Everyone in the country owes Congressman John Lewis a great debt of gratitude. His life is an example of the very best of human nature, including his campaign for racial equality through nonviolent demonstrations. But the most important thing he demonstrates is that the protestors in the streets of D.C., Portland and Austin have been wrong all summer. Since 1960, the United States has created the most egalitarian, free and fair culture that has existed in human history.
In 1960, when young John Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement were beginning their best work, there were zero African Americans registered to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama, just southeast of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where Lewis took a beating by state troopers in a peaceful march pressing for voting rights. Lowndes County was known as “bloody Lowndes” for the history of violence employed by the Ku Klux Klan with the support of law enforcement to deny African Americans their right to vote. This was the county where Viola Luizza was killed for nothing more than using her car to give rides to those marching for voting rights.
Today the sheriff in Lowndes County is African American — and every African American in the county can be registered to vote.
The history of racism within law enforcement in the United States is well known and well documented. We all know of Bull Connor and other lawmen who deprived thousands of African Americans of their civil rights though violence and intimidation. But this is not the law enforcement that exists in the United States today. The testing to get into a police department is challenging, the knowledge required is comprehensive, the demands are rigorous.
Just as important, law enforcement officers face a stringent system of review of their every action. Every state has a regulatory body over officers that requires continuing education. Any police department of any size will have an internal affairs office. Officers’ actions are also reviewed by the State Attorney General’s Office. And the FBI has squads in major cities that work civil rights cases, many involving police officers who abuse their authority. These agencies open many cases against officers who allegedly abuse their authority every year. This is a system of checks and balances, not systemic racism.
The Los Angeles Police Department has some 10,000 officers. More than 55% of these officers are individuals of color. If you begin to defund the police, many losing their jobs will be officers of color.
It is true more needs to be done. For years, many individuals inside and outside law enforcement have worried about over-militarization of law enforcement. And it is true officers such as Derek Chauvin, now charged in the senseless death of George Floyd, deserve to be prosecuted. But professionalism within law enforcement has been going in the right direction for the last 60 years, ever since John Lewis and others started this fight.
Some protesters want to throw this progress out by defunding the police. But if you were alive in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, you know that underfunded police departments lead to more crime. Since 1990, the crime rate in the United States has been cut in half. We should be celebrating in the streets, not protesting, the work begun by John Lewis that has law enforcement agencies on an impressive trajectory of professionalism.
T.P. Hetrick, who spent 20 years as a law enforcement officer, lives in Dripping Springs, west of Austin.
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