Thursday, January 1, 2015

Our Safer Future: Closer Than It Seems

I'm sure I speak for many throughout the St. Louis region when I say that the close of 2014 is bittersweet.

This year has been an exhausting ordeal for all of us. The toll it has taken is simply enormous, going well beyond what we can readily express in numbers or words. The millions of dollars in damage, the thousands of hours of emergency work and the hundreds of documented crimes and incidents don't begin to tell the whole story. These are just quantities which do not signify the truth of what people in our community felt and what they experienced emotionally.

I've always said that the business of public safety involves more than just driving objective reductions in the crime rate. People must not only become safer; in fact, they must be allowed to feel safer and more secure in a way that goes beyond numbers.

This Fall, too many people in St. Louis felt less safe and less secure and some expressed their frustration at having gone without that feeling for a long time. Saddest of all for someone in my profession was that many people expressed a feeling of insecurity about their relationship with the police. On the other side of that same unfortunate coin, many police officers saw their safety directly and deliberately threatened because of who they are and what career they chose.

If we had the means to measure it, I feel certain that our collective sense of safety and security is lower now than it has been at any time since September of 2001, with this tragic difference: while the insecurity we all felt after 9/11 brought us together, the insecurity we feel after Ferguson has so far been pulling us apart.

That cannot continue and indeed it must be quickly and decisively reversed. There is too much at stake - including 25 years of dramatic progress in crime reduction - for us to let ourselves move backwards. As hard as it is to remember, the fact remains that lately, we've been winning big in our long struggle to build a safer society, a more peaceful society, a society with less of the pain and fear which comes from violence.

The people who've been leading us in that struggle and helping us build a safer society have a name: they're called police officers. Every year, they save thousands of lives which would otherwise be lost to the madness of crime and violence. Every day, they risk their own safety to do this. Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos happened to be from New York, but could have been from anywhere. They were murdered, targeted specifically for being cops, in a depraved act meant to terrorize every man and woman who wears the uniform in this country. But their killer miscalculated because the truly brave cannot be terrorized.

Yet painful and difficult as our recent troubles have been, we must not fail to notice how the present compares to the past. For even in these most trying hours, when anger seems to crowd out every other human emotion, life is becoming more precious, not less.  

The turmoil of 2014 has written us a very clear set of instructions for 2015. No one can pretend not to understand those instructions now, and no excuses will be accepted if we fail to carry them out.

We know what is broken and what must be fixed: it's the trust. We know we must work to create a society in which the feeling of safety and security is restored to those who've lost it.

None of these things can be accomplished by anyone alone. Preventing violence is the job of the police but it's the business of everyone who values peace. One unambiguously positive thing to come from this year's events is a dramatic increase in public awareness at every level. More people than ever are paying attention to the crucial questions of law enforcement, criminal justice and public safety.

And this is where I find the strongest sign of hope as we move from the old year to the new: it's in the fact that we all depend on each other and the fact that we're all ready to say goodbye to the status quo. Sooner or later I know those facts will overpower our divisions and serve to bring us together closer than ever. 

We don’t rest, we work to build a better and safer future. A future that we all want for ourselves and our families.

Happy New Year, this year more than ever.