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Terry Manning

Police lies erode the public trust

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Almost as tragic as the recent violence that befell an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas — almost — is the rush by some officials to play political games with the tragedy.

I am not talking about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who broke up a press conference held by Gov. Greg Abbott to ask him why he wasn’t doing anything to protect the state’s schoolchildren. Despite being called an SOB and escorted from the venue, O’Rourke was well within his rights as a Texas citizen to ask that question and any other related to the attack.

No, I’m talking about the press conference itself, a product of the spin machine that whirred into action immediately after the deaths 19 schoolchildren and two adults.

First the machine said the shooter forced his way past a school resource officer after the officer encountered him outside bearing assault-type rifles. Later came word no school officer had actually confronted him.

Then we heard the Uvalde Police Department swarmed the school in an effort to bring a stop to the shooter’s rampage. Later came word — and video evidence — of law enforcement officials milling around outside while the shooter barricaded himself with his victims. Some officers — including off-duty — moved to rescue their own children from inside the school but failed to take on the shooter.

Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrived at the scene ready to intervene, but the New York Times reported Uvalde police held them off from entering the school. Some of the federal agents wondered why Uvalde’s own SWAT team had not responded to the assault.

Probably because some Unvalde police officers too were busy shouting down concerned parents and bystanders who gathered outside the school and screamed at the officers to do something. One woman was placed in handcuffs for interfering with an active investigation, the Wall Street Journal reported. Monica Manchaca of the Austin American-Statesman tweeted that the woman, once freed, jumped a fence and retrieved her children from inside the school building.

Days of conflicting reports were summed upon by The Texas Tribune’s James Barragan, who wrote on Twitter, “It is now clear that in an effort to lionize the law enforcement response after a shooting that killed 23 people, state leaders gave incredibly inaccurate information to the public about the shooting’s timeline.”

And that’s the part that really gets to me.

As much as I want to be upset with the police who got their own children out while leaving others inside, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that I wouldn’t have done the same thing or at least considered it, if I had a child in danger.

And I can’t judge the self-preservation instincts of Uvalde police officers who fell back after one of the first few who tried to intervene was wounded when the gunman fired through the doors he’d hidden behind. The Washington Post quoted Fox News meteorologist Janice Dean’s disapproving tweet: “It’s like a fireman not going into a building because they might get burned.”

But I understand not wanting to get burned. I don’t want to get shot, either, and I imagine you don’t want to get shot. Those are human instincts; it is difficult to train our way past.

The problem is we have created a mythology in this country about the people who wear the uniform, who police our cities, towns and principalities. That mythology drives a lot of spending — which grew nationwide from $44 billion in 1977 to $123 billion in 2019, according to the U.S. Census — and its zealots exploit that mythology.

This segment of our society cheers its demigods (“Blue Lives Matter!”), showing allegiance through stickers in car windows and porch-light parades. And then they ask police to show their gratitude by being on-demand, pistol-packing preservers of the status quo, enforcing segregated suburbs and protecting property over people’s rights.

Or by agreeing to stand as silent props while politicians try to look powerful to their constituents.

The men and women of law enforcement often are heroes, but that status isn’t conveyed upon them by the uniforms they wear or the weapons on their hips. It comes when they do all that they do while accepting the same level of accountability they visit upon others.

If they can’t meet that standard, they need to find another job.

Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com.

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