Viewpoint: ‘We the public are people too’

By Ryan Barnett

Tension is in the air. Largely thanks to the virility of social media, law enforcement and the public seem to be gazing at each other even more suspiciously than usual.

One Gulf Breeze police officer recently made national headlines when a blatantly dangerous and intoxicated driver sped off, dragging and injuring him during a routine traffic stop. It was a very good case study of community working together to both come to the officer’s aid and assist in capturing the driver.

At the same time, it seems that the public is increasingly fumbling its way to the aid of its own fellow citizens in cases of abuse by government. After much publicity and outcry, two Albuquerque police officers were recently charged with the especially brutal murder of a mentally ill homeless man. We might never have known of the tragic events had they not been captured on video. If you haven’t watched the interaction, it can be quickly located and is very much worth taking in. It serves as a haunting example of a flippant and immoral utilization of deadly force by law enforcement in modern America.

The Washington Post recently reported the maddening story of two Maryland parents who were threatened and harassed by police for allowing their children to walk one mile from a park to their home. The parents, part of the “free range” parenting movement, believe in the utility of children spreading their wings in a world that is empirically safer than the one they grew up in. The father, a native Russian, has a unique perspective on intrusive government. I share in their frustration at government attempting to dictate the manner in which they should raise their children, even if the couple’s methods might be different than my own. Perhaps I’d be more inspired to trust government in this arena if it could collectively accomplish far more simple tasks, such as balancing budgets.

Our second President, John Adams, once observed that, “Fear is the foundation of most governments; but is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men, in whose breasts it predominates, so stupid, and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.” Fear is an awful and powerful emotion. As we’ve become increasingly dependent upon government to keep us and our children “safe,” often out of fear, more and more power and deference is given to government under the auspices of necessity. “We can only protect you if we have wide ranging power. And to that end, do not question our power or the manner in which is it carried out.” Russian thinker, Vissarion Belinsky, observed once that he was prepared to destroy half the earth with fire and sword “in order that mankind might be happy.” What do we say to one another in this great land, as governed and governing, as to what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of peace and security?

One conclusion is that much of the recent backlash against law enforcement is a grossly ill articulated but long overdue rejection of condescending and sometimes abusive authority. The French Revolution serves as a great historical example of the messy manner in which harshly governed people will eventually react, often with blood on their hands. Our own political tradition is rooted in the deep and divine recognition that mutual respect must be engendered and developed by both the public and authority. Today, the public is taught to respect government and law enforcement. And such it should be. Buddhist monk and luminary Thich Nhat Hanh has written in his masterful work, Keeping the Peace, that mindfulness and compassion training by those in public service can go great lengths in cultivating an attitude of service, peace, and mutual respect. This does not eliminate the reality that there will be difficult individuals for all of us to contend with. But the attitude and heart with which we come into those unavoidable interactions is ripe for close examination.

Several police departments have recently released rather charming videos of their officers singing to popular music in their patrol cars. They will bring a smile to your face and have reportedly been released under the auspices of humanizing law enforcement. And they perhaps make the point we’ve been hearing from those they serve in both word and sometimes very unfortunate action: “We the public are people too.”

Ryan Barnett is a partner with Whibbs & Stone law firm in Pensacola.