This is the police officer’s dilemma: He can’t succeed at his job if he thinks everyone he meets will try to kill him. Nor will he succeed if he fails to remember that some of them will. This dilemma is especially pronounced in light of the five police officers murdered in Dallas on July 7, and the three murdered in Baton Rouge on Sunday.

A peculiar energy takes over a police department when an officer is killed. His surviving colleagues must battle the tendency to become edgy and hypervigilant. This energy now pervades departments from coast to coast, for what happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge might happen anywhere. An ordinary traffic stop can turn ugly when an otherwise law-abiding driver runs a stop sign and then unexpectedly reaches for his driver’s license or car registration. The officer is distressed to know that a gun might be produced and used to shoot him. The driver is equally distressed to see the officer’s sidearm suddenly pointed at him with the officer shouting, “Don’t move!”

The frequency of such encounters will increase in the coming days and weeks, and we can only hope they all end with nothing worse than hurt feelings and frayed nerves. But for police officers, the edginess and hypervigilance are not merely a matter of perceptions distorted by isolated events. The three killed in Baton Rouge brought this year’s total to 30, nearly twice the number at the same time last year. And there is a palpable sense among America’s cops that more attacks will come.

Until recently, assaults on police officers most often occurred during the interruption of a crime in progress or an attempt to apprehend a wanted fugitive. Some of the more unhinged sympathizers with the Black Lives Matter movement have come to believe that killing cops is a noble undertaking, one requiring no more motivation than a desire to avenge perceived injustices. Such was the motivation of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who in December 2014 shot and killed New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu as they sat in their patrol car. And we have it from Dallas killer Micah Johnson’s own mouth that he acted out of hatred for white people, especially white police officers. Gavin Long, the Baton Rouge killer, was no less accommodating in revealing his motive, expressing his contempt for white people in his Twitter feed. Is there anyone who believes these were the only three people in the country who harbor this hostility?

Indeed, if you were to search the Internet and add the word “hero” to any of the above named killers, you would find abundant evidence that revulsion at their crimes is far from universal. These men have hundreds—perhaps thousands—of admirers, some small fraction of whom might, if presented with the opportunity, make the fatal leap from admiration to imitation. For some time to come, police officers will be very cognizant of this possibility.

We’ve heard much discussion recently of “the talk,” the admonition given by black parents to their children on how to behave when stopped by the police: Be respectful, don’t make any sudden moves, show them your hands, and all the rest. In the current climate, anyone of any race should follow this advice.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images


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