A Retired Cop Reflects on This Week's Tragedies

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post I invited my dad to write after we attended a community rally, to stand with the African American community, and mourn the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. My dad and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on social and political issues (what father and daughter do?), but I’m grateful that for he has been willing to press in and struggle with me. 

Larry Liebscher

Larry Liebscher

By Larry C. Liebscher

Yesterday evening, my daughter and I attended a rally in Sacramento, California. My daughter, Dr. Brandy Liebscher, is an outspoken advocate against social injustice in America. Black citizens—and a spattering of whites—attended the rally in protest, peacefully, of the evermore exposed problem of racism in America. This gathering was fueled by the recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both black male Americans. The rally was prayerfully and respectfully officiated by prominent church pastors of the Sacramento metropolitan area.

Concurrent with the Sacramento rally, Dallas police officers, protecting the participants of a similar rally in Dallas, were gunned down. Five were killed and numerous others wounded by a single sniper.

I am grieved for all these tragedies. My heart and prayers go out to the families left behind by those killed: for the families of the brave law enforcement men and women who served at Dallas Police Department; for The Lord’s hand of care and comfort on the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile; and especially for that little girl who was in the back seat of Philando Castile’s car. 

For me, here are the things that most influence my life: my Christian faith and the Bible; my wife and family; my involvement with my church and its leadership; and my service as a police officer for over 30 years.

I attended the Sacramento rally yesterday to be with my daughter (a rally speaker) and to listen to those trying to be heard about racism in America. Also, during my time at the rally I was mindful and alert to the potential dangers at such a gathering. As a retired police officer, such things as mass shootings are always on my mind in crowded locations. 

During the rally, hearing from pastors and other community leaders, I was saddened that racism is still alive in America. Martin Luther King’s era was merely the start of identifying the problems of race relations in our country. Since King’s time, the inequalities and injustices of racism have taken on more legitimate coverings, though remaining, just below the surface, the same age-old problem of man’s inhumanity to man.

In recent months, I have been increasingly ashamed and appalled by the seemingly constant stream of shootings by police of black Americans. Ashamed in that some of these shootings appear to have been charged by covert racist underpinnings on the part of police. But, what intent lay in the hearts and minds of officers involved in these shootings is not easily determined, if ever. And yes, I am crystal clear there a lot of “bad” cops out there doing “bad” law enforcement. However, that is not to say, nor do I subscribe to any agenda, which broadly labels all law enforcement in America as bad. I am convinced that most cops are “good” cops, honorable men and women doing an excellent job for the American people. Good cops are always professionals. Bad cops are not. Thankfully, it was my privilege during 30 years on the job to work with nearly all professional cops.

However, I believe the problem extends beyond just bad cops. My reading of Michelle Alexander’s work, The New Jim Crow, clarified my understanding of the larger picture. That book, more than any other, helped me understand the broader, longstanding cultural and governmental deficits embedded in American society. Racism arises from these deficits. As comprehensively explained in The New Jim Crow, the problem, from which racism arises in America, is not just one thing, but many, broadly and deeply rooted, systemic problems entwined throughout our U.S. Justice infrastructure…law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, and prisons.

As to being appalled, some of the officer involved shootings of black men have been nothing more than extremely bad, poorly-trained, unprofessional police work. Of course with each incident, I can only draw my conclusions from what I have read in the media, not having access to actual internal affairs information. Nevertheless, many of the shootings of black men by the police, from what I have seen, are the consequence of bad police tactics and extremely bad judgement calls. Michael Brown in Ferguson and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, just to name two examples, were really, really reckless police handling of both situations. 

Though all the facts in the most recent shooting of Philando Castile are yet outstanding, I will say this. On many occasions, as a police officer, I contacted citizens who in turn advised me they were licensed to carry a concealed firearm and that they were, in fact, armed. Typically, these police/citizen contacts are no big deal and not cause for over-responsive alarm. For the professional police officer, both caution and prudence are duly applied—always—and the citizen simply shows the officer his or her copy of the CCW permit. That permit is most often carried in the person’s wallet or purse. Countless American citizens legitimately carry concealed firearms, including black citizens. Seldom are contacts between law enforcement and armed citizens reason for escalation to a lethal confrontation. 

Change in our country never comes easy. But, we must never give up striving and praying for its coming. Michelle Alexander writes:

All of this is easier said than done. Change in civil rights organizations, like change in society as a whole, will not come easy. Fully committing to a vision of racial justice that includes grassroots, bottoms-up advocacy on behalf of ‘all of us’ will require a major reconstruction of priorities, staffing, strategies and messages. Egos, competing agendas, career goals and inertia may get in the way…

And so, after the rally yesterday, after hearing all the heart-felt messages, including that of my daughter, I remember thinking: “Ultimately, God, we cannot fix any of this on our own. We are merely people, after all. But, with Your intervention, nothing is impossible…even for us.”

Brandy Liebscher