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On The Death of A Detroit Police Officer

Five cops were shot in Detroit this morning, one fatally. Been following the reports all morning, and I tell you, there already have been revelations and reactions that give me pause...

First, I gotta say, my own heart sank not just at news of the shooting — after seeing the officer's photo, I realized I've seen him around the city plenty — but also at news about what the cops recovered from that vacant house. One handgun and a pound of marijuana. I've railed before in this space about the stupidity of the drug war, especially the criminalization of weed, so I won't go on much longer here and now. (Plus, news reports say the officers were responding to a 911 call about gunfire, not drugs, so this could've gone down tragically no matter what.) But after reading that, I wonder anew: How many more law enforcement officers have to put their lives on the line before we get real about this failed public policy?

The second report that caught my eye was an article about a local anti-brutality group that's asking whether the shooting suggests heightening tension between some city residents and the cops. The gunfight, which took place on the eastside, comes a little more than a month after members of the Detroit Gang Squad were accused of brazenly and gratuitously terrorizing a westside Detroit neighborhood, allegedly handcuffing and harassing residents all in the name of some show of force. As a result, some say this morning's shooting wasn't particularly shocking.

Ron Scott, the coalition's president, said the shooting isn't surprising given the complaints he's heard recently, most of which he said stem from Evans' Mobile Strike Force. Complaints have jumped 208% this year, he said.

He said it's unusual that a supposed drug dealer would open fire on officers rather than surrender and face a prison stint.

"It's odd that anyone would want to run," he said.

Detroit Police spokesman John Roach said complaints against the department's gang squad, which makes up much of the strike force, indeed are up, but that it's because the officers are more proactive in dealing with residents. The police units are dispatched to hot spots to spot suspicious activity and investigate before a crime is committed rather than wait for a 911 call, he said.

Officer John Bennett said Scott's comments were premature and insensitive.

"This is not the time for that," he said. "This is a time for grieving."

I respect Bennett's position and the deep sense of loss that city residents as well as the slain officer's colleagues, family and friends feel. And to his point about premature speculation, I think Bennett's also right: With the case still unfolding, can we really apply logic to the motives of a gunman trapped in a drug house that's about to be raided by the police? Maybe the gunman feared a harsher jail sentence. Maybe he/she was scared and/or intoxicated. Maybe he/she just had an itchy trigger finger.

However, I don't agree that it's "insensitive" to ask questions about the cops' relationship to the communities. And it's not about providing a smoke screen for cop killers either. Obviously, anybody who'd murder a man in cold blood deserves whatever punishment he or she has coming. That said, even though I think it's probably a stretch to tie this shooting incident to police harassment across town, if there's hint of rising tensions between the cops and residents, it is certainly appropriate and worthwhile to examine that possibility.

The 1967 riots that ripped through this city weren't race riots, as the lazy narrative goes. They were, however, a severe reaction to decades of police brutality. Yes, many of the conditions that contributed to that eruption are gone. But when it comes to Detroit and its police force, even a majority black one, raw hostilities remain very much alive. And with even the police worrying out loud about a long, hot summer, Detroit needs to remain diligent about keeping heads cool all around.

This town has more guns than people. We do not need more of our officers killed because of intensified hostility. Nor do we need any of our residents gunned down by skittish police.

I don't know if I can make sense of this officer's tragic death. But looking at some of the early reports, it's clear that we need to take whatever added steps we can to ensure the safety of the city's police and the Detroiters they serve — and that includes relying on both sensible public policy and honest public discourse.

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