After Dallas, tone it down

Editor’s Note: Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer, is an associate professor in the department of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He is the author of “Cop in the Hood” and “In Defense of Flogging.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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Peter Moskos: Enough. It's too easy to disassociate words from horrible actions. But words have power to inspire, inflame, provoke.

He says after shootings by and of police, both sides must tone it down and find common ground to solve crisis of violence

CNN  — 


It is too easy to disassociate words from horrible actions. But words have the power to inspire, inflame, provoke. Or else we wouldn’t say them. When words inspire others to kill, however deranged those others might be, we must see the consequences.

Five police officers in Dallas are dead, killed during an otherwise peaceful protest over the shooting deaths of two African-American men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota.

Peter Moskos

When those on the political right speak against immigrants, Muslims or abortion, those on the left are quick and correct to observe that words inspire crimes of hate and violence. Similarly, when those on the left speak against police officers – not just bad ones, but all police officers – this, too, can have consequences.

No matter one’s beliefs, we all need to call out extremism and hate, especially given American’s absurdly easy access to guns. No matter how many good people have guns, they cannot always stop a bad person with a gun. An armed society is clearly not always a polite society, so we need to tone it down.

Free speech is deeply embedded in America, as it should be. But hateful speech does not have to be condoned. The goal of most police protesters is not to end policing, but to improve it. But those who join protests must see that some of their ranks are against all police.

It is not extreme to protest against unjust state violence against innocent people. Peaceful protest is not a threat to policing or police officers.

Police need to realize that some in their ranks make mistakes, both honestly and maliciously. This needs to be better acknowledged by those in law enforcement. But just as decent society does not hold every black, Muslim, or white Christian responsible for the murderous acts of a deranged few, it is a mistake to blame hundreds of thousands of police officers for the bad deeds of a few.

If tomorrow is a typical day, some police officers somewhere in the United States will very likely shoot and kill two or three people. One of them will likely be African-American. This problem will not go away. That is the current rate. But some perspective is needed. This is a large and diverse country. More than 12,000 people are murdered annually. Some 28,000 people die of drug overdoses; 30,000 are killed in traffic fatalities. In 2015, according the Washington Post, police shot and killed 990 people. Of those, 258 were African-American; 730 involved attacks in progress.

We could protest every one of these shootings individually, but in most instances, police are doing their job. Better would be to focus on reducing the use of force collectively.

Regional differences in America are profound. Police in California shot and killed 188 people last year. New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, collectively, with 3.4 million more people than California, saw just 53 people killed. If police in California were simply able to lower their rate of lethal force to the level of these three states – something that seems eminently doable – 139 fewer people would be killed by police. And that’s just in California.

American violence is out of hand. Too many people are being killed. Find common ground and let common sense prevail. And the first step is toning it down.