A decade ago, right after buying property in my new state and city, I read about the millions of dollars my city was accumulating in lawsuit damages awarded to residents killed and injured by city police officers. A federal investigation found that for years we’ve been shooting mentally ill people who behaved strangely, even though unarmed and not committing a crime; they couldn’t follow barked orders by petrified and adrenaline-pumped officers. However, investigations and prosecutions cleared nearly all the officers involved. They believed their lives in danger; even a few who did fail to follow policy and were fired eventually got their jobs back after arbitration of police union contract terms.
I empathize with the cops’ fears of such “welfare” calls and lack of backup and need of a union; I empathize as well with the street demonstrators angrily protesting each failure and holding the cops personally responsible for such discriminatory treatment. I certainly feel for family members who love and can’t find safety for ill relatives. I was one of those paying high property taxes, and I realized that the entire citizenry was responsible and negligent, along with the police, and thus paying the consequences. We as the “body politic” hired the officers, signed the union contracts, asked cops to risk their lives, and failed the residents -- together! So we pay the costs. We don't have a way to respond to the families of the mentally ill and suicidal who are appealing for shelter and treatment, and we’re responding to their meltdowns with guns. And we still haven’t managed to change the training and culture of our police force, or to provide enough trained de-escalators for them to call in as first responders.
If I were a city council member, I too would direct counsel to settle the lawsuits. We’re all in this together, all responsible. We must proactively persuade our representatives to prioritize the effective, long-term investments instead of everything else we demand.
So this is today and that’s democracy, and where civil/civic dialog matters. In my opinion, the only way through is to agree on the highest common good and proactively articulate to our city employees and representatives where to put our tax dollars. We can see ourselves as members of a body politic most readily in these local community issues. We know where people are hurting, though not so readily articulate what priorities and expenditures to turn toward and away. We see emotional reactions that aren’t helpful but are understandable, and plenty of unhelpful blame to go around.
There are so many perspectives to combine, so many reactions to forego, so much trust to develop, so much to tackle. It takes great listening, persuasion, patience, and constructive dialog to plan for the community to solve problems and thrive together. Civic discourse is a muscle to start exercising locally in personal encounters, drawing out multiple perspectives of who is affected and how, finding common ground for government choices most people can buy into. Our government employees can only carry out commonly recognized decisive choices.
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