Story County Sheriff’s Deputy Defends “Civil War” vs. Police Comment

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New York Post/Fair use

Last week, after a gunman fatally shot five Dallas cops during a Black Lives Matter protest against recent police killings of African American men in Louisiana and Minnesota, Story County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Barry Thomas responded to the tragedy in a letter to the FBI National Academy Associates Inc., a nonprofit law enforcement organization with about 17,000 members where he currently serves as president of the executive board.

In the letter — which you can read in its entirety at the end of this post — Thomas mourned the deaths of his fellow officers in Texas and called on police to “work to help heal the wounds and not contribute to the divide” between cops and other citizens. He added that the “civil war that is erupting between those of us wearing the uniform and the general public has to stop. Too many lives depend on it.”

The “civil war” phrasing was reminiscent of the headline on the New York Post’s front page following the shooting, which read, “CIVIL WAR: Four cops killed at anti-police protest” (the fifth officer died later). The cover was widely criticized by journalists, who argued that the headline sensationalized an isolated incident, implying that the BLM movement, which was quick to condemn the violence, was to blame before all the details of the shootings were confirmed and despite that police had said protesters helped assist in their investigation amid the chaos. Jamelle Bouie, a Slate political reporter (who is black), accused the rag of “stoking racial paranoia.” Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone called the framing of the tragedy as “civil war” at an “anti-police protest,” as opposed to a protest against police brutality, “shockingly irresponsible.” (The shooter, who police killed using a robot-delivered bomb, was black and reportedly wanted to kill white people, but had no clear ties to the BLM movement.)

In an email exchange, Thomas told the Informer that his civil war remark was not intended to be inflammatory or racially charged — an interpretation that hadn’t crossed his mind — but said he was sorry if it came across that way to anyone. “My meaning had nothing to do with race and everything to do with the division between communities and law enforcement,” he said. “Two factions in the same country not getting along and violence resulting because of the divide.”

The only Story County Sheriff’s officer to be killed in the line of duty in Iowa’s history, according to an Iowa Department of Public Safety list, was Sheriff Charles McGriff, who in 1941 died in a shootout with an escaped mental patient. (The list also includes Ames Police Sgt. Howard Snider, who died in 2012, but in an off-duty drowning accident while boating.)

However, Thomas said his comment “was a general statement about the current climate nationally, not just about what happened in Dallas” (or what’s happened in central Iowa). As FBINAA’s president, he said, “I have advocated for us (law enforcement leaders) to be bigger than the problem. To seek engagement with our communities and to take the first steps to heal wounds. We have an obligation to do so even when we hurt.”

As of July 8, 26 police officers had been killed this year in the U.S., a 44 percent jump from the 18 killed by the same point in 2015. Meanwhile, an estimated 518 people have been shot and killed by cops this year — a disproportionate 127 of them black — according to a Washington Post database. Nationwide, blacks are much likelier than whites and other groups to be the victims of the use of force by police. Iowa has one of the worst track records in the country on African American incarceration rates relative to whites, with a disparity of more than 10 to 1.

Thomas suggested that the way the media covers news of people killed by police has contributed to the divide that he spoke of in his letter to the FBINAA. Cops are too often portrayed as “bad guys,” he said, their good deeds too often going unnoticed. “I promise, the way law enforcement officers are currently typically portrayed by many media outlets and most politicians, it stings,” he said. “Most of the 900,000 law enforcement officers in the U.S. go out every day and do a great job but we are traditionally portrayed poorly when one of us makes a mistake or is perceived to have made a mistake … and we hurt and we get angry and we want to retreat, but we can’t because we swore an oath to protect and serve.”

He ended his email with another controversial phrase, saying that, “as a Christian, I am a firm believer that ‘all lives matter’ and when I craft any message personally or professionally, I try to reflect that.” Critics contend that the phrase “all lives matter” has been used to silence the specific complaints of the BLM movement by wrongly suggesting that their unique struggles are no different than those of other groups.

During a panel discussion last October with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Marshall Project Editor-in-Chief Bill Keller, President Obama described BLM’s rhetorical importance: “I think the reason that the organizers used the phrase ‘black lives matter’ was not because they were suggesting nobody else’s lives matter. What they were suggesting was, there is a specific problem that is happening in the African American community that’s not happening in other communities. And that is a legitimate issue that we’ve got to address.”

“My words indicating ‘all lives matter’ include every person in the ‘black lives matter’ movement,” Thomas replied in a follow-up email. “It is obvious in some sectors of our country we need more conversation on law enforcement relations with African Americans. However, in many places, those problems don’t seem as prevalent and that usually has to do with ongoing engagement between law enforcement officials and citizens. That type of back and forth is exactly what I’ve tried to encourage all of our members to continue and I’m confident most are.”

In Story County, where racial tensions certainly exist, engagement efforts include the Ames Police’s regular collaborations with the local chapter of the NAACP and its formation of a Safe Neighborhoods Team focused on building positive relationships with the community. In predominantly white rural Story County, the sheriff’s office manages programs like Farm Watch, which is intended to build relationships between law enforcement officials, farmers, and others in order to help reduce crime.

On Thursday at the Body of Christ Church downtown, the Ames Progressive Alliance community group is hosting an event from 7-9 p.m. with members of the city’s police department to discuss the recent shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas, and how they may relate to opportunities for positive change locally.

Here’s the full text of the letter Thomas sent to FBIAA members:

Men and Women of the FBI National Academy Associates,

As I write this, I am mad, hurt and saddened by what has taken place in Dallas. The senseless killing and violence that transpired is appalling and our hearts go out to the entire Dallas law enforcement community. Our job as peace officers is very hard and tragedies like those faced in Dallas make it even more difficult. While the loss of our colleagues may evoke anger in each of you as it has me, I pray this will not broaden the gap between us and those in our own communities. This gap that is manifesting itself in violence must be addressed by both sides I pray we, as law enforcement leaders, will work to help heal the wounds and not contribute to the divide. This civil war that is erupting between those of us wearing the uniform and the general public has to stop. Too many lives depend on it.

Please join me in praying for those agencies and families in Dallas as they mourn the loss of their officers.

Barry

Capt. Barry M. Thomas
Chief Deputy
Story County Sheriff’s Office
Nevada, IA
President, FBI National Academy Associates

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.