Harmony on our streets: Next steps

By Fred Benson

First was the horrific video of an African American man being fatally shot by a Louisiana police officer, followed closely by the live airing of a woman describing the police shooting of her black boyfriend during a routine traffic stop. And then came the hideous visual coverage of 14 police officers being gunned down in Dallas by a sniper at an otherwise peaceful protest of these police shootings.

Since January of this year, 32 police officers have died from gun violence in the line of duty, and 537 citizens have been shot and killed by police. Images of many of these horrendous events have been recorded on smartphones and vest cameras, thus creating a chilling impression that neither police officers nor black Americans are safe on the streets of our cities and towns.

What started in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, and continued through Newtown, Charleston, Orlando and other cities, set the stage for a resurgence of racial discrimination, fear and, yes, revenge. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 46 percent of whites thought that race relations were generally good, a sharp drop from 66 percent in June 2009. For blacks, the corresponding decline, from 59 percent to 34 percent, was even greater.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch described poignantly the national grief: “Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, of uncertainty and of fear. We must embrace the difficult work – but the important work, the vital work – of finding a path forward together.”

Creating and traveling that path is a challenging goal. What are the elements that will end the killing so that every African American and every police officer can walk the streets in an environment of respect and safety? Some thoughts:

Set the bar high. Neither racial disparity in our justice system nor the assassination of police officers can be tolerated. Many senior police officials believe that the “only lasting solution to racially-oriented violence and division is to end the glaring inequalities that fuel them.”

Accept reality. Racial tension has been around for a long time, and to deny it is to ignore the hard realities of American history. One-by-one, we can all help by reaching out to others not like us and finding opportunities to work together on issues or programs that will unify our citizenry.

Cool the rhetoric. Inflammatory headlines that appeared recently on the front page of “The New York Post” (“Civil War”) and in “The Drudge Report” (“Black Lives Kill”) only exacerbate the problem. White and black leaders need to stand arm-in-arm in this effort to restore calm.

Improve reporting. There are still several states where police shootings are not disclosed fully. Establishing an effective mandatory federal reporting system is essential.

Enhance police instruction. Proven programs for training officers to tone down confrontations, particularly with persons appearing to be deranged, are available but not employed uniformly. This is a first-order necessity.

Establish true accountability. Police officers who unnecessarily shoot unarmed civilians must be held accountable. Less than 1 percent of officers involved in police shootings are charged with wrongful death. Tougher standards are needed.

Reduce gun violence. This is one area where every voter in Maine can weigh in. The ballot for the November election will include an initiative to require background checks for all gun sales.

It will read: “Do you want to require background checks prior to the sale or transfer of firearms between individuals not licensed as firearms dealers, with failure to do so punishable by law, and with some exceptions for family members, hunting, self-defense, lawful competitions, and shooting range activity?”

A survey conducted by Yale researchers in January 2016 found that 77 percent of Americans favor universal background checks. This Maine initiative is not an attempt to control the sale of guns, but rather, a common sense approach to closing the loophole that permits 60 percent of all gun buyers to sidestep the federal requirement for background checks.

Obviously this measure will not stop the bloodshed, but it will make it more difficult for those with criminal records to buy guns. As expected, the NRA will seek to defeat this provision by telling voters that it is the first step to gun confiscation. Several hunting and sporting groups support this initiative, just as we all should.

Fred Benson is a Mount Desert resident and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.


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