By Senator Shay Shelnutt
My father served as a police officer in Birmingham for twenty-two years. He was physically attacked on more than one occasion and shot at multiple times. As a kid, I was often scared that my father wouldn’t make it home. Each time I heard Dad’s patrol car pull up in the driveway, a palpable sense of relief washed over me.
Police work has always been dangerous, but I cannot remember a time in my own life when police departments faced stiffer headwinds. In July, a sniper shot and killed five police officers in Dallas. On October 16, a man wearing body armor walked into a Starbucks in Vallejo, California, and aimed a rifle at two police officers. Had the gun not jammed, the officers and other customers would likely have been killed.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, forty-six officers have been shot to death in 2016, a forty-eight percent increase over 2015. While total police fatalities from all causes have been on a decline since the 1980s, that decrease is likely attributable to an overall decline in violent crime over the past few decades. It seems clear, however, that calculated, targeted shootings of police are on the rise.
What is causing this rise in police shootings? Mental illness, a copy-cat effect, and pure human evil are all to blame.
But irresponsible rhetoric has not helped. For the past few weeks, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand for the national anthem and has argued that “police brutality” is something that has gone on “in this country for years and years.” Kaepernick has not advocated violence against police, but neither his hasty and imprecise rhetoric, nor the violence advocated by some Black Lives Matter protestors, is the responsible path forward for our country.
The anti-police rhetoric and increased media scrutiny of law enforcement have made a difficult job nearly impossible. On October 5, a Chicago police officer responded to a car crash. A man on drugs attacked the officer at the scene, savagely beating her. After speaking with the hospitalized officer, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said the officer told him she hesitated to shoot because “she didn’t want her family or the department to go through the scrutiny the next day on the national news.”
FBI Director James Comey says a “chill wind” has blown through the ranks of law enforcement. In Comey’s view, police officers are increasingly apprehensive about stepping out of their police cars to conduct even routine traffic stops. A ten-second cell phone video, seen without the benefit of the real-world context, can quickly turn a honest, hard-working cop into a national villain.
According to a story published on al.com on October 17, numerous police departments in Alabama are having difficulty recruiting and retaining officers. Huntsville Police Department Lt. Stacy Bates remarked in the article that in his twenty-eight years as a cop, “I’ve never seen a more challenging time.”
The anti-police rhetoric must stop, and we must take steps to increase protections for law enforcement officers. The charge for assault with the intent to prevent an officer from carrying out his or her duty should be raised from a Class C to a Class B felony, while the murder of a law enforcement officer should qualify as an aggravating circumstance in which a capital murder charge is applicable. I will support proposals along these lines in the 2017 session of the Legislature, and I will also support a pay raise for state troopers in the field.
Growing up, I felt a deep sense of pride in my father’s work as a cop. I knew he put his life on the line, every day, for complete strangers. Now, as law enforcement officers face nearly unprecedented challenges, it is our duty to support the best among us with words and action.