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Commentary: Personal patrol rifles blow apart community trust

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White Oklahomans and Oklahomans of color often have radically different experiences with law enforcement. African-Americans are more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, and racial minorities disproportionately populate our prisons and county jails. The inherent racism in our current criminal justice system has built a wall of distrust and skepticism between the police and the communities they are sworn to protect.

That is not to say that all or even a majority of police officers or prosecutors are racists, but they do operate within a system that is riddled with prejudice and fear. Rather than addressing systemic and institutional failures, politicians at all levels of government for far too long have doubled down on the failed War on Drugs and militarized police and sheriffs’ departments to the point that they can be mistaken for an occupying army on a foreign battlefield. Policymakers have further entrenched failed criminal justice policy by attaching a profit motive to agencies charged with enforcement.

This makes any reforms politically suspect and also puts a seemingly prohibitive price tag on reforms that would interfere with money the government makes through fines, fees and asset forfeitures. So it’s not an accident that often underpaid and overworked police officers begin to look at the people they police as the enemy. Policymakers have continually told them they are at war, have armed them with the weapons of war and have financed these activities with the proceeds of war.

In response, African-American parents are having increasingly common and heartbreaking conversations with their children about what to do when, not if, they have an encounter with the police. This is emblematic of the very real fear that stems from a culture of distrust between citizens and the police. And dangers posed by this distrust and fear run both ways.

No one is made safer as a result of policies that manufacture unnecessary, degrading, frightening and potentially violent interactions between the police and the communities they serve. No one.
The horrific violence that has unfolded this summer with people of color being killed at the hands of police officers and officers being gunned down in the streets of American cities will not be staved off by policies that perpetuate the idea that officers are in combat zones and not neighborhoods.

That said, it seems understandable that police officers would want to have every tool at their disposal to protect themselves. So when Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty announced he was moving forward with a policy to allow officers to carry their personal rifles on patrol, it, at first glance, might seem reasonable.

However, when you weigh the potential benefits of this new policy against the further deterioration of trust and the optics of an increasingly militarized police department, it fails to make good sense. Rifles are already issued to appropriately trained officers who stand ready to respond to situations calling for firearms beyond those carried on a normal patrol.

The real advantage of this policy seems to be the concession to the fears voiced by the local police union. Any relief this policy might hold for law enforcement officers and their families will be largely illusory. Measurable increases in safety and security can only be addressed by a recognition that the current police policies, informed by the war rhetoric whirling around drugs, immigration and terrorism and carried out by increasingly militarized law enforcement departments are counterproductive to building trust and reforming generations-old political decisions.

Acknowledging the flaws of the current system, building trust and implementing political reforms offers the greatest hope for increased safety for the police and the people they serve.

Ryan Kiesel is executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. | Photo Gazette / file

Oklahoma Gazette provides an open forum for the discussion of all points of view in its Letters to the Editor section. The Gazette reserves the right to edit letters for length and clarity. Letters can be mailed, faxed, emailed to jchancellor@okgazette.com or sent online at okgazette.com. Include a city of residence and contact number for verification.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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