Monday, July 22, 2024

Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio: Power and responsibility

To protect and to serve.

Five short, simple words on every  Toledo police car that describe a lofty aspiration.  To protect Toledoans. 

And to serve us.

And in that short phrase lies the weight of responsibility expected of those carefully selected and trained to  serve in the Toledo Police Department.

We are told that police officers who shoulder the burden of that phrase are all that stand between us and chaos.  There are evil, criminal forces afoot waiting to prey on the innocent citizens of our fair city. The police are the thin blue line that protects us from the vile scourge of criminal anarchy.

Powers allowed 

So we give police officers power not allowed to any other citizen.  The power to detain, to question, to arrest.  The power to imprison.  The power to make determinations of probable cause.  The power to change lives.

Even more, we give the police the power to take lives in certain instances.  It is illegal to discharge a weapon within the city limits, unless, where justified, if you are a police officer.  It is illegal to use physical violence, except, where justified, if you are a police officer.  It is illegal to apply deadly force, except, when justified, if you are a police officer.

It’s an awesome responsibility to be granted these extraordinary powers.  That responsibility comes with the repeated caveat, “when justified.”  A judgment police officers must make in a moment’s notice every day.

Sometimes that judgment fails.  Sometimes the application of that power is not, in the end, justified.  Sometimes the resultant misuse of power proves unalterably destructive.

Unjustified violence, sometimes lethal violence, can be perpetrated upon a citizen the police have sworn to protect, and to serve.

Making voices heard

On a recent Saturday in downtown Toledo, a large group gathered to make their voices heard about the responsibility of the police to protect and to serve.  The police were there in force. Dressed in riot gear. With tear gas and rubber and wooden bullets at the ready.  And an armored SWAT truck for backup.  From all appearances, itching for a fight.

The vast majority of the attendees were peaceful.  A small number decided to commit petty crimes, like vandalizing police vehicles.  

Enter the tear gas, the mace, the so-called sublethal bullets, the swinging police clubs. And then the running, the chaos, the disbelief, the anger.  The shock of another disproportionate response by police.

Eye witness reports and videos show the chaos.  Nonviolent and innocent attendees gassed, shot at, sworn at, given impossible commands.  An instigation, then escalation, by those sworn to protect and serve.

Dressed for success?

Now that the tear gas has settled, the community deserves an accounting.  Why did the police arrive in riot gear? What were they expecting that they deployed the SWAT truck and snipers on roofs?  Why did they overreact to a few petty acts of criminality?  Who was being protected, and who was being served?

And who made the decisions to turn out in military garb? Who made the decision to start gassing Toledoans?  Was it Wade? Chief Kral? Where does the buck stop?

We deserve a timeline of what happened, and why.  But afterward, we need a deeper discussion. What is the nature of police work?  Who are the police?  Do they represent, and respect, the communities they police?  Do they understand, and are they humbled by, the awesome responsibility they have been given?

That Saturday evening revealed a chasm between the Toledo police and Toledoans.  City leaders must immediately start the long, difficult task of mapping and bridging that chasm.  We need a police department we can all rely on.

To protect.  And to serve.

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