There’s no excuse for the brazen, chilling murder of Harris County Sheriff Darren Goforth, who was shot repeatedly while fueling his police cruiser at a Texas gas station and whose funeral is Friday.
But there’s also no excuse for attempts by law enforcement, media, and politicians to claim that the unmotivated killing is part of a “war on cops” or in any way related to the Black Lives Matter movement or other people critical of law enforcement and police brutality.
To do so is simply to wave away a decade-long decline in confidence in police that has everything to do with behavior by law enforcement, not the citizens they serve. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans with “a great deal/quite a lot of confidence” in police has dropped from 64 percent in 2004 to just 52 percent, its lowest number in 22 years.
The suspect in Goforth’s murder, Shannon Miles, has a long history of violence and mental problems, including being declared “mentally incompetent” to stand trial in 2012 on felony assault charges. Connecting Miles’ horrific crimes to anything other than his own twisted mind makes as much sense as linking Jared Loughner, who shot former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, to the Tea Party or Sarah Palin PAC advertisements. Which is to say: None at all (Loughner was not just nuts, to the extent he followed the news, he watched MSNBC and UFO conspiracy docs.)
Yet at a press conference announcing Miles’s arrest, Sheriff Ron Hickman argued that “very dangerous national rhetoric” that’s critical of law enforcement is at least partly to blame. “When rhetoric ramps up to the point where cold-blooded assassination has happened, this rhetoric has gotten out of control,” Hickman said. “We heard ‘black lives matter.’ All lives matter. Well, cops’ lives matter too, so why don’t we drop the qualifier and say ‘lives matter’ and take that to the bank.”
Hickman’s sentiments echo throughout police departments around the country. “If I don’t know you,” one Arizona cop told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m going to be extra guarded around you… It is a different world.” Such thoughts are resounding especially loudly in media outlets such as Fox News, where hosts ranging from staid morning-show business reporter Stuart Varney to primetime blowhard Sean Hannity have been quick to adopt the “war on cops” motif. Ted Cruz, never one not to hitch a ride on a media bandwagon, has also gotten into the act. “Cops across this country are feeling the assault,” says the Texas Republican and presidential hopeful. “They’re feeling the assault from the president, from the top on down as we see.”
Such reactions are not just grotesquely opportunistic, they’re wrong in two fundamental ways.
First—and most importantly—there is no “war on cops,” if the term suggests increasingly brazen and numerous open “executions” of police officers. The National Law Enforcement Officers Fund, which tracks police deaths, finds that the number of police killed in assaults so far this year is 25, the same as last year. The FBI says that while the number of cops “feloniously killed” each year has fluctuated over the past decade, “it stands at about 50.” As my Reason colleague Ed Krayewski writes, “In 2007, there were 67 cops shot and killed in the line of duty. In 2007 there was no ‘national conversation’ about police reform, no sustained focus on criminal justice reform, nothing in the national zeitgeist that would suggest the number of murders were the result of anything more than the number of people who had killed cops that year.”
Second, to the extent that there is serious discussion about reforming criminal justice practices, it is driven by highly publicized cases of overreaction or brutality by law enforcement that is increasingly visible due to smart phone cameras and social media. The 2011 case of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old schizophrenic drifter beaten to death by Fullerton, California, police, perfectly illustrates the real “new world” faced by police. It was only after Thomas’s father took gruesome pictures of his comatose son’s severely battered body and face and shared them via social media that public pressure grew for a full investigation and trial.
In the past year alone, high-profile events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Troy, Ohio and elsewhere have sparked a nationwide movement to rethink not just policing strategies but also the ways in which race factors into law enforcement and how local governments abuse their power to levy fines and fees on their poorest residents. The rising use of body cameras all over the country isn’t being done to document a “war on cops” but to promote essential peace and trust between citizens and police.
It’s a sad coincidence that Darren Goforth’s funeral will take place just as the trial begins for the officers accused in the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died this year from injuries suffered during police custody.
By all accounts, Goforth was an honorable man and a credit to law enforcement and his murder is as tragic and disturbing as it is senseless. But if his brothers and sisters in blue and their partisans in politics and the press simply use his killing as an excuse to avoid ongoing reform, there’s no reason to believe public confidence in the police will rebound any time soon.