A brother lies dead in Texas for no apparent reason. Or, possibly, worse: because he wore the uniform of a deputy sworn to protect the safety and Constitutional rights of the people in his community.
Of course, for the family and friends of Deputy Darren Goforth – a 10-year veteran of the Harris County Sheriff's Office – to suggest one explanation for his murder is "worse" than another is incoherent. The tragedy that has befallen them is beyond measure or explanation, and there is no "worse" or "less worse" version of this horrific event.
On the heels of the tragic televised murders in Virginia, the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, a movie theater shooting in Louisiana, and many other senseless murders, we are all asking the question: why does this seem to be happening more and more often?
For me, after decades in law enforcement, the question that I'm asking draws on a particular subset of the violence we've seen recently: the murders of Officers Liu and Ramos in New York, Louisiana State Trooper Steven Vincent and more than a dozen other officers and deputies shot and killed senselessly, often ambushed, over the past year and a half. This is indisputably happening more often. Why?
We should be careful to note that we don't yet know the whole story in this most recent Texas murder. Strictly speaking, we only know that a man committed a heinous murder without evident provocation. But we can't help but imagine the possibility that the victim was targeted specifically because of his uniform. We react to the possibility that the man who shot Deputy Goforth wanted to kill a cop, any cop, for some reason that made sense in his mind. That is a scary proposition, but one we are compelled to consider.
We should not, however, fall into the trap of taking this theorized motive a step further and label it an outgrowth of the social anger and critique coming from many communities and particularly young African Americans. Just as we all see the murder of Deputy Goforth as a most vile act and the theorized motivation - to make an innocent officer pay for the perceived sins of law enforcement - as entirely abhorrent and morally corrupt, it is also wrong to ascribe this murder to other citizens legally asserting their Constitutional rights to protest and express their critique of current events.
Darren Goforth's life matters. Cops' lives matter. Both are true, but we will not improve the safety of cops or better answer the questions and concerns that arise from these murders by getting into a rhetorical debate over language. That will just continue to increase the divide and ensure the distance between police officers and communities.
It might be easier to indulge our anger; frankly, there have been some deeply troubling, even threatening, comments made about police in recent months. But the law enforcement oath to protect freedom does not stop when First Amendment expression is aimed in our direction. Our job right now is to think about how we can help our officers and deputies continue to serve at the highest level of honor and respect, in service of the Constitution, without letting anger or fear compromise or endanger them further.
Focusing on the important work of police officers rather than arguing about words actually serves two key purposes. First, it allows the public to focus on the fact that, as officers, we serve the citizenry at grave expense without prejudice, but with pride and undaunted courage. It is much more difficult to ignore the real experiences of cops when the public must confront this fact – as it must in the wake of Deputy Goforth's death – and we should not diminish that. In any case, the memory and legacy of those who have died in uniform deserves attention undistracted by politics and rhetoric.
Secondly, taking what might be called "the high road" will be good for our profession regardless of the reason behind last week's murder. Even when we are pressed to the brink, our sworn duty remains the same and we should not veer from it. Ensuring that officers are ready to get in their patrol cars, walk their beats, and enforce the law with an even-handedness and even-temper, despite this apparent threat, will help diminish the gap between cops and the community.
As that gap closes, the anger and protest we have faced will lessen. We will be safer in our jobs and the communities we serve will be safer as well.
Rest In Peace, Deputy Goforth.
Ted Sexton, Executive Vice President of UNIT Solutions, is also the retired Sheriff of Tuscaloosa County, a former National Sheriff’s Association “Sheriff of the Year,” and former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.