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O’Rourke wrong on police and ‘Jim Crow’

October 4, 2018

At a town hall on Aug. 10, responding to a question about his support for players kneeling during the national anthem, Rep. Beto O’Rourke claimed that “black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now, including by members of law enforcement, without accountability and without justice.”

Despite several highly publicized shootings and tragedies in recent years, this claim is simply not true. Both the Washington Post and Mother Jones — no knee-jerk supporters of police — have pointed out O’Rourke is wrong to say that cops are making a habit of shooting unarmed black children.

As the president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association, I was deeply dismayed to see a sitting congressman who is running for the U.S. Senate play so fast and loose with the facts.

I know I am not alone: Thousands of my fellow members of law enforcement in Texas, serving in hundreds of departments at the state, county and city levels, are similarly disgusted by O’Rourke’s misleading rhetoric against those who are sworn to protect and serve.

Far from tamping down his inflammatory claims, the congressman seems to have doubled down on them over time. At an event on Sept. 19, O’Rourke told a crowd about a Jim Crow-era practice of arresting black men for petty offenses and working them to death on chain gangs — then he claimed that police officers do much the same thing today.

“That injustice, to many more people here than I know firsthand, continues to persist today. That system of suspecting somebody solely based on the color of their skin, searching that person solely based on the color of their skin, stopping that person solely based on the color of their skin, shooting that person solely based on the color of their skin, throwing the book at that person and letting them rot behind bars solely based on the color of their skin is why some have called this — I think it is an apt description — the new Jim Crow.”

A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that a candidate with such a distorted view of reality would be given a platform by a major political party in Texas. But times change, and today many celebrities, talking heads and politicians share O’Rourke’s view that there is “nothing more American” than kneeling during the national anthem, because of an imagined country where rabid police roam around looking to arrest and shoot people under false pretenses.

Instances of police brutality and unjustified shootings certainly happen, and they nearly always result in the dismissal and conviction of the offending officer. When someone wearing a badge breaks the law or attacks the innocent, it is an absolute disgrace to the uniform, and that person should rightfully be prosecuted.

But the vast majority of men and women in Texas law enforcement are caring, responsible members of their communities who would never harm the innocent. Ignoring statistics in favor of wild generalities and comparing modern-day policing to Jim Crow chain gangs makes their job far more dangerous.

But the tragic irony is that when politicians like O’Rourke vilify law enforcement to fit their narrative, the people who suffer most — those who are most victimized by vicious criminals — are the law-abiding men, women and their families in disadvantaged areas.

When police are less welcome in communities they are trying to protect, the result is more confrontations and more crime in neighborhoods that are already hurting. Setting minority communities and police in opposition to one another increases the likelihood of misunderstanding and fear in every interaction.

O’Rourke won’t personally see the consequences of his false rhetoric, short of losing an election here or there.

It’s the brave men and women of law enforcement, who put their lives on the line every day for their fellow Texans and Americans, who will bear the brunt of suspicion among the very families they protect and serve.

And it will be the families who most need police presence in their communities who will be discouraged from reporting crimes, cooperating with officers and rooting out violence that exists on a far greater scale than anything O’Rourke mentions.

O’Rourke may think he’ll win by demonizing law enforcement, but for the rest of Texans, everyone loses.

Michael F. Helle is president of the San Antonio Police Officers Association.

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