By Howard Safir
April 8, 2015
IDEAS
Howard Safir is the former commissioner of the New York City Police Department (1996-2000) and Chairman and CEO of Vigilant Resources International (VRI).

The shooting in North Charleston, S.C., is an enormous tragedy. The horrific video that is now being seen around the world will do a great deal to hurt the image of police officers and police departments.

Are our police departments brutal, racist, and out of control? By every objective measure they are not. When we have incidents like the Brown case in Ferguson and the Garner case in New York, the media paints with a broad brush, as if these were the norm. That is not the case. Only 1% of encounters between police and citizens result in any use of force at all. Every year hundreds of thousands of police officers put their uniforms on and have millions of interactions with the public. In 9 out of 10 cases, citizens are happy with the interaction, and in 99 out of 100, no force is used. Police brutality and misconduct are inexcusable. They are also relatively rare. Police officers are human beings — they make mistakes and sometimes even commit criminal acts. When that happens, they should be held accountable, and they are.

Police officers have seconds to decide whether to use their firearms in any given violent confrontation. The general rule is that it must be in protection of your own life or the life of another. Those seconds, and the training and judgment of the individual police officer, change everyone’s lives forever. Having been involved in a shooting early in my career, I ­remember to this day how quickly it all ­developed, and how I reacted instinctively based on my training. If an officer hesitates too long, he could indeed join the 126 who lost their lives in the line of duty last year.

Our citizens gain nothing from demoralized police forces that believe they do not have public support. Demoralized forces will not be as effective as they can be, and that would have a tremendously negative impact on public safety. Effective police departments rely on the public and the community every day. It must not be “us vs. them” but officers and civilians working together to protect law-abiding citizens.

Policing is a noble profession. Men and women put their lives on the line every day. When one of them commits a crime, or is racist or brutal, swift and appropriate punishment should be carried out. But to ascribe these traits to the majority of police officers is wrong and untrue.

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