Column: Those who serve our communities must be the example


VIRGINIA BEACH — I have a deep gratitude for the legacy of service that my family has created. As the youngest of seven, I am proud of the fact that almost all of my brothers and sisters have served in the military. The lone holdout was a New York City police sergeant at the time of her retirement.

My family’s legacy of service in the military and law enforcement informs my concerns  about current events in our country — including both examples of violence by and against police.

We need to look at the way things are being done in our communities. We need to stop slapping generalized, polarizing labels on problems that are complex. And I suspect we need to train law enforcement more effectively. Some people who are law-abiding have experienced problems during interactions with law enforcement.  Some people who are black wear uniforms in service to their nation through the military or in service to their communities as police officers. And these experiences are not mutually exclusive. 

My siblings and I joined the military for very different reasons. My two brothers, the oldest of us, joined the Navy during the Vietnam War. Instead of holding out to see what destiny had in store for them both, they made their own destiny.  My mother, although truly fearful that she was going to lose both her sons, prayed that they would return home safely. They did.  

The younger of my brothers joined the New York City Fire Department a decade after he returned home from the Navy. My mother felt it was the less dangerous of his two choices, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration  or the New York City Fire Department. He did this despite a successful career as a bank manager. He just needed to serve. He served as a firefighter and a Naval Reservist until his death.

My oldest sister was in the Army and was stationed in Germany. When she returned home, she went to work full time for the Army Reserve. She loved the Army, and the people she met and worked with. She was a champion for her soldiers, and worked tirelessly to ensure that they were taken care of and had the resources they needed in order to perform optimally. She wanted no other life. For her, the Army provided high standards and structure.

Her son, who served in the Army for six years, was a New York City police officer who retired this year.

My sister — the hold-out from the military — and brother-in-law are both retired from the New York City police. They own guns and are both conscious of the burden that gun ownership entails.

They are also extremely cognizant of the meaning of their badges, of the words “Protect and Serve” and the special meaning of the words “community policing.” They and my nephew have a combined service period of 72 years. They served on the NYPD during some of the most tumultuous times in New York City. None of the three of them — and almost all of their colleagues — has ever killed a civilian, armed or otherwise.

Each year, there are believed to be about 400 “justifiable homicides” by law enforcement reported by the FBI, but the exact number is not known, according to a report released this year by The Washington Post.  The U.S. Department of Justice stopped releasing statistics about deaths related to arrests because “they were widely regarded as unreliable,” The Post reported. Yet understanding the number of officer-involved shootings and questioning those that may not be justifiable are important. 

It all makes me wonder: what is wrong here? Why is this happening? Why can’t we concede that public service is a special type of profession, where we must be extremely vigilant? Why can’t we concede that something is wrong and work to change it?  

The simple fact is some people who work in the capacity of public service are not meant for that type of work. We must hold ourselves to higher standards. People who serve are the professionals.  

To someone with a military background, one solution is training — for both police before they interact with citizens and while they interact with citizens

We cannot expect that civilians are going to know how to react in interactions with law enforcement. Those who serve must teach them how to interact by leading the way. Those who serve must be professional, calm and steady during these interactions.  

To say that a law-enforcement professional has killed one unarmed civilian because they were in fear for their life, is in my view, irresponsible. It negates all of us who have served and who continue to serve and to uphold the bond we have forged with the public to “protect and serve.”

Shirley Baptiste Zwahl is a local business owner who served in the U.S. Air Force. She lives in Creeds.

© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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