The tragic death of Deputy Goforth in Houston has again brought to the forefront the issue of law enforcement’s changing relationship with segments of our society. It is on my mind as I write this column in the days following his funeral, attended and watched by thousands in our state and in our country. It was shocking to learn that this father and husband senselessly lost his life simply for wearing the uniform.
As a criminal defense lawyer, I am in the midst of the constitutionally recognized tension between law enforcement authority and individual accused citizens. Every day I go to the courthouse, I am a player in the necessary stress between the two viewpoints. Our forefathers endorsed the necessity of the tension in the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Obviously, the passing of over two hundred years has occasioned change in what defines abusive governmental power. Technology and media (social and conventional) are in the process of redefining the paradigm in new ways. Soon most police officers will be equipped with body cameras to further document all contacts with the public.
In Austin, where I practice, an activist group regularly patrols the entertainment district with cameras rolling to capture police contacts in conflict situations. These groups post questionable behavior on the part of police officers, often within minutes. This is an unprecedented phenomenon happening across our country. In some instances, the audiovisual evidence has stunned us, showing a clear abuse of police discretion on many occasions. In a few instances, video recordings have captured seemingly homicidal actions by police officers. The documenting of events is also shedding light on instances of racial mistreatment. A bigger question is being urged again—is there a pattern of disparate treatment depending upon your race? I believe that this turmoil will help us improve. The transition will carry a lot of rhetoric and misplaced anger. Unexamined activity by those with power almost always results in abuse of that power.
This reality has to be balanced against what I believe to also be true: the vast majority of law enforcement officers are honest, not racially biased, and have a very difficult job. Police officers are sworn protectors of our safety. They make great sacrifices to gain a badge and even more to maintain it. Imagine a career where the moment you start your shift, you are under the threat of harm and even death without warning. Further, imagine a career where a significant number of people you are trying to protect detest you simply because you wear the badge. This is why I strive to treat all law enforcement officers I meet in my work with the utmost respect, even though it is my job to rigorously challenge them at times. When possible, I always thank a police officer who has to appear in court on one of my cases, even if I oppose their viewpoint on that particular case.
Shortly after the tragic shooting of Deputy Goforth, hyperbole and extremism emerged. The comment of “All Lives Matter” added fuel to the fire. I was concerned that this comment was based upon an assumption that because the shooter was African American, his senseless killing of the officer was an indication of a war against law enforcement by that community. I thought the comment was an unnecessary stoking of the fire, but also understood it was made in a moment of grief and frustration. Those in power have a responsibility to be accountable for their words in difficult situations. It is argued that one cannot support law enforcement and also be supportive of an examination of racial prejudices. I stand for the proposition that you can detest abuse of power by law enforcement (racially motivated or not) while at the same time having the utmost respect for those who risk their lives to protect us every day.