As our nation battles COVID-19, the Rio Grande Valley repeatedly makes national news because of how rapidly the virus is spreading here. 

Hospitals are beyond capacity, and some of those who have died are being kept in refrigerated trucks because they cannot be embalmed and buried as fast as they are dying. 

Because of the virus, usually only a few family members attend funerals or graveside services.

In the midst of this tragedy, last weekend, the Valley suffered another tragedy. Two McAllen police officers, Edelmiro Garza and Ismael Chavez, were murdered as they answered a domestic disturbance call. These senseless murders came about a year after the murders of Mission Police Officer Jose Luis “Speedy” Espericueta, Jr. and DPS Trooper Moises Sanchez.  

Four Valley law enforcement officers murdered in a span of 13 months. “Tragedy” is an inadequate descriptor. All four of these officers had wives, children, brothers, sisters, and numerous other family and friends who loved them, and who will mourn their loss for the rest of their lives. We all have lost in innumerable ways. Tragic.

If we are deeply pained and enraged by the murders of George Floyd and Rayshad Brooks, so must we be deeply pained and enraged by the murders of these four men, good men who dedicated their lives to the service of others. Perhaps we do not take to the streets in protest, but we must find ways to show our grief, our pain, and our anger. We must find ways to change the nature of the relationship between our police and our community.

McAllen police officers, and officers throughout the nation who have endured the murder of a brother or sister must feel besieged on all fronts. It is understandable if they feel unappreciated, unwanted and abandoned by the communities they have sworn to serve. 

But we simply cannot allow that to be the case. We must not allow that. They are a part of us. We are a part of them. We, civilians and police, should feel we are parts of the same community. As John Donne said in “No Man is an Island”, every one of us is “a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.  

Yes, police and, more importantly, policing, in the United States has come in for a lot of deserved scrutiny and criticism. However, it is imperative we not equate police officers in general with the systemic problems we have with policing. That is an absolutely and reprehensibly false equivalency.

These men were loved; and by all accounts, rightfully so. McAllen Police Sergeant Kevin Baron said this of his fallen brothers, Officers Garza and Chavez: “‘Always seen with a smile, both of them,’ he said as tears welled in his eyes. ‘They never had a frown, and were always willing to help everybody. Just great people, wonderful hearts’.” (A, Coleen DeGuzman, The Monitor, 15 July 2020, I have no doubts much the same has been said of Officer Espericueta and Trooper Sanchez.

While law enforcement officers do not have the most dangerous jobs in the U.S., they do have on one of the most dangerous, and one of the most stressful jobs. The FBI reports, in 2019, 89 officers throughout the nation lost their lives in the line of duty. Of those, over half, 48, died of gunshots. For the first 6 months of this year 65 have died in the line of duty; 28 by gunshots. We should view 154 officer line of duty deaths in 18 months as 154 too many.

Sadly, this tells only part of the story. According to a police advocacy organization, Blue H.E.L.P. 228 current and former law enforcement officers committed suicide in 2019. So far, in 2020, 93 current and former officers have committed suicide.  Most of us do not understand the stress of law enforcement officers’ jobs and the toll it takes on them. And this is another important reason why we need to change the nature of policing in our nation, as well as the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities within which they work.

Questions: Should it be the responsibility of police to answer domestic dispute calls? Or, would we be better off if these calls were answered by social workers who had been educated in how best to deal with domestic disputes and violence? Without question, when domestic violence is involved, as apparently was the call officers Garza and Chavez responded to, police should be there for support in case social workers cannot defuse the situation, and especially if it escalates.

We cannot speculate how many times a domestic disturbance situation would not end in injury or death if addressed initially by educated social workers, but it is reasonable to believe there would be fewer instances of injury or death.

Sadly, we are a violent society; and our police officers are on both the delivery and the receiving end of that violence. Obviously, violence has been pandemic throughout human history. However, some nations have learned how to minimize violence within their societies. Of the developed nations of the world, the U.S. is by far the most violent, and has by far the largest per capita prison population in the world. These are not things to be proud of, but to be embarrassed by, and ashamed of.

From colonial times, our nation has been marked by excessive violence—the genocide of Native Americans that commenced in the early 1500’s, with wars and massacres continuing until the end of the 1800’s. The genocide continues today in less violent but definitely deadly ways, including police murders of Native Americans.

Independence did not change that. From our Revolution to the current, seemingly never ending war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has fought at least 101 wars. For over 69% of our history as a nation, we have been at war with someone; ourselves included. Violence is deeply ingrained in our nation, and we are doing little to reduce it. Indeed many political leaders, specifically President Trump, encourage violence rather than try to diminish it.

We say we are a “peace loving nation”, but the facts dispute that. Maybe “We the People” do love peace; but the culture of violence is so deeply ingrained within our society, and is so beneficial to those who control our institutions of government and business our love of peace is subverted.

Into this culture walk our law enforcement officers, into what has been described and in some respects actually are “war zones” wrought by the injustices rampant within our society. We know the origins of policing—hunting down runaway slaves and keeping recent immigrants and poor workers “in their place”.

There are two major components to policing today—one worthy and necessary; the other not so much. First, our police are charged with enforcing our laws, keeping the peace, and protecting our fellow citizens. Second is the tradition of policing, to keep “the great unwashed”—irrespective of ethnicity—“in their place”.

If we do not want our law enforcement officers being murdered any more than we want our law enforcement officers murdering our fellow citizens, we need to understand why these killings continue to occur, and why so many law enforcement officers ultimately take their own lives. We need to make fundamental changes, but not only in policing. We need to make fundamental changes in the structure, organization, and functioning of our socio-economic and political systems, of our society at large.

Just as I grieve for the families, fellow officers and friends of George Floyd and Rayshad Brooks, I grieve for the family, fellow officers and friends of Officers Edelmiro Garza and Ismael Chavez, as well as the families and friends of Officer Jose Luis “Speedy” Espericueta, Jr. and DPS Trooper Moises Sanchez.

It is imperative we stop piling tragedy upon tragedy.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by writer and academic Samuel Freeman. It appears in The Rio Grande Guardian with the author’s consent. Freeman can be reached at: [email protected]

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