Throughout the past two weeks of demonstrations and protests that have followed in the wake of the death of George Floyd, his life squeezed out of him by a police officer kneeling on his neck, we’ve been bombarded by images and video of police brutally assaulting peaceful protesters, bystanders and senior citizens; driving police vehicles into crowds; tear-gassing and firing rubber bullets at the citizens they swore an oath to protect and serve.
We don’t know what’s more shocking, the violence we saw with our own eyes or the impunity with which some police officers acted, as if they feared no consequences for their actions.
Closer to home, thankfully, there were no such scenes. As looters stormed through North Riverside businesses on May 31, police appeared to intentionally interact as little as possible with them – concentrating on clearing them from the area rather than trying to arrest them.
While there were police in riot gear and police dogs barking ominously as they arrived at the scene, they formed perimeters around shopping centers and stores. In fact, police made no arrests in North Riverside on May 31.
The lone violent crime, the shooting death of 22-year-old Myqwon Blanchard, did not involve police.
Police brutality lawsuits against Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside police are rare. Still, they are not unknown and what these latest examples elsewhere underscore is how policing has changed over time, and especially since Sept. 11, 2001, with increased militarization.
In his statement to residents last week, Riverside President Ben Sells, who was also speaking on behalf of village trustees, promised a “public dialogue on the issues raised” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
A good part of that public dialogue must be about the culture of public safety departments – national and local – and how village leaders and police leaders ensure their officers take seriously their sacred oath to serve the public.
That aspect of service has been overshadowed by an insistence on yielding to police authority, and that’s when the problems start. These will be uncomfortable conversations for police to have with the public and among themselves, but they are vital if this nation is to move toward a more just, equitable society.
There is a segment of society, white society, that views expanding privileges they take for granted to those who have been historically oppressed as resulting in less freedom for them.
That’s a telling perspective, born of the fear that someone else, if put on equal footing, might treat you as badly as you’ve treated them.
It’s that kind of thinking that can’t be tolerated from police, and the message that is coming loud and clear from the thousands upon thousands of protesters, locally, nationally and internationally is that the post-9/11 philosophy of outgunning problems instead of solving them by honestly confronting underlying historic injustice has to change.
We are lucky to have good police chiefs and compassionate leaders in these three villages, who we believe try hard to create a culture of compassion. They are the ones who need to lead that dialogue and look deeply within themselves to respond to what sounds like the citizenry’s irresistible call for change.