The nation has embraced a much needed movement to reform and restructure policing in almost every community large and small. The small intermountain city where I live is no exception. Local concern has been driven not by incidents of abusive tactics, but by the revelation that an officer has a tattoo from his army days bearing within it what looks very much like the Nazi SS symbol. From that, all the sins of police abuse in other places has been heaped on the local department, with calls for the officer to be fired.
I believe it has done a disservice to the city’s police department, in part because it’s among those that have invested years of training and restructuring to do much of what others are only now considering. They may not have it down as well as it needs to be, but they’ve been working on it for years. Nevertheless, ill informed public opinion has accused it of the same abusive practices witnessed in places like Minneapolis, Seattle, and New York, among others.
All agree the SS symbolism is an abomination, and should never have existed for anyone to get. It was incorporated into a pattern intended to honor a member of a sniper group killed in combat. However well intended, having it inked was a poor decision by a young soldier, but what has been done has been done. That decision can’t be undone. In the meantime, the officer in question has kept it covered when on duty. Perhaps he will decide to have it removed. I hope so, but there is no magic eraser that will do it overnight.
Now the community has to grapple with reaction to it. When angry members of the public lead with emotions, sure of their own self righteousness, they’re likely to make unwarranted, unverified assumptions. Liberals and conservatives alike are guilty. They, we, do it all the time. Angry self righteousness looks for, and expects to find, targets of opportunity for their self righteous rage. Looking for a target, expecting to find a target, inclines one to assume objects bearing any resemblance whatsoever to a presumed target must be a target. Cops in many places have for decades been doing it to blacks and other minorities. An angry self-righteous public can do the same, and without thinking it through, they make difficult situations worse.
As it turns out, what’s known about the officer in question is that his record is a good one. Sans tattoo, he’s known as a person most people would like as a friend and neighbor. Whatever his personal prejudices and politics might be, they’re of the ordinary, normal, non-extreme kind. He works in a department that is a model for community policing that values and trains for deescalation and peaceful resolution – evidenced by a number of tense standoffs that could have been quickly ended with a justifiable police shooting. In twenty years, all but one have been resolved without death or serious injury to suspects, even when SWAT teams were needed.
I’m retired, but until a few years ago I served for sixteen years as a Walla Walla fire and police chaplain. I have been at the scenes of gang fights, murders, suicides, unexpected deaths, and highway accidents. Firm but civil control of the situation, deep compassion for the injured and bereaved, aid to help victims through the next few hours, those are the behaviors I have witnessed. I’ve been with officers who’ve paid a night’s lodging for those without, and bought food for the hungry. The department goes on holiday buying sprees, not for but with those who have special needs. National Night Out, Coffee with a Cop, July 4th in the Park, and police presence at neighborhood events have brought neighbors and neighborhoods together. It’s what the Walla Walla Police Department does. Is it enough? No. That’s why reform and restructuring are continuing priorities for the department.
To be sure, there are members of the public who despise and distrust the police. Some because they’ve been arrested, convicted, and somehow that’s not fair. Some because police practices in other places make it the social justice thing to do. And some are ticked off because they finally got caught running a red light, or the DUI they’ve long deserved. Most people in Walla Walla are grateful for and trust them. Does that include residents in “bad” parts of town or the non-white population? I haven’t seen any reliable data, but anecdotal observations suggest, with suspicious reservations, yes.
The Walla Walla Police Department has done a remarkably good job of establishing, training for, and maintaining high standards that have served the community peacefully and well. They’re not perfect. Reform and restructuring are always on the table, initiated and supported by department leadership. It’s the kind of department leading the way for others to follow.