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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Police have a tough job and a tattered reputation

Police stand guard along Florissant Avenue in Ferguson,

Police stand guard along Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, in an effort to quell the unrest stemming from the Aug. 9 police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Credit: Getty Images / Scott Olson

The terrible recent events in Ferguson, Missouri -- the killing of Michael Brown and the turmoil that followed -- have put the spotlight not only on U.S. race relations but also on the state of our policing. Saturday's march on Staten Island to protest the recent death of Eric Garner due to a police chokehold was the latest in a national reaction to concerns about police mistreatment of civilians, particularly African-Americans. The problem is real, and while it has a racial aspect, it goes beyond race. At bottom, it is about the proper role and rules of policing in a free society.

Statistics show that in recent years, about 400 Americans annually have been killed by law enforcement. Nearly a third of them are black; a black male is almost three times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than a white male. To a large extent, this undeniably reflects real differences in arrest and crime rates. But there are also serious questions about when deadly force is used inappropriately.

It's not always about race. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Bell, who is white, has written in Politico about his unarmed son's fatal shooting during a traffic stop due to apparent police error; the shooter went unpunished. After a knife-wielding, mentally ill black man, Kajieme Powell, was gunned down by the police in St. Louis last week, many people assumed that more effort would have been made to resolve the situation non-lethally if Powell had been white. But there are far too many cases of mentally ill white people dying in questionable police shootings, such as Brian Newt Beaird, a 51-year-old disabled veteran killed in Los Angeles in December.

Police homicides are, of course, extreme cases -- some would say, the tip of a huge iceberg of rampant police brutality and harassment that is hard to measure statistically. Again, race is a factor, but it is far from the only one: The latest video of alleged police abuse to shock the Internet shows cops in Greenville, South Carolina, pummeling a nonviolent drunk man in a Wal-Mart while shoppers beg them to stop.

The problem isn't just bad cops; it's a police culture that often promotes authoritarian attitudes toward citizens and dehumanizes those perceived as "lowlifes" or troublemakers. This mindset was illustrated by a recent controversial Washington Post piece by Los Angeles police veteran Sunil Dutta, who wrote that a civilian who challenges a police officer is asking to get hurt. While Dutta encouraged victims of police mistreatment to complain, the tone of his column was far too cavalier toward power-misusing officers.

As a society, we ask police officers -- especially in high-crime or economically troubled neighborhoods -- to do an extremely difficult and stressful job. Most people appreciate this fact. But the stress of police work should not be an excuse for bullying and violence, any more than the stress of poverty should be an excuse for lawlessness. Nor should it be an excuse for treating one's fellow citizens like subjects under occupation rather than, well, fellow citizens.

Criticizing police misconduct should not turn into police-bashing. Liberals and libertarians who rightly criticize heavy-handed police tactics tend to forget that criminal violence is a far greater danger in poor and minority communities than police brutality -- not only because of its immediate impact on the victims but also because of its devastating effect on neighborhoods and businesses. But police misconduct has its own unique perils that go beyond those personally affected: It shatters the community's trust in law enforcement and undermines the ability of the police to protect citizens. It's time to start rebuilding that trust.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.