President Barack Obama signed legislation that creates a “Blue Alert” system for law enforcement in the United States. It establishes a network for alerting police expeditiously when there are “active threats” against police. However, police are not under attack and have not been under attack in the US, despite recent tragic deaths of officers.
The passage of this legislation is the product of the continued exploitation of the deaths of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were killed by a mentally ill black man, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, on December 20. It provided a sensational example of an ambush killing that local and national police associations could seize upon to undercut the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which has been drawing attention to police violence directed at black Americans.
It also is one of the first recommended “action items” by Obama’s appointed police “task force” to be implemented. In contrast to many of the policy suggestions, this does nothing to reform police but rather reinforces the false presumption that police face some kind of threat because of increased opposition to police conduct.
“Leveraging the current Amber Alert program used to locate abducted children, the Blue Alert would enlist the help of the public in finding suspects after a law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty,” the report recently released by the “task force” indicates. “Some similar state systems do exist, but there are large gaps, a national system is needed. In addition to aiding the apprehension of suspects, it would send a message about the importance of protecting law enforcement from undue harm.”
Except, there is no debate in the United States. Just about all citizens agree that law enforcement should not face “undue harm.” Far fewer, unfortunately, agree that strong measures should be taken to protect people of color from “undue harm” from law enforcement.
The bipartisan legislation, named after Ramos and Liu, establishes that a system will send out alerts when an officer is seriously injured or killed. The system will send out an alert when an officer is missing. “At the time of receipt of death,” the suspect should be “wanted by a law enforcement agency.” The suspect should not have already been apprehended. There should be “sufficient descriptive information of the suspect involved and any relevant vehicle and tag numbers.”
More problematic is the fact that an alert will go out when there is an “imminent and credible threat” that “an individual intends to cause the serious injury or death of a law enforcement officer.”
The criteria for sending out this type of “blue alert” includes “confirmation” that a threat is “imminent and credible.” How threats are to be confirmed is not outlined in the legislation.
Ashley Yates, co-founder of Millennial Activists United and an activist who was part of protests in the immediately after Mike Brown was killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, declared, “I am absolutely disheartened and honestly terrified,” by the “Blue Alert” bill President Obama signed. Yates worries it could be used by police to suppress protest.
She fears that the system will “encourage vigilantes and place possibly innocent ‘suspects’ in serious danger” because “you only need to be suspected to get blasted out via this system. There is a grave potential for mistaken identity and false accusations.” (Yates shared this harrowing story of 23-year-old Cornell McKay, who was falsely accused by St. Louis police of being involved in a robbery that ended in a murder. Authorities insisted he was responsible, even as it became evident there was evidence McKay was never involved in the robbery.)
The “Amber Alert” system is now capable of sending alerts to millions of cell phone users. It has a page on Facebook, which makes it possible for users to share alerts about missing children. Will the “Blue Alert” system harness technology in this same manner? And what information about suspects will be in any public alerts?
How will citizens be certain that this system will not be manipulated to undermine protests explicitly directed at police departments by hyping threats (as happened in Baltimore when police wrongly attributed violence to a flier urging teens to take part in a “purge”).
What if someone sends an angry tweet that police construe as a “threat” against police? How might that be put into the “Blue Alert” system and what might the effect on freedom of expression be?
More significantly, as writer Ryan Dalton stated, “Police are not being systematically targeted and murdered in America. Black people are.”
No statistics come close to supporting the notion that police are under attack and in need of urgent protection.
So far, in 2015, according to Officer Down Memorial Page, there have been 46 “line of duty deaths.” One was from assault, eleven from gunfire and one from vehicular assault. Many of the rest of the deaths were accidents or the result of “9/11 related” illnesses. But let’s presume this rate continues and around 54 more officers die this year. That would be 100 officers dead in 2015.
At least 435 people were killed by US police as of May 4, according to Killed by Police.
In 2014, 47 police officers were killed by gunfire, according to Officer Down Memorial Page. Two officers died from assault and ten officers died from vehicular assault. That puts the number of police killed at about 59. Comparably, Killed by Police documented over 1,000 news reports of police killing alleged suspects last year.
FBI statistics on law enforcement officers killed and assaulted from 2013 indicate that 27 police officers “died from injuries incurred in the line of duty during felonious incidents.” Five of those were “ambush situations” or because they were investigating “suspicious persons or circumstances.”
Once again, that number is minuscule when viewed against the number of deaths police were responsible for in 2013. More than 650 people died at the hands of police in 2013.
There is no systemic problem with holding individuals who truly intend to harm police accountable for their crimes. There is a systemic problem in the American justice system with holding police accountable for their crimes.
The recommendations by President Obama’s police task force scarcely begin to address the inequities that make justice for victims of police violence nearly impossible.
It is a tragedy whenever a police officer dies, but there are dangers which are intrinsic to a police officer’s job. On the other hand, being a person of color in America should not come with the intrinsic danger of being brutalized by police.
Unfortunately, there is no powerful lobby in the United States for those who are victims of police brutality. There is a powerful lobby of police associations and unions that can push government to respond to their wants and needs whenever they make demands. This lobby is immensely capable of fighting the “Black Lives Matter” movement as it works to dismantle systemic racism, which enables officers to get away with using force, particularly against people of color.
Police groups and advocacy organizations for cops recognize the government will take action for them if they chant “Blue Lives Matter” and create this misperception that there is a trend where more and more Americans are choosing to not value the lives of police. When a groundswell of resistance manages to finally convince people in power to pay attention to police violence, they are unable to get a similar response. Instead, these people are told to be concerned about making the country unsafe for police with their protest. They are also met with politicians, who expect them to wait for action for the countless dead and seriously injured people. Or, worse, they continue to believe those deaths and injuries deserve no government response at all while they serve the special interests of police.
Image is screen shot from White House’s own video of President Barack Obama signing legislation.