The police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last month turned a St. Louis suburb of 21,000 into a media circus. The public watched breathlessly in the weeks that followed as violent protests pitted police against protesters and looters against shop owners. While so much of the discussion has focused on race, it also concerns the role of law enforcement in our communities.
Until April, I served as the assistant director of the FBI, where I was honored to work side-by-side with some of the bravest and most committed people I’ve ever known – those in law enforcement. These men and women dedicate their lives – and sometimes even lay down their lives – in the service of our communities and our country. Unfortunately, my colleagues in law enforcement are learning all too well that their sacrifices aren’t always of concern to their federal government.
Earlier this month, we learned that Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the Department of Justice to conduct a full investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.
The timing of the announcement, preceded by Holder’s visit to Ferguson and the attendance of White House representatives at Brown’s funeral, was a blatant attempt to sway public opinion.
These efforts by the Obama administration could, in turn, risk influencing citizens who have been assembled as grand jurors or may be called to be jurors in a potential trial.
What seems abundantly clear is that the leadership Department of Justice is unconcerned about Officer Darren Wilson’s legal fate, since it has already reached its own conclusions about what happened that night in Ferguson.
Unfortunately, politicization of what is supposed to be blind justice is hardly unusual in the Obama administration. The Washington Post noted that Holder has ordered twice as many investigations of law enforcement than any of his predecessors. While many in the law enforcement community may feel relieved to learn of Attorney General Holder's anticipated departure as head of DOJ, one must wonder if the damage has already been done.
The ramifications of these efforts are disturbing and very real. They cast doubt, reinforce skepticism, and risk compromising cooperation between law enforcement and those living in the communities they serve. Simply put, these efforts by the Obama administration may well make it more difficult for police to do their jobs.
But what is just as telling about the Obama administration is what it doesn’t say, and what it doesn’t do. Three recent cases underscore how police officers are forgotten by the Department of Justice when the events don’t suit its purposes.
• In early July, Indianapolis police officer Perry Renn was shot and killed, allegedly by 25-year-old Major Davis Jr., who authorities say was brandishing an assault rifle on the street. Davis had several prior “run-ins” with the police, including one where he was found in a home known for drug activity and where police uncovered two loaded assault rifles, cocaine, marijuana and cash.
• About a week later, in Jersey City, N.J., police were ambushed responding to what was reported as a robbery at a Walgreens. The store was never robbed. A man named Lawrence Campbell entered the store, stabbed a security guard with a knife, took his gun and waited for the police to come. When police officer Melvin Santiago and his partner arrived, Campbell shot Santiago dead. Santiago’s partner then shot and killed Campbell. In a sickening twist, a street memorial for the killer was set up in the neighborhood, replete withmessages including, "Thug in Peace," along with empty liquor bottles and balloons. The city later removed the memorial.
• Earlier this month in Rochester, N.Y., police officer Daryl Pierson was backing up a fellow officer who stopped a car. Two occupants fled, and Pierson began a pursuit on foot when he spotted a man who fit the description. Seeing that Pierson was catching up to him, suspect Thomas Johnson III allegedly turned, fired a .25 caliber handgun and killed him. A second round struck a bystander. Johnson was fresh from serving three years for attempted robbery and faced parole violation.
Where were President Obama and Attorney General Holder after these police killings this summer? Where were their press events or comments? Why weren’t the attorney general and the other White House officials who visited Ferguson and attended the funeral of Michael Brown not dispatched to attend the funerals and offer public condolences to these officers' colleagues and families? Not even a phone call? Where were the community organizers and rallies calling for an end to the senseless violence against the police officers who defend and protect our communities day in and day out, regardless of race?
So far this year, police officer line-of-duty deaths are up 16 percent from last year, and shooting-related law enforcement fatalities are up 61 percent. Where is our “activist” attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, on the issue of the dangers facing police every day?
After six years in this role, where has his voice been as law enforcement officers are victimized by the 'unknown' threat of someone they’ve just stopped for speeding or a broken taillight?
What exactly is Holder’s message? Is it that the police fatalities are simply “acceptable losses” in a profession whose workers should have known the risks when they signed up for the job – the cost of doing business? And where were the national media, the satellite trucks and the 24/7 coverage of these events? Exactly.
President Obama has had much to say about perceptions during his tenure. He and his attorney general know well that perceptions are formed not only by what you say and do, but also by what you don't say and what you don’t do. I know that thousands of dedicated law enforcement professionals are deafened by their silence as they quietly pay respects to their valiant fallen colleagues.
The Obama administration is obviously turning its back on the brave men and women who put their lives on the line every day to serve and protect our communities. Its politicization of our nation's justice system only makes it more difficult for police to do jobs that are already dangerous and, too often, life-threatening.
Of course, police are not above the law, and nearly all take great care to ensure that citizens’ rights are respected and that everyone’s life is secure. And those police who wantonly or recklessly fail to adhere to protocol or who intentionally violate the rights of citizens should be face termination and/or prosecution.
But that is for the courts to decide. In matters as sensitive as these, the Obama administration should not be in the business of shaping public opinion to achieve an outcome that matches a political agenda. Instead, it should demonstrate restraint and point to the due process rights all of our citizens, including the police, should enjoy, remaining ever mindful of the scope of its power and the delicate, judicious manner in which it should be exercised.
Ron Hosko is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, and former assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.