New York: It was one small overlooked moment as the streets of America burned.
In downtown Dallas near the convention centre, a protester screamed at a dozen uniformed officers. “How do you live with yourself?” the man yelled at them. “How can you work for something you know is wrong?”
Off to the side, standing near the officers, a member of the Dallas Police Department in civilian clothes and wearing a mask to protect herself from the coronavirus was crying.
It is a volatile time to be a police officer in America.
They have been attacked by protesters and they have also attacked protesters, fuelling the anger against them. Some have been applauded nationwide after being caught on video shaking hands with demonstrators, hugging them, taking a knee, or marching alongside them to turn tense protests into parades of solidarity. Others have been disciplined, fired or charged after using excessive force on protesters, as their superiors — long criticised for reacting sluggishly, if at all, to misconduct — are now swiftly punishing the kind of heavy-handed tactics that have been commonplace during riots in decades past.
‘Pawns in the game’
The message from the president is to dominate the streets with force. The message from many of their chiefs and mayors is to tolerate, connect and empathise. The message on the streets, at times, is that they are part of the problem. The message from the news media is watch what you say and do.
All of these messages have collided in real time as police tactics are analysed and publicised on social media, as the response becomes increasingly federalised and as officers in several cities are pelted with bricks, shot at and rammed by drivers in vehicles.
In St. Louis on Monday night, four officers were struck by gunfire in a shoot-out between gunmen at a protest and the police. In Las Vegas, an officer was put on life support after he was shot as police forces tried to disperse crowds after being hit with bottles and rocks. In Buffalo, New York, the driver of an SUV sped through a line of law enforcement officers in riot gear, injuring two of them in an episode caught on video.
“We feel like we’re pawns in a game right now,” said a supervisor in a police department in the St. Louis region who asked that his name not be used in order to speak frankly about the job. “It’s almost like there’s an agenda and we’re being used on both sides, the left and the right, to further that agenda.”
The supervisor said it felt like a more dangerous time to be an officer than it did during the rioting in 2014 over the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, Missouri, a sentiment echoed by other law enforcement officials.
“In 2014, there were threats of violence, people said all kinds of things,” the supervisor said. “I never felt that nervous.”
Much of policing, like much of politics, is local. But the outrage over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis has upended that notion, inciting social unrest and violence for urban and suburban police departments across the country. It has been a challenge for officers, at a time when many are also confronting the coronavirus.
As the world watches demonstrations unfold on television and social media, both the best and the worst of American law enforcement has been on display.
Protesters, both peaceful and violent, have been bruised and beaten by officers on the front lines. In Denver, a police officer was fired on Tuesday after posting a photo online of three officers in armoured tactical gear with the caption, “Let’s start a riot.”
In Austin, Texas, a 20-year-old African American protester was in critical condition after he was shot in the head with a beanbag round fired by a police officer on Sunday. A protester standing next to the man had thrown objects at the police, and in response an officer struck the victim instead. Others hit by similar police-fired rounds include a woman giving medical assistance and a pregnant African American woman.
“I’m crushed,” the Austin police chief, Bryan Manley, said during a news conference Monday. “I’ve cried a few times today.”
At a time when tensions are volatile on the streets, such missteps do more than hurt a department’s image. In Richmond, Virginia, two officers were being treated for gunshot injuries. The shooting occurred hours after the Police Department apologised on Twitter to peaceful protesters who were hit with tear gas.
In many ways, the police response to what is happening on the streets illustrates a kind of post-Ferguson era of policing. Officers — not only chiefs but even the rank and file — have embraced the demonstrations and aligned themselves so much with protesters that they have been invited to march alongside them. In some places, chiefs have become more politically outspoken and more emotional than they have been in decades.
— New York Times News Service