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Editorial: Law & politics shouldn’t mix

This campaign season has been full of discomforting moments and unprecedented attacks. Among them is the trotting out of law enforcement officers in TV ads to take sides in the race for North Carolina governor.

Officers are citizens, too, and they have the right to take a stand. The state’s sheriffs are elected, after all, and make no secret of their party affiliation. That includes Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten, a Republican who probably is grateful that he is not up for re-election in 2016. Running for sheriff, though, is quite different from taking a high-profile stand in a hotly contested gubernatorial race.

Law enforcement has figured prominently in this year’s campaign because Democratic candidate Roy Cooper is the state’s top law enforcer, the attorney general. People promoting Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s re-election brought in officers to say that Cooper wasn’t doing his job as attorney general. The Cooper camp rebutted with testimonials from other officers praising Cooper for his work. All appeared in paid political commercials.

Seeing officers get in the thick of partisan politics raises doubts. Can people who wear Hillary Clinton T-shirts be at ease with deputies whose sheriff has publicly gone all-in for McCrory? Vice versa, if an officer has appeared on TV supporting Cooper, should someone with a Trump bumper sticker wonder about his fairness in enforcing the law?

These may seem like unfair questions at a time when law enforcement is under tremendous pressure — and even attack — over officer-involved killings. In a way,  high expectations are a compliment. Law enforcement is such a vital part of our society that we expect officers to rise above the biases and opinions that the rest of us act upon every day — and even get carried away with. Police and deputies know better than anyone the troubles tearing at our society; they may feel their political leanings more strongly than most. But we count on them to protect everyone, regardless, and to pursue wrongdoers no matter what interest or politics they espouse.

Politics and the law may never have been entirely separate, but this is no time for them to start mixing more.

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