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Reaction to criticism shows disconnect with community

ACROSS THE country this past weekend, thousands of people marched in protest of police actions against Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, adding to a steady drumbeat of protest that was ignited weeks ago when two separate grand juries refused to indict police in the deaths of the two black men.

For many, this calls to mind a level of protest that this country hasn't seen in at least 50 years . . . and many would say that the issues are the same: lack of fair treatment of blacks and other minorities by predominantly white police forces (and by extension, white society). Will anything turn out differently this time around?

Hard to tell. Judging from a few local police reactions to elements of the protest, it's hard to be optimistic.

Last week, a cartoon in a Bucks County newspaper depicting a group of black children asking Santa for protection from police drew the rage of Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby, who leveled some choice words at the paper for running the cartoon and demanded an apology.

"There is a special place in hell for miserable parasites in our media who seek to exploit violence and hatred to sell advertisements," McNesby said. He wished the newspaper a "bankrupt New Year."

And University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann drew the ire of campus police when she joined protesters at a "die-in" lying on the floor.

"I am appalled that the president of this fine university would give in to the pressures of the uninformed mob mentality surrounding the Michael Brown case and participate in a'die-in' . . . " said Eric Rohrback, president of the 116-member Penn police officers' union. "It is a slap in the face to every person that wears this uniform and serves this university."

Such thin-skinned reaction to criticism is surprising - and not a little disturbing - but it tends to underscore how disconnected some police are to the communities they serve. Yes, police put themselves in harm's way by strapping on a gun and patrolling the streets of the lawless city. And we believe the best of them dedicate their lives to protecting and serving us.

But police also need to be reminded that in addition to the risks they take, they wield extraordinary authority and power over people's lives. They have the state-sanctioned power to stop, arrest, jail us . . . and shoot and kill us. Their extraordinary powers are necessary to keep the peace and enforce lawful behavior. And most cops take that authority seriously. But that authority doesn't make police officers less immune from all the prejudices and imperfections that comes with being human - imperfections that can include racism, or even bad judgement.

The relationship between police and black communities is fraught, a situation not helped by the fact that 75 percent of the nation's police are white, according to 2007 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

To improve those relationships, police will have to respond more thoughtfully toward criticism and protest than Philadelphia's or Penn's police have. They should remember the long history of police scandals, particularly in this city, that have eroded the trust in the department. Repeated calls for more objective oversight have also gone unheeded.

In many ways, the recent protests across the country have been a long time in coming. Fifty years ago, civil-rights protests made a mark and changed much in the country. This time around, the goal is narrower: civil rights at the hands of police. Surely that's not too lofty a goal.