A Different World

Myrtle Beach, Ferguson, Baltimore: Society burdens cops with too much (Updated)

Unrest in Baltimore.
Unrest in Baltimore. David Goldman AP photo

Related: Six officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray

My focus has been, and will remain, on criminal justice reform, no matter the ups and downs of this debate and ins and outs of momentary events like day-long riots, months-long protests and the latest police shooting.

We should not go back to the days when whatever a police officer says goes, no matter what the facts and investigations say.

All of that matters. But we don’t talk about another aspect of this enough.

We simply place too much on the backs of police officers, in the Myrtle Beach area and elsewhere. Cops are a lot like soldiers in the sense that they are required to deal with society's most intractable problems after all other solutions have failed, or been ignored.

We don't want people to abuse drugs, so we've essentially tasked cops to effectively deal with that incredibly difficult, complex issue.

We don't want kids to act up in school, so we've largely turned to cops to deal with them.

We didn’t want Uber drivers in Myrtle Beach? Why, let’s send the cops after them. (We’ve come to our senses on that one.)

We want people to wear seat belts - cops.

Don’t want “free range” parents allowing kids to walk a mile to the park alone? Call the cops.

In the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore, environmental factors that have been known to cause behavioral and other problems were likely the root cause of why Gray and the cops had multiple run-ins before that fatal final encounter:

Before Freddie Gray was injured in police custody last month, before he died and this city was plunged into rioting, his life was defined by failures in the classroom, run-ins with the law and an inability to focus on anything for very long.

Many of those problems began when he was a child and living in this house, according to a 2008 lead-poisoning lawsuit filed by Gray and his siblings against the property owner. The suit resulted in an undisclosed settlement.

Reports of Gray’s history with lead come at a time when the city and nation are still trying to understand the full ramifications of lead poisoning. Advocates and studies say it can diminish cognitive function, increase aggression and ultimately exacerbate the cycle of poverty that is already exceedingly difficult to break.

It is nonetheless hard to know whether Gray’s problems were exclusively borne of lead poisoning or were the result of other socioeconomic factors as well. From birth, his was a life of intractable poverty that would have been challenging to overcome.

Equally difficult to know is the total number of children lead has poisoned. That’s because the declared threshold for how much lead a body can safely tolerate has shifted dramatically over the years as researchers have come to better understand its dangers. Decades ago, city health officials tested for blood lead levels that were higher than 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Now, it is believed that anything higher than 5 micrograms can cripple a child’s cognitive development.

... “A child who was poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” Norton said. She called lead poisoning Baltimore’s “toxic legacy” — a still-unfolding tragedy with which she says the city has yet to come to terms. Those kids who were poisoned decades ago are now adults. And the trauma associated with lead poisoning “creates too much of a burden on a community,” she said.

The burden weighs heaviest on the poorest communities, such as the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore where Freddie Gray lived.

Read more here.

If we are really serious about criminal justice reform and improving police and community relations, we have to do a better job of solving these other problems. Cops, like soldiers, should only be called upon when there really is no option.

Too often, society treats them as though they have superpowers. They don’t, and we must stop burdening them as though they do.