tragedy.
That the incident happened in Dallas compounds the tragedy, because if there is one city in America making real progress to ending the scourge of police killing of black Americans, it is Dallas. Over the past several years, the city has revamped the way it does policing to reduce the kind of police shootings that happened this week in Baton Rouge, La., and St. Paul, Minn.
As Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings noted Thursday night, “This police department trained in de-escalation far before cities across America did it. We’re one of the premier community policing cities in the country, and this year we have the fewest police officer-related shootings than any large city in America.”
Indeed, the results speak for themselves. In 2012, police shot 23 people. By 2015, the number had fallen to 11. This year, it’s at one. In addition, arrests are way down, excessive force complaints have declined, and the city’s murder rate has fallen as well.
How Dallas did it should be a lesson to police forces around the country. According to Dallas Police Chief David Brown, it has been a combination of better training, a focus on community policing, and “holding officers accountable” for their actions. It’s worth taking a look at the Dallas PD’s Twitter feed to see images that predated the shooting. There are pictures of officers smiling with protesters, who are holding signs saying “no justice, no peace.” The officers aren’t wearing body armor. They aren’t toting assault rifles. They aren’t being adversarial. If anything, they appear to be supportive of the demonstrators, who are peaceful. This is exactly the kind of policing that we need more of in America. It’s a sure way to limit the gulf of suspicion that generally exists between the police and the African-American community.
But the improvements in Dallas are about more than just optics. As the The Dallas Morning News wrote last year, officers in the city are trained to “slow down instead of rushing into a situation; don’t approach a suspect immediately. Try to build a rapport; don’t have multiple officers shout at once.”
Contrast that with what we saw happen in Baton Rouge and St. Paul this week, when officers escalated the situations in such a way as to increase the potential for tragedy.
When you are granted the power by the state to deprive Americans of their liberty and their lives, your job is not to panic. You must de-escalate the situation. And if you don’t, then you need to be held accountable for your actions.
That’s the connective thread in so many of the police shootings that we’ve seen over the past year — cops who needlessly escalate a situation, find themselves in perceived danger, and then take a life. That they escalate because the victim is black is so obvious as to be self-evident.
All Americans should be troubled by what’s happened, but, for black families in this country, this is a tragedy that causes visceral, palpable pain. If we’re serious about believing that black lives matter, we must do much better as a society in preventing these outrages from happening. The Dallas Police Department has experienced a horrible tragedy because of our inability to grapple properly with these abuses, but, if we want to prevent the next needless death, understanding how the DPD has turned into a model police department is a good place to start.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.