Last week, Houston police officers equipped with a no-knock search warrant, burst into a residence suspected to be a drug den. What was supposed to be a procedural search and arrest soon turned deadly. A shootout ensued and five officers were injured, some of them critically wounded. The two people inside the home during the bust were killed.
The city is still reeling from the news that such a violent event occurred on its streets. City officials appropriately rushed to express their heartfelt concern for the Houston police officers who were injured in the shootout and to reassure community members.
But in addition to the words of reassurance, Houstonians received some words of antagonism.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the president of the Houston Police Officers Union, Joe Gamaldi, had harsh things to say to anyone who might be critical, or even questioning, of the police department.
Gamaldi was aggressive: he asserted that police have “targets placed on [their] backs.” He then went on to boldly say the police would target and keep track of those “spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy,” continuing with, “just know we’ve all got your number now.”
And before the week was out, he escalated his rhetoric by emphasizing police officer deaths nationwide, despite a decrease in the number of law enforcement deaths nationwide in the last four years, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
You might call that fake news, but at the least I think his words were unsettling. This was not the sort of response you might expect from one of the leaders of an organization sworn to serve and protect. In general, stoking the fires of controversy in times of panic has never made things better; on the contrary, it only serves to make matters worse.
What Joe Gamaldi doesn’t seem to realize is that when violence occurs, there is not one, sole victim; the entire community suffers. It suffers when police are harmed as it suffers when residents are harmed. It is normal for community members to respond with concern for all of those involved. It is also normal and acceptable for people to demand answers from their leaders. We all should seek an end to violence.
After all, even though we live in Texas, none of us want to live in a place that even slightly resembles the Wild West.
Police officer’s lives, of course, must be protected. These are men and women who have incredibly difficult jobs and are faced with unsafe situations on a daily basis. After tragedies like these occur, we must work to assess what happened and ensure that everyone’s safety is being protected. These raw moments are a critical time to promote conversations between everyday citizens and city leaders on how we can create safer communities through reflection and yes, even a healthy dose of constructive criticism.
In comparison to his colleague at the police union, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has championed transparency, trust-building, and cooperation as essential elements to creating safer communities. His leadership and efforts to make Houston a city that is a model for relational policing should be applauded. Joe Gamaldi should take note and be more mindful of the divisiveness of his words.
Residents are owed the utmost transparency by the institutions that are sworn to protect them. We cannot afford to allow anyone to use these tragic situations to silence demands for accountability from government-run institutions.
And we most definitely cannot accept any suggestion that those seeking answers should be silenced, much less targeted.