After Ferguson shootings, how do police proceed without fear?

2014 proved a particularly deadly year for police, with the number of officers shot rising to 50, fifteen of those coming from unprovoked attacks or premeditated ambushes.

A man demonstrates in support of the town in front of the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri, Friday March 13, 2015.

The shots ring out without warning, and, suddenly, two police officers are down. Pandemonium ensues outside a Ferguson, Mo., police station already under siege after the death of an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown led to revelations of institutional racism. The officers barely escape fatal injuries. A manhunt is on, and leaders call for calm.

Watching events in Ferguson from afar, America’s civilian-controlled constabulary force has a right to feel embattled and anxious, especially given a string of ambush attacks on police officers and polls that suggest a new distrust of police among some African-Americans and whites.

To be sure, the threat of violence, experts say, may in the end underscore the need, not just for the reform of police tactics in minority neighborhoods, but also the role of the American taxpayer in keeping cops well-trained and well-equipped.

At the same time, even as many Americans seek to assign blame for the Ferguson shootings – the actual shooter hasn’t yet been found – most American police chiefs are not hitting the panic button.

US police officers, after all, already know there’s a chance they could be targeted out of nowhere simply by putting on the uniform. Especially when the streets are heavy with menace, awareness and caution remain an officer’s best friends, policing experts say.

“We have been telling officers to listen to their instincts and if something doesn't feel right don't hesitate to call for backup,” writes Elizabeth Espy, a civilian spokeswoman at the Atlanta Police Department, in an email. “Go to calls in pairs of possible.  Be vigilant as always.”

The shootings underscore the massive stakes in America’s recent look at the role of police in an increasingly nonviolent country. Indeed, violence involving police – whether cops being killed or cops shooting civilians – is one of the few crime statistics climbing in the US as armed robbery, rapes, murder, and assaults continue a steady two-decade decline.

The statistics also underscore a toxic environment, expressed by angry street protests, that police fear has the potential to motivate the actions of an individual avenger. Gallup found last year that one in four blacks have little to no confidence in police while three out of every 25 white Americans felt the same way.

A Bloomberg report Friday points out that current events-driven shifts in perception of police have “gained new force during the social-media age.” Seen as American heroes after 9/11, “today [police] are the villains of the nation,” Maria Haberfeld, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor, told Bloomberg.

To be sure, officers can take heart in long-term trends that suggest the dangers of police work remain fairly constant. During a 10-year-period that ended in 2012, 53 police officers, on average, died on duty each year as a result of attacks, with an average of 11 of those being unprovoked or premeditated. In 2013, that number fell to 27, with only five being unprovoked.

Yet police groups who track officer fatalities say events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and Madison, Wisc. – all places where white police officers killed unarmed black teenagers or men – may have helped to turn back those gains. Indeed, 2014 proved a particularly deadly year for police, with the number of officers shot rising back up to 50, with a record 15 of those coming from unprovoked or premeditated ambushes.

Given such numbers, “I am deeply concerned that a growing anti-government sentiment in America is influencing weak-minded individuals to launch violent assaults against the men and women working to enforce our laws and keep our nation safe,” Craig Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, said in a recent statement.

There’s reason for such concerns. When a sharpshooter named Eric Frein allegedly assassinated one police officer and gravely wounded another in Pennsylvania last year, he later reportedly said he did it “to wake people up” to change the government. The killer of two beat cops in New York City in December had posted anti-police screeds on social media after the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.

"War has been declared on the American police officer," Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke argued on CNN Friday.

But that argument runs both ways, especially for US minorities whom statistics show bear a disproportionate personal and financial burden when it comes to attention from police.

Even as the numbers of police killed remains fairly constant over time, the number of police shootings of civilians has steadily ticked upward, fueling what Brian Burghart, founder of the nonprofit Fatal Encounters, calls an “eye for an eye” phenomenon of ratcheted-up violence. Police killed 1,010 Americans in 2013 and 1,135 last year, according to the group. The vast majority of those shootings were deemed justified.

Indeed, part of the push by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, America’s top law enforcement officer, has been to ease an underlying friction that leads to more violence by and against police. The report, however, puts much of the onus on the same law enforcers who now have to worry about unprovoked violence against them, as happened early Thursday in Ferguson.

Issued this month, an interim report by an Obama taskforce on 21st century policing quoted Plato as it called on police departments to “embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy” and avoid being “seen as an occupying force coming in from the outside to rule and control the community.”

“How officers define their role will set the tone for the community,” the authors wrote.

“There’s no way of getting around [biased mindsets] among police other than through constant training and reforming the police psychology in this country, and making police departments look more like the people they’re policing,” says Lewis Katz, a Western Case Reserve University professor.

Yet the American public, too, needs to be willing to supply police with the best gear, training and other support, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo argued in a budget speech in January. For one, there are 14 percent fewer cops on the beat today than four years ago, for a total of 390,000.

“We need to do everything we can to keep our police safe,” Mr. Cuomo said. “These are dangerous, dangerous jobs, especially during these times.”

The aftermath of violence could be felt far from Ferguson. In Philadelphia on Saturday, the city laid to rest officer Robert Wilson, who was killed while trying to stop an armed robbery, and in Madison, Wisc., hundreds were expected Saturday at the funeral of Tony Robinson, an unarmed black man killed by a police officer in his own apartment after a tussle. 

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