Tribune Editorial: We must not be forced to choose between violence of the lawless and violence in the name of the law

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ma Black speaks at a vigil marking the one-year-anniversary of the death of George Floyd, at the Murals in Salt Lake City, onTuesday, May 25, 2021.

A decent and humane society will not be forced to choose between a future where the lawless run rampant and one where those who act in the name of the law use violence with impunity.

Members of minority communities have every reason to fear that white-dominated law enforcement agencies, and self-appointed armed vigilantes, have a shoot-first, ask-questions-later attitude toward Black and Hispanic people who are suspected of minor crimes or were simply seen in a neighborhood where someone thought they didn’t belong. It is a situation that also leaves such communities more vulnerable to crime, as there is a widespread feeling that calling the police is not a good idea.

Police officers, meanwhile, are left to feel unappreciated at best, politically abandoned or physically endangered at worst. That undermines the ability of all officers, no matter how well-trained and self-disciplined, to do a difficult and risky job.

This week marks the anniversary of two incidents — one noticed around the world, another that happened in Salt Lake City — where a Black or Hispanic person was killed by police officers. These events led to outpourings of anger and protest, in the streets and in NBA arenas, protests that were mostly peaceful but sometimes crossed the line into violence and destruction.

One year on, there is evidence that those in power see that things must change. That no one’s safety is enhanced by a culture where some want to eliminate police departments altogether and others seem to insist that officers be allowed to serve as judge, jury and executioner lest crime overwhelm us.

It will take unceasing efforts by those in office, and it is unavoidable that most of the burden of reform will fall on law enforcement officers, more than any other segment of society, simply because that’s their job.

Last May in Minneapolis, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man suspected of having passed a counterfeit bill, was murdered in broad daylight by a police officer who knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. Video of the event shocked the world, poisoned police-community relations everywhere and made the nation alert to other victims of police violence, before and since. Floyd and Daunte Wright in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, Ronald Greene in Louisiana.

Floyd’s death certainly inflamed public response to an incident that had happened just two days before in Salt Lake City, when officers responding to a report of an armed robbery shot and killed a fleeing Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal. Floyd was restrained and posed no threat to anyone when he died. The same could not be said for Palacios-Carbajal. But in the atmosphere of the time, any person of color killed by any police officer was bound to elicit widespread anger and, in some cases, vandalism and destruction.

Acts such as setting a police car on fire, as happened in Salt Lake City, or calling for police departments to be abolished or defunded were horribly counterproductive. They undermined public support for the victims of police violence and damaged the electoral viability of politicians who were sympathetic to the need for reform.

Reform, though, is clearly needed. Time magazine reported: “According to Mapping Police Violence, Black people were 28% of those killed by police in 2020 despite being only 13% of the population; they were three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, more likely to be unarmed and less likely to be threatening someone when killed.”

Locally, there have been serious efforts at reform. Both the Utah Legislature and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall ordered changes that include more tracking of police shootings and other uses of force and requiring more training for officers in dealing with people who have autism or who are suffering from a mental health crisis and directing officers not to shoot people who are only a danger to themselves — hoping to end the practice of “suicide by cop.”

The Legislature’s progressive stance on those matters was somewhat undermined by lawmakers’ apparent eagerness to join the crusade against critical race theory, a squeegee hunt that can only reduce the faith people of color have in their government.

Mendenhall also ordered increased use of body cameras by officers, policies demanding that police make every attempt to de-escalate potentially violent situations and holding that individual officers have a duty to intervene if another of their number is using excessive force.

The mayor also created the Commission on Racial Equity in Policing. And her proposed budget, rather than fall into the counterproductive trap of “defunding the police,” actually boosts law enforcement spending, adding more social workers to help with people who are experiencing mental health issues and providing for more training for officers, all acts that should make life safer for both the police and the community they serve.

Also helpful was the Utah Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. That’s the initiative, led by the Salt Lake Chamber, signed by a Who’s Who of the state’s political, academic, business, nonprofit and cultural establishment, making the bold but accurate statement that “Unraveling centuries of internalized and systemic racism requires bold anti-racist actions and policies right now.”

Indeed it does. And the most urgent reforms affect the intersection between minority communities and our police. Because that’s where the danger of mistrust and misunderstanding can literally be deadly.