To Protect and To Serve—Whither the Thin Blue Line?

It has finally happened here.

“Police-involved killings,” as they have come to be known, have made national headlines for the past several years across the United States. Often they have been racially-charged, with white police killing African-American suspects. Some have led to mass protests, communities clashing with police in riot gear, and other civil disturbances.

There have been indictments, but very few have led to convictions.

Now it has hit T-town. Lamar Richardson, 25, an African American, was shot and killed in broad daylight on a city street by a white police officer.

Hands up, don’t shoot

But the moral contours of this tragedy aren’t as transparent as in some other places. This was not a pre-teen playing with a toy pistol, or a suspect with his hands up saying, “don’t shoot,” or a person selling single cigarettes on a street corner.

Richardson was suspected in a string of armed robberies, and had allegedly stolen a car the morning he was killed. According to TPD, he had a prior history of run-ins with the law.

Of course, none of the crimes he was accused of carry the death penalty. But Richardson was reportedly armed, and had a pistol in his hand when he was shot.

The debate about the morality of the act began quickly on social media, with false reports of an unarmed teenager shot while on his knees. None of that proved true, as police dashboard cameras showed., but folks continue to disagree on whether police acted appropriately in this circumstance. The dashboard cam has done little to calm that disagreement.

Richardson reportedly has a history of mental illness and a very troubled past. Did the police officers have other options when he pulled a firearm from the waistband of his pants?

Can we talk?

We propose that this is not a time for moral posturing and cliches about police behavior. Instead it is a time for a real community conversation about public safety, and the role police play in our community.

It is against the law to discharge a firearm within the city limits. Only police are exempt from this provision of Toledo Municipal Code, and, likewise, only police have the authority to use deadly force. That, friends, is a weighty responsibility.

While Richardson was no saint by all accounts, were police justified in using deadly force when he pulled out a weapon? At a deeper level, what do we expect of our police force? Are they allowed to protect themselves with deadly force if confronted with deadly force? Police are well-trained in the use of firearms. When should they be allowed to put that training to use?

These are not easy questions, and there are no simple answers here. It is a community conversation we need to undertake, without vilifying a troubled young man, or the folks hired to protect and to serve him, and the rest of us. And without painting our community with a broad brush that sweeps up the other police-involved killings in other places and other circumstances.

With cool heads, and clear motives, we must move forward. Police refer to themselves as the thin blue line between civilization and chaos. Let us ask ourselves as a community.

Whither the thin blue line?