On Wednesday a police officer in Champaign, Illinois was shot and killed when he and a fellow officer responded to a domestic violence call. The officer who was murdered, Christopher Oberheim, left behind heartbroken family, friends, and colleagues who will grieve his loss. However, there will be no mass protests, no murals painted on walls to honor him, and no media outcry seeking “justice” in the wake of his death. How very wrong this is.
The reason why this is so is both simple and depressing: Mr. Oberheim was a policeman, and leaders up to—and including—the President of the United States have declared that those who protect and serve are worthy of neither our respect nor gratitude. The police are, and here I am directly quoting President Biden’s press release for Police Week, to be feared and condemned because, as he stated “in many of our communities, especially Black and brown communities, there is a deep sense of distrust towards law enforcement; a distrust that has been exacerbated by the recent deaths of several Black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement.”
Any time an individual is killed by police, it is a shock. However, it must be remembered that the nature of police work is that unknown danger lurks around every corner, those suspected of crimes are often loathe to be apprehended, and officers are also killed and injured on the job.
In 2020 over one hundred officers were killed in the line of duty, but there were no marches, no protests, and no social media outcries in response to officers being murdered while doing their jobs. The men and women who respond to robberies, fights, thefts, rapes, domestic violence, car accidents, bomb threats, shootings, stabbings, riots, looting, and overdoses while dealing daily—and often invisibly—with the mundane business of public safety are apparently unworthy of either our tears or sympathy.
The nature of law enforcement is awful. Last fall a man was shot and killed down the street from where I live. After the grim business of dealing with a bloody corpse, the next step was to seek out the murderer. I listened on a Police Scanner app as officers from several agencies walked through alleyways and yards—in the dead of night—hoping to find someone with a loaded gun who had just committed a murder. Think about that for a moment: One of your job requirements is to actively look for a killer in the darkness—and pray not to get shot yourself. It doesn’t sound entirely rational, but sometimes performing one’s sworn duty is irrational.
Many years back I had a neighbor who was a Police Officer, and on occasion we would have a chat. When I once commiserated about the inherent difficulties of his job, his response startled me: “I am society’s trash collector.”
His assessment of his role in our community seemed a bit harsh—and perhaps more than a little embittered—but I see now that his words were brutally accurate. We presume law enforcement will happily deal with the worst possible people engaging in the worst possible behavior in the worst possible circumstances—yet somehow not bear the scars of our strange expectations.
It is unsurprising that police officers sometimes manifest a surly and suspicious attitude in the course of their daily duties. We often forget the fears that, as a necessary survival technique, must never, ever be set aside. It is perhaps equally unsurprising that retention and recruitment is becoming an increasing problem as the police are cast as the villains in so many media and academic examinations of the pathologies that afflict individuals and communities in America today.
When all factors are considered, and we keep in mind that often police officers are using deadly force in response to a deadly threat, the numbers of people killed by the police each year is surpassingly small—just look it up if you have not already.
We must, of course, insist that police use deadly force only as a last resort and only with clear justification, but the vast majority of officers feel exactly the same way as the civilians they work to protect. They are just as anxious to see officers who abuse their power and discretion punished as the average American for the simple reason that those who forget their professional obligations make the jobs of every law enforcement professional just that much harder.
So let us not forget the ultimate sacrifice of Officer Oberheim.