Deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, fuel police tensions

Two recent shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota remind us of the oppositional relationship between the police and ordinary citizens in America.

The Sterling case isn’t clear at this point, but the killing of Castile, a school cafeteria supervisor with a concealed carry license, appears to be a grossly excessive response by the officer during what should have been a routine traffic stop, and if race was a motivating factor, that makes the act so much the worse.  All carry license holders need to watch this case.

Both of these incidents fit into the broader narrative of abuse experienced by minorities in their encounters with law enforcement.  This conflict is one that has gone on for a long time.

When police shootings show up in the news, reporters often use a distinction in language between the cops and civilians, as if there’s some actual separation.  But this is in fact a misuse of words that reveals a bigger misconception about the role of law enforcement in a free society.

The word, police, comes ultimately from the ancient Greek polis, city.  The police originally were city administrators and only took on its current meaning in the nineteenth century.   Civilian has the same root idea, in this case the Latin civilis, a word dealing with public life or the acts of a citizen.  Civilian specifically has been used as a contrast with military for a long time, and both civilian and police are participants in the life of the city.

In Britain, this distinction between the police and the army is the reason that law enforcement in that country typically go unarmed during the course of carrying out their duties.  The founder of the Metropolitan Police, Robert Peel, wanted a clear line separating soldiers in their red uniforms from police officers in blue, preventing the impression that the country was under martial law.  This today is meant to express the role of officers as serving the people, rather than the state.  In that way, the British attitude toward the police and military is similar to what motivated our founders to add the Second Amendment to our Constitution.  It’s a reminder that government power comes from the people and must serve their interests.

And yet, in modern America, we’re witnessing and in too many ways allowing the militarization of law enforcement.  Using language that creates an artificial divide between police and the rest of us only serves to make this worse.  We’ve gone from the image of Will Kane or Andy Taylor—who did at times carry a gun—to Judge Dredd, and this is not the direction a free society can long endure.

In part, this is the result of our decades-long War on Drugs, a war that has brought nothing but misery and the erosion of constitutional protections to our streets, along with cops who look more like urban commandos.  The War on Terror has only pushed us deeper into what is becoming more like a police state than a nation of free citizens served by our government.

If we care about rights—about gun rights, as the Castile case may illustrate, but about all rights, in fact—we have to pull ourselves back from the brink.  Owning and carrying firearms is only one part of that.  Our elected officials also have to be reminded regularly why we allow them to hold office and voted out if they cannot conform to their duties, including the oversight of executive agencies such as the police.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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