September-October 2016

An opportunity—and duty—to lead

Bernard Ammerman

District Attorney in Willacy County

Like all of you, I was horrified when five officers in Dallas who were providing security at a peaceful demonstration for the Black Lives Matter movement were shot and killed by a sniper. Following the tragedy in Dallas, three Baton Rouge officers were ambushed, and one San Diego officer was killed during a traffic stop. Preliminary data by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund shows that 2016 has seen an epidemic of officers who have been shot to death in the line of duty. At this date the number is 32, compared to 18 for the entire year of 2015. That is an increase of nearly 78 percent. What is as alarming is that 14 of these officers were murdered by ambush.
    As prosecutors, we work every day with our police officers. To learn to appreciate the challenges of their job, I have done numerous ride-alongs with officers. I wanted to experience what police officers experience every minute on their jobs. How else could I paint an adequate picture to a jury? And I did not stay in the comfort of the air-conditioned patrol unit and watch by long-distance. I got out and stood near the officers to listen first-hand to their interactions with citizens. It’s a job fraught with uncertainty: What are you walking into? Is the driver behind the wheel armed? What or who is in the back seat, behind the fence, or on the other side of this door? What I offer to you is that policing is not a job for the weak-kneed. I highly recommend that prosecutors do a ride-along with your local officers to experience what they do to keep our families and us safe.
     In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott announced a proposed bill called the Police Protection Act after the murder of the Dallas police officers. The bill would extend hate-crime protection to law enforcement officers and change the offense of assaulting a public servant from a third-degree felony to a second-degree. I think that is a good message of support for law enforcement. Abbott also proposes a campaign to educate Texas youth on the value of the service of law enforcement officers. Education may be a vital tool to bring our hurting people together.
     So where do we go from here? How do we work to support and protect our officers? I suggest that we go back to the beginning of this current tumult over police use of force and the reactionary ambush of officers—all the way to Ferguson, Missouri.
    Questions have been raised about how police officers are trained when it comes to use of force, as well as when and how they use that force. As far as I can tell, those questions aren’t going away. As ministers of justice who prosecute (or don’t prosecute) use-of-force cases, we are squarely in the middle of this issue. This is our opportunity to lead the conversation in our communities, and we all win if we can begin a conversation that restores and enhances trust in our law enforcement community.     
    I’d like to remind everyone what was happening on that tragic night in Dallas: Citizens were marching in peaceful protest while being protected—not opposed—by the police. I don’t have a laundry list of things we need to talk about or what needs to change, but it seems to me that people are on the right track in Dallas.