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Georgia View: Shake Your Sheriff’s Hand

Among many sources of pride in being southern is witnessing the frequent gratitude, courtesy and respect paid here to our men and women in uniform. A recent run through Hartsfield-Jackson Airport included a warm, thoughtful and sincere taped message of thanks and greetings to America’s military from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. And that is as it should be.

Yet I can also recall from my childhood the different and less-welcoming treatment given to our returning Vietnam-era veterans. While those less-than-courteous recollections are now a bit hazy for me, they certainly remain crystal clear for those who suffered such ill treatment.

A Vietnam War vet once recounted to me a vivid portrait of his return stateside following his second tour of duty. Dressed in uniform, nearing his second day of transit on a military cargo craft and his last leg home on a domestic commercial craft, he described the family sharing his row on the flight turning their backs and not recognizing or speaking to him. Welcome home soldier.

I am more recently sensing some similar unwarranted treatment gaining steam toward another group of men and women in uniform: our thousands of law enforcement personnel across this country.

Criminal justice analysts are starting to speak of a dual-edged theory known as the “Ferguson Effect.” Police, deputies, troopers and correction officers alike may be second-guessing themselves regardless of whether their actions are legitimate or not, knowing that they will be documented on police cameras or cell phones. At the same time, crowds of people are sometimes impeding or blocking law enforcement professionals from doing their job to serve and protect, even at some of the most basic arrests and crime scenes.

Since 2010, it has been reported that in 184 instances in Georgia, police shootings have ended in fatalities. In half of those instances, the victims were either unarmed or shot in the back. I in no way belittle or wish to minimize those injuries or loss of life, and rogue cops need to be identified and weeded out of the system. But among Georgia’s more than 500 law enforcement agencies across that same five-year span, how many thousands of criminals were correctly apprehended, prosecuted and are now doing time?

Having witnessed more than a few crime scenes and even a couple of mass murderers in flight (during my reporting years), I can clearly attest that I never witnessed an assailant or suspect running toward law enforcement. In every attempt to escape or elude capture, they were running away with their backs toward the good guys. When shots were fired, most typically they were in the direction of a fleeing suspect’s back.

Real bad guys prefer simply to get the hell out of dodge. Only in the movies do the two sides face off, exchange dialogue and then trade fire.

In a year’s time, the number of Georgia highway fatalities will number in the hundreds, most due to distracted or impaired driving, and yet no one is protesting in the streets to end the use of smartphones or to extend the death penalty for DUI resulting in vehicular homicide.

Entry-level police and corrections officers as well as some sheriff’s deputies make less than Georgia’s schoolteachers, whom we almost universally consider underpaid. The job of a cop or a deputy comes at all hours 365 days a year, while the threat of violence committed against those in uniform is multiplying. From a routine traffic stop to a domestic dispute gone violent, our men and women in blue must at all times be prepared for situations to rapidly deteriorate, forcing life-and-death decisions to be made in a matter of seconds.

Which brings me back to the good guys. They are far from perfect, but like the soldier, they deserve our thanks. Say hello, salute, wave and smile at your neighborhood beat cop.

You could presume that a uniform simply means a better-dressed bully seeking their next opportunity for unjustified brutality and witness the declining pool of recruits signing up for the police academy.

Or you could shake your sheriff’s or area deputy’s hand and ask what you can do to help make your community safer. Saying thank you is free, and you should never underestimate the power of a smile.

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