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Opinion Yes, we should ‘back the blue.’ But they must fulfill their oaths.

A police officer places flowers at a memorial at Robb Elementary School days after a mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex. (Briana Sanchez/American-Statesman via Reuters)
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What good is law enforcement if we cannot trust it to keep Americans safe? That’s a question I bet many Americans are wondering after two revelations in recent days.

The first concerns details of the police response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., earlier this week. While details are still being uncovered, it appears police officers refused to confront the shooter while there was time to save lives. Instead, they spent time corralling distraught parents outside the school and rejected pleas to do their jobs and storm the building — even as students were calling 911 from inside the classrooms. At best, they demonstrated incompetence on a massive scale. At worst, it was cowardice and a refusal to fulfill their responsibility to protect the public.

This is not the first time that armed law enforcement failed to protect innocent children in a school shooting. The school resource officer charged with protecting the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., decided to hide rather than confront the gunman. Seventeen people died that day. The officer has been disgraced and is facing trial, but that won’t bring back the children he could have saved when it counted.

The second revelation comes in the form of the Justice Department refusing to charge FBI investigators who allegedly lied and covered up information about Larry Nassar, the doctor who sexually assaulted hundreds of young female gymnasts. One of the FBI agents, who were accused of making false statements to other investigators and ignoring detailed evidence of Nassar’s wrongdoing, was fired (the other retired). But that’s simply not enough. Nassar continued to assault teens after these agents learned something was amiss. Average citizens who intentionally mislead law enforcement are routinely charged with crimes. Law enforcement officials who betray their oaths and cover up criminal behavior should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one.

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Misbehavior among law enforcement is especially egregious because the people they protect have surrendered their power to right wrongs on the expectation that officers will do the job better and more fairly. Police have an effective legal monopoly on the use of force in dangerous situations. Imagine what their response would have been if armed parents had tried to storm the school to save their children.

Similarly, investigators and public prosecutors effectively control what charges are brought against those who break the law. When they fail to do so, the people have no recourse. When either party refuses to do their job, they need to be held accountable, full stop.

Contrast the police officers’ apparent cowardice in Uvalde with the first responders on 9/11. The latter earned our gratitude because they knew they might be marching to their deaths as they climbed the twin towers to save lives. Indeed, hundreds did lose their lives that day. We mourned their sacrifice and honored them because we knew we might have succumbed to the temptation to put ourselves first.

Confidence in public institutions is falling in part because of the belief that the people within those institutions do not work for the public’s benefit. Worse, many of those who exercise terrible judgment, such as the Federal Reserve governors who presided over the 2008 financial collapse and today’s entirely foreseeable inflation surge, keep their jobs. Nearly a year after the devastating and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, none of the senior military officials who presided over the catastrophe have been fired. The idea that there are two sets of rules — one for the powerful and another for the rest of the country — is gaining credence precisely because there are so many examples that it is true.

This wasn’t always the case. Generals who lost important battles, such as the mauling of Allied forces at Kasserine Pass in World War II, were relieved of command because of their failures. Now, the “too big to fail” mantra that has been applied to large financial institutions seems to have morphed into “too important to face the consequences” for many high-ranking officials.

This does not mean that we should view law enforcement with contempt or “defund the police.” Most law enforcement officials do their jobs and put their lives on the line. Like the heroes of 9/11, they should be praised and deserve our respect. But those who egregiously and catastrophically fail should not be allowed to skate by on other people’s bravery.

“Back the blue” is a good slogan. But we should only back the true blue — the people who fulfill their oaths and deserve our respect.

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