The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 19, 2016

Tragic shootings and the desire for "balance"

July 19, 2016

This post is part of a series from Urban scholars reflecting on recent events involving police use of force and shootings of police. The posts represent the individual thoughts and perspectives of their authors.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve witnessed four distinct tragedies: two separate shootings of black men by police, and two separate shootings of police officers by a gunman. All four events are tragic and call for compassion, commentary, and thoughtful responses. Yet, the temporal juxtaposition of these tragedies has made it difficult for me, and I suspect for others, to comment on any of them adequately. 

That these events happened so close together means that they are being discussed as a package, and that talking about one (police shootings of citizens) without the other (citizen shootings of police) seems insensitive. To many commentators, responses require "balance" in acknowledging both tragedies.

And yet, responding in such a balanced way implicitly reinforces a narrative that is problematic. Since the police shooting in Ferguson and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been two competing narratives in much commentary, sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit.

In one narrative, police abuse of force and the disproportionate use of force—especially deadly force—against black people is a distinct problem that warrants attention, protest, activism, and correction. (The recent report from Chicago's Police Accountability Task Force, concluding that the lives of black people were not valued, is consistent with this narrative.) 

In the other narrative, police use of force and crime control are yoked, so that attempts to restrain the misuse of police force must come at the expense of public safety, and protests against patterns in police use of force are taken as an attack on all police.

In the latter narrative, the shootings of officers somehow either discredit the protests and diminish the legitimacy of their complaint, or set up competition among the various types of victims.

My own inclinations are with the former narrative. On value terms, I believe it is both legitimate and necessary to critique and work to end police misuse of force and disparate use of force against people of color, and to demand police accountability for use and misuse of force.

Now, we may find that some police respond to such protests by backing away from conducting appropriate police activities to protect communities from crime (although the evidence of such a so-called “Ferguson effect” is not yet clear). But a narrative in which such a response from police is seen as a necessary reaction strikes me as similar to an argument that fighting medical malpractice is dangerous because doctors will then refuse to practice medicine.

Usually, I might not need to follow these statements by saying that I don’t in any way condone the shootings of police officers. The challenge of these recent events is that with four tragedies occurring over a few short days, such a statement feels necessary even as it subtly reinforces a narrative that I find problematic.

In truth, each of these tragedies warrants compassionate responses to the victims, their families, and their communities, all of whom are deeply affected by these events. Each tragedy also demands candid and serious conversations about what changes in policies and practices might prevent further tragedies of each kind.

And I do not believe that these two types of tragedies, police shootings of citizens and citizen attacks on police, are the same problem. Yet, a balanced response seems to require that we discuss the tragedies together, and that whichever we discuss be followed by a disclaimer about the other. In this way, we are hampered in our ability to discuss any of these events in a compassionate, thoughtful, and constructive manner.

Police officers take part in a candle light vigil at City Hall, Monday, July 11, 2016, in Dallas. Five police officers were killed and several injured during a shooting in downtown Dallas last Thursday night. Photo by Tony Gutierrez/AP

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.