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Ubiñas: A fallen officer can show us the way

Let us honor a fallen officer by improving relationships between cops and the community.

Leonard Zito, a former Philadelphia cop, places an American flag at the memorial for Officer Wilson. (MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Leonard Zito, a former Philadelphia cop, places an American flag at the memorial for Officer Wilson. (MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

EVEN BEFORE Officer Robert Wilson III was pronounced dead, I had the clear sense that people were picking sides.

One thing I heard was, this is why no one should ever question a cop using his or her weapon. Someone else said, it's hard to feel bad about one dead police officer when there are so many examples of citizens, often people of color, dying at the hands of the law.

I am very tentative about even mentioning these varied reactions now, daring to raise the very issue of the prickly - and sometimes deadly - state of the police and citizens relationships here and beyond.

But I do it because by all accounts, Officer Wilson seemed driven to improve the relationship between the department for which he worked and the community for which he died. He was among the first Philadelphia police officers who volunteered for the department's body-camera pilot program.

"If there was a crime pattern," his commanding officer, Capt. Robert Glenn, told reporters, "he would be the first to say, 'Let me and my partner be part of the solution.' "

Last Thursday, when most of us were tucked into our homes during a snowstorm, the 30-year-old, eight-year veteran of the force died in a violent gunbattle while protecting customers inside a GameStop at 21st and Lehigh. He had stopped for a routine security check and to buy a gift for his older son. His son, Quahmier, turned 10 on Monday.

I understand the emotions on both sides - these are indisputably volatile times. What we don't need is screaming extremists on both sides digging their heels in. If that continues, nothing will change. And all of the loss, of civilians and police officers, will amount to nothing more than heartache.

I'm not talking about the rose-colored rhetoric of wanting something good to come from tragedy. Let's be very clear here: Whatever good may come - and should come - from the loss of this officer won't trump two little boys growing up without a father.

I'm talking about honoring an officer's life. I'm talking about what Officer Wilson seemed to be about: someone who put himself in the line of fire to save bystanders. I'm talking about making sure we continue to work toward improving the relationships between police and the community that depends on them.

Even before the latest tragedy, these have been messy and complicated conversations to have - not just about increasingly frayed police and community relationships, but also about endemic problems that result in so much violence and death.

But as imperfect as these conversations are, there is a renewed focus on issues that we can't afford to veer from, that we can't afford to suspend, even in the worst of times.

One reader emailed me: "Talk to me about stop & frisk [complaints], I dare you."

Another called to say that if community members didn't rally for a black cop who died saving people's lives the way they did for civilians who didn't follow police instructions, they were the racists.

I get the anger, the raw emotion. I understand why we would want to put the very uncomfortable conversation about citizen/cop relationships on the back burner, out of anger and grief and respect. I understand the sentiment behind a time and a place. But I think the time is now, and the place is here.

By doing otherwise, we all pay a price. We risk the little momentum that was starting to grow. Believe it or not, we are on the path to change.

There is plenty to talk about, plenty to deal with:

* The discovery that almost no guns are impounded as a result of "stop-and-frisk," according to a report filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

* The task force on police reform, impaneled by President Obama and chaired by Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey.

* This idea that if you want more police transparency, you are anti-cop, and conversely, if you don't subscribe to the nonsensical narrative that all cops are bad - because they are not - you are somehow anti-community or anti-black and/or brown.

We can't afford to back away from conversations that are long overdue, conversations that include Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson and, closer to home, Brandon Tate-Brown. But we also can't be so blinded by our anger and agendas that we spend all our time screaming at one another without any real solutions.

At a prayer vigil in honor of Officer Wilson on Monday, Ramsey told the crowd that sometimes it takes a tragedy to bring people together. He also reminded people about the daily reality of gun violence in the city.

It's a reality that demands our focus, even in the worst of times.

To do otherwise would dishonor Officer Wilson and his children, who have paid an unimaginable price.

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel