It’s tough to be a cop these days.
It always has been, but in today’s climate it’s particularly difficult. And it’s not just nationally, it’s local too, right here in cities and towns across New Mexico.
Nationally, a new era of aggressive scrutiny of police shootings rose out of Ferguson, Mo., when an 18-year-old black man was shot by a 28-year-old white police officer in August 2014. From that moment on, police actions have been in the spotlight—and with the emergence of smart-phone video and body cameras on patrol officers, the glare has intensified.
Here in New Mexico, the shooting death of a homeless man, James Boyd, by Albuquerque police in March 2014 lit the fires of discontent. While camping out in the Sandia Mountains behind a residence, Boyd became angry and pulled a knife after being approached by officers seeking to remove him from the area. A five-hour standoff ensued, and it ended badly when Boyd was shot as he turned away from a small army of officers on a hillside. Two officers were subsequently charged with second-degree murder as a result of the shooting.
It was all caught on camera. It’s next to impossible to see how the officers could have been justified in shooting him.
Another police shooting, in Roswell, that made headlines (though not as open-and-shut a case) occurred in the early morning hours of this past Easter Sunday, when Robert Guerin, 33, was shot just outside his home by police.
According to reports, Guerin had been driving around in his pickup, possibly drunk, causing a neighborhood stir in the middle of the night, when police caught up to him in the driveway of his home. Weilding a shotgun as he spoke with police, some 25 minutes after the standoff began, he was killed by police with a single shot to his chest.
Police said he had leveled the shotgun at three officers just before he was shot, but the police video did not confirm that detail. Instead, just before the shot was fired, a bright light was shined on him and it washed out the video at the very moment of the shooting.
To me, it looked like he had laid his shotgun on the hood of his truck, possibly to zip up his pants after urinating behind his truck, but the video was too washed out to know any of this for sure.
Officer body cams have been welcomed by many police officers, and for good reason. The cameras can serve as a defense for officers accused of bad behavior and they can provide the public as well as prosecutors with on-the-scene evidence of what really happened. But videos don’t always tell the whole story.
The fact is, it’s a tough job policing our communities these days. Guns are everywhere, as are drugs, alcohol and all types of illegal and threatening behaviors.
Oftentimes an officer doesn’t know when he or she is in danger, which is why they’re trained to be armed and ready for the unexpected.
According to a Washington Post tally, there were 990 people shot and killed by police last year, which is alarming. It’s also a sign of the mean streets officers patrol.
Take Chicago as an example. News via this source reported that there were 507 homicides in that embattled city last year. Police-involved shootings, on the other hand, resulted in nine deaths and 16 wounded.
Of course, Chicago is an extreme example, since it’s the murder capital of the nation these days. But it drives home the point that cops have a lot of violence to contend with, and they exercise considerable restraint in confronting it.
Maybe the stress that comes with an officer’s job factored into the recent murder-suicide by a Silver City cop, Mark Contreras, who killed his former girlfriend, Nikki Bascom, before taking his own life. Nobody expected a well-respected, longtime public servant to do such a thing, but he did.
The fact is, not all cops are good and stable people, and the bad apples only make things worse for the whole bunch. I can understand the frustration police must feel when the public gets suspicious of the actions they take while serving and protecting, but they also need to remember that public scrutiny comes with the territory.
Police work is a tough job, but when given the authority to use force, it has to be done right. When it’s done right, the officers deserve our praise and support, but when it’s done wrong, there must be consequences, applied openly and without hesitation.
Holding police accountable for their actions is what keeps this nation from becoming a police state. Let’s keep it that way.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.