Opinion

Hillary Clinton's 'Law and Order' Problem

Police unhappy over speakers list at Democratic National Convention

Police stand in a public plaza as marchers gather before the start of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA – In politics, nuance is often a negative, particularly in the middle of a cutthroat presidential campaign. So while Hillary Clinton’s position — supporting and sympathizing with both police officers and the mothers of African Americans killed in encounters with police — is a reasonable one, it doesn’t quite fit on a bumper sticker. It’s about criminal justice and race and trust and perceptions it would take a pile of history books to start to untangle.  

On the other hand, “law and order,” the mantra often repeated by GOP nominee Donald Trump in Cleveland at the Republican convention, fits just fine.  

Before the Democratic convened its first session in Philadelphia, the city’s police union took one look at the lineup of speakers and was not pleased.  

In a statement, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 said that it was "insulted by the exclusion of police widows and family members" from the speaking roster.  

No doubt noting the Tuesday inclusion of members of Mothers of the Movement , a group that includes Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner; Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; and Lezley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, the statement went on to say, “It is sad that to win an election, Mrs. Clinton must pander to the interests of people who do not know all the facts, while the men and women they seek to destroy are outside protecting the political institutions of this country.”  

After this month's murders of police in Baton Rouge and Dallas (where the department had won praise for improving relationships with the community), law enforcement officers are understandably on the defensive and sensitive to suggestions of police reform. They would like to return home safely to their families after a day on the job, one they believe they know how to do.  

But as long as videos continue to surface, such as the recent one out of North Miami after an officer shot and wounded an unarmed African-American health-care worker with hands up as he protected an autistic charge, the calls for reform will persist. Those calls will come not from people who want to “destroy” law enforcement but from those who want to make officers responsive to all communities equally, and make them subject to due process when they cross the line.  

When the facts are viewed through a clear lens, I’d wager few actual police officers feel much solidarity with Trayvon Martin’s killer, a wannabe who since has been in trouble with the law. Also among those on the DNC program is Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, shot for playing his music too loud in a Florida gas station by a criminal now locked up. That man ran before he was caught and charged.  

But those are complications in a flawed yet entrenched narrative that’s too perfect to discard, that Black Lives Matter’s protests for responsible policing translates into an anti-police message.  

That's the picture painted by Trump, of America on the edge of the abyss, with lawlessness rampant. When Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke , who is African-American, announced to the RNC crowd another acquittal of a police officer charged in connection with the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, calling it “good news,” there were cheers and celebration. Is there no longer room for humanity in modern politics? For, perhaps, a moment of respectful silence acknowledging that while one believes justice was served, a spine was severed and a life was lost?  

The Clinton campaign responded to the police union’s charge by pointing out other DNC speakers — former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and Joe Sweeney, a former New York detective working on 9/11 the day the World Trade Center was hit. It won’t be enough and the charge will probably make its way into an attack ad designed to stoke anger and halt serious efforts toward resolution and compromise, that dirty word.  

That's because real questions about the criminal justice system — ones that reach from studies about the school-to-prison pipeline, disparate suspension rates for children of color that start in pre-school, decisions of whom to charge and how to sentence — are no match for the visceral call-and-response that drowns out reasonable voices.  

Trump has staked out his position, carving up America into pieces and hoping to grab the biggest slice while Clinton is trying so hard not to make a mistake. The question, spotlighted by the dust-up with police union leaders, is, can she remain above the fray?  

Roll Call columnist   Mary C. Curtis   has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter   @mcurtisnc3  

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