I was in Milwaukee recently visiting relatives. The local news was about a recent shooting of a police officer in Racine.
On June 17, Officer John Hetland, off-duty at the time, was at Teezers Bar and Grill when a masked man with a gun initiated a robbery. Hetland interceded and was shot dead. A manhunt ensued, and a suspect was arrested in Milwaukee less than two weeks later.
From both news accounts and relatives discussing it, I heard this detail several times: Officer Hetland’s own handcuffs were used in the arrest.
The death of an officer is a tragedy. But as I listened, I realized there are two different perspectives about why.
I believe the death of just about any person is a tragedy. Sure, there are a few people whose deaths I would celebrate, such as I did when Osama bin Laden died, but that’s the rare exception.
So Officer Hetland’s death is a tragedy because he was a human being.
What I found myself reflecting on, though, was the way in which his death was being treated as more tragic because he was a police officer. As if police officer lives are worth more than anyone else’s.
I found myself reflecting, again, on my own paradigm shift with regards to law enforcement and human life, a shift which has come largely from the Black Lives Matter movement.
When I was a child, I believed that police officers were generally a cut above. Bad apples were few and far between, and were dealt with properly. The fact-based movie Serpico, which blatantly contradicts this, was released when I was five, but I was not allowed to watch R-rated movies until my teens (and didn’t see Serpico until my thirties). Instead, my model of police work was based on TV shows like “Dragnet” and “Barney Miller.”
When I first became a teacher, seven years ago now, I noticed the similarity between teachers and police officers: We were civil servants, we were tasked with being role models, we are ostensibly sworn to protect the vulnerable. My first article for The Good Men Project, three years ago, relied on that comparison.
That article seems quaint and naïve to me now. While I still think the ideal is solid for both teachers and police officers, I’ve come to question how many of my colleagues, as well as what portion of police officers, even seek to live according to that ideal. I have been repeatedly dismayed by the actions and beliefs of many of my fellow teachers, and I have become increasingly jaded against police officers.
I understand why a Starbucks barista recently asked police officers to leave. Earlier in my teaching career, I was defensive about people attacking teachers on social media; now, I seek to be more understanding. By not confronting our bad apples more openly, by taking a “thin chalk line” attitude that all teaches are beyond reproach, we’ve done it to ourselves.
And as unfair as it might be for decent police officers to be held accountable socially for the actions of their bad apple colleagues, I would challenge such officers to ask themselves what they’ve done to address the internal problems.
Regardless, though, I have no reason to believe that Officer Hetland deserved to be gunned down like that. Perhaps he was an excellent role model; perhaps he was corrupt and in desperate need of losing his badge. Either way, he was a human being and didn’t deserve to be killed.
So far in 2019, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, forty people have been killed in Milwaukee alone. I have no reason to believe that any of them deserved to be killed. Twenty-seven of those people were black. Twenty-one were black men: Half of all homicides so far this year in Milwaukee have been black men.
Again, I have no reason to believe any of them deserved to be killed.
Two days after Officer Hetland was killed, Joe L. Jackson, a 26-year-old black man, was shot dead. No charges have been filed to date.
Several weeks before Officer Hetland was killed, Bernard M. Dudley, a 38-year-old black man, was shot dead. No charges have been filed to date.
This year began with the shooting death of Nathaniel H. Oliver, a 37-year-old black man. No charges have been filed to date.
Of the 21 black men in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s 2019 homicide database, charges have been filed for only four. Seventeen black men have been killed with no charges filed to date. Of the four white men in the same database, charges have been filed for two.
It happens that I was in a city that has such an accessible database that I could report on it, but the pattern itself is repeated in every city in this country. A dead officer is an outrage; a dead black man is back page news. For every Botham Jean and Eric Garner, there are dozens, hundreds of black people whose violent deaths go unnoticed.
And yes, I know that most of those 21 dead black Milwaukee men were probably killed by other black men. Probably by people they knew, at least in passing. That’s not the point. The point is: They’re dead. Their lives mattered. But they generally go unnoticed.
I understand why it was important to find the murderer of Officer Hetland. I hope for the sake of the black man that they arrested that they have the right person, because otherwise it might be years that another innocent black man spends in prison.
But it’s equally important to find the murderers of Joe L. Jackson, Bernard M. Dudley, and Nathaniel H. Oliver, and the fourteen other black men, and everyone else murdered in Milwaukee in 2019, in the United States every year, all the unnoticed and unnamed whose lives didn’t even matter enough to be mentioned when they died.
Black lives matter. It has to be said because while we can claim to already believe it, our responses to tragedy show that we really don’t.
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