jack devine

Jack DeVine

Our words convey meaning, often beyond their simple dictionary definitions. The term "first responder," for example, has taken on special significance in American society. In this country, we’ve become confident that when there is an urgent need, there will be people ready and willing to step up and take immediate action – very often at some risk to their own safety.

When COVID-19 showed up on our doorstep, our medical professionals were our first responders. Before anyone understood the disease – when all we knew was that it was spreading like wildfire and taking a hideous toll in suffering and death – doctors and nurses worked 24/7, surrounded by infection, to save lives.

If you’ve ever seen a burning building up close – felt the searing wall of heat, witnessed the fury of uncontrolled flames – you probably backed away to a safe distance and wondered how firefighters could walk into that blazing inferno to rescue anyone trapped there. But they do.

And who can forget 9/11? With horror gripping us right through our TV sets, we watched firefighters and police striding into those doomed towers while thousands streamed away in terror. And then we watched them perish.

Five weeks ago, a smart phone video of the gruesome death of a Black man at the hands of a white police officer captured the nation’s attention and sparked coast to coast protests. That video also spawned a tidal wave of soul searching about racism in America.

Many blame the deaths of Floyd and other Black men on systemic racism, particularly within American police departments. Disgust over Floyd’s killing has translated into vicious backlash against police. In our month of racial unrest, more than 700 police officers have been injured. Five have died. And in the chaotic rush to judgment, out pops the notion that we must therefore "defund police."

In other words, take our first responders off the streets.

Most of the "defund police" proponents put a thin veneer on that fundamentally bad idea, explaining that it doesn’t actually call for elimination of all police (although some still lean that way). Instead it entails "reimagining" police policy and practice and limiting police action to situations requiring armed force; for all other tasks currently handled by police, we’ll utilize specialists better trained in dealing with mental health issues, family quarrels, drug overdoses and the like.

Primarily, they argue that we must first stop the runaway train of police brutality, and to do so we must drastically reduce funding for police services.

They’re wrong.

Police officers don’t spend their days deciding whom to hassle. They respond to requests for help, often via frantic 911 calls; they respond to reports of crimes in progress; and they preemptively patrol, particularly in known high crime areas, to interdict emerging trouble and reduce threats to the public.

It’s dangerous work. Some of those first responses end tragically. Seemingly peaceful situations suddenly turn violent. Some violent situations are defused, but others are not. Police officers in those situations must make instantaneous decisions; on later review, some are proved wrong, but there is no evidence that they are driven by racial bias.

Black Americans comprise about 13% of our population, but they commit more than half of violent crime in America and they bear the brunt of its consequences. We must work together to understand why that happens and do all that we can to change that trend. But the fact remains that those crimes all have victims, most in Black neighborhoods, and those victims need protection – protection that, until now, is provided by police – the first responders.

Reducing our first response capability poses a huge risk. Many seem willing to take that risk because they believe far too many unarmed Blacks are being killed by white police officers.

But the actual numbers tell a very different story. Last year, in our nation of 330 million people, nine unarmed Blacks were killed by white police officers. Each was a tragedy – the acceptable number is zero – but it’s no runaway train. And there is no evidence that racial bias was a factor in those rare cases.

Police are in the business of preventing crime, not causing it. They are already overwhelmed trying to deal with current levels of violence, levels that are now increasing with declining police presence.

Yes, police are involved in too many fatalities, nearly 1,000 per year, and police reform is needed to improve accountability, training and procedures. But taking first responders off the streets will cost Black lives, not save them.