Americans have been focused on the deaths of two African-American men this year. One, Michael Brown, died in Ferguson, Mo., after a confrontation with a police officer. The other death occurred on New York’s Staten Island when Eric Garner was placed in a choke hold while being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. Garner, who had asthma and other health problems, had his death ruled a homicide by a New York medical examiner.
Both cases have put Americans on edge and led some politicians to fan fears of police that could easily undermine the trust a civil society needs, in order to maintain that “thin blue line” of men and women expected to enforce the laws of our land.
Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths were reviewed by separate grand juries. In neither case was enough evidence found to charge any officer involved with a crime.
After each grand jury decision there were protests around the country. In Ferguson, there were also riots. Businesses were burned to the ground.
Following the unrest in Ferguson President Obama convened a police summit at the White House. Following the meeting he released details of a four point policing program. The four elements are placing 50,000 body cameras on police officers to record their activities, establishing a task force of police practices, ordering a White House report on police “militarization,” and signing an executive order that will keep track of (and possibly restrict) local police force acquisitions of military-style weapons.
But the four-point plan isn’t really the whole message. It may not be half of it. That’s because the core of the president’s policing program is an unspoken, psychologically powerful (and profoundly toxic) fifth point: To encourage distrust of local and state police by American citizens. This is a close cousin of the president's long campaign to motivate our citizens to question the decency of elements of American life — this time the decency of law enforcement officers.
First, there was the president's apology tour, seemingly designed to make Americans question their role on the world stage. Then there was the domestic equivalent: the president's assertion that American businessmen didn't actually create their own businesses (implying, I suppose, that they were egomaniacal thieves who had commandeered their successes from the common man); the president's assertion that the Constitution is “flawed"; the dismissive coffee cup salute to the military; and, now, the encouragement to look with suspicion upon our police officers and officials.
I think police officers are, on the whole, honorable and trustworthy people. I would not hesitate to call them if I felt threatened, had been robbed or needed to find a missing family member. When I received threats on my life, they chased them down. For twenty years, they have selflessly, consistently, flawlessly helped me bring patients in crisis to emergency rooms at all hours of the day and night. These patients have been white and black, affluent and poor. Every single one of them was treated by police with respect and empathy.
So why would the president declare police should wear cameras to record their activities and be taught how to ingratiate themselves to the public? Why would he declare police departments be audited so they do not become “militarized"? The four-point policing program is propaganda. It tells Americans they are threatened by the very people they thought were working to keep them safe.
Like most campaigns designed to make people question what they thought they could rely upon — and, ultimately, feel that nothing other than an all-powerful central authority can safeguard them — this one isn't based on a factual incident.
President Obama’s campaign, which aims to monitor police and take powerful arms away from them, follows an officer in Ferguson, Mo., risking his life and using his handgun (not an Uzi or military-style body armor) to stop a threat. That's what an exhaustive investigation and review by a grand jury revealed.
But where propaganda rules, the facts do not. Only messaging does. And the messaging of the four-point policing program seems designed to harness underlying doubt and paranoia in people and direct it in a way that shakes the confidence of Americans in yet another aspect of our culture.