Editorial: Protecting the public no easy job

  • Posted: Sunday, April 28, 2013 12:26 a.m.

The pressures police officers face in the line of duty stood out in high relief during the past two weeks. From the bombing in Boston to Salisbury Police Sgt. Mark Hunter’s funeral and former officer Kareem Puranda’s trial, the public has gained greater appreciation for the risks and responsibilities that go with law enforcement.

First, Boston. The bombs that ripped through crowds at the Boston Marathon left bystanders in a shocked daze, but police instantly swung into action, jumping to the aid of the injured and searching the crowd for suspects and dangers. Working with the FBI, Boston Police swiftly identified the suspects and hunted them down. A search many feared would take months came to a remarkably quick conclusion. Bravo.

Then last week, the sudden death of Salisbury’s Sgt. Hunter, felled by a heart attack at 51, brought forward an amazing outpouring of affection and respect.

City residents unfamiliar with the longtime officer before his death now wish they had known him during his career. Known for being harsh toward those who broke the law — and toward some who came close to breaking the law — Hunter showed a kinder side to the people he protected. West End residents shared stories of Hunter routinely shining a light on a frightened widow’s home, checking on a friend’s home while she was out of town and giving candy to children at McLaughlin’s Store, Hunter used action, not words, to demonstrate what a difference an officer’s commitment, attention and protection can mean to a community. He will be missed.

In a fateful twist, Hunter had been scheduled to testify for the government last week in the trial of his former partner, the younger Puranda, who faced two counts of violating civil rights by using excessive force during arrests. A video viewed in court showed Puranda body-slamming a suspect; a photo showed the bloodied and bludgeoned face of another arrestee. Other officers testified that they’d seen Puranda use force in a way they considered inappropriate. But Puranda justified his actions by saying he feared for his safety and had to act quickly, and the federal jury found him not guilty. As defense attorney Chris Fialko said, the trial showed what a difficult job police have. Even knowing what constitutes excessive force seems to be a challenge. “The fact that different officers have different opinions shows that it’s a gray line on the issue,” Fialko said.

Gray indeed. Both Puranda and Hunter were the subject of civil suits that the city settled out of court — for $40,000 in one suit involving both men, and $60,000 in another involving only Puranda.

“The police must obey the law while they enforce the law,” Justice Earl Warren once said, and most often they do. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about nine out of 10 people who had contact with police in 2008 felt the officer or officers behaved properly. In those instances when police use force or threatened force, however, 74 percent felt the force was excessive and 84 percent said police acted improperly.

Law enforcement officers have an unenviable job — protecting the public from bombers, thieves and attackers while walking the fine line between subduing suspects and unnecessarily injuring them. They work long hours, face high stress and receive low pay. Thank goodness there are men and women who feel a call to serve the public in this way. They protect us more than we know.

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