Val Demings, a Democrat, represents Florida’s 10th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This week, Attorney General William P. Barr honored 19 law enforcement officers selected by the Justice Department for “Distinguished Service in Policing.” I’m glad he did. I have no doubt that each officer earned the distinction. Law enforcement is a tough and dangerous job, and we are unwaveringly grateful for those who go above and beyond the call of duty. 

Unfortunately, while speaking to the officers, the attorney general showed that he simply does not understand the foundational values of modern American policing. “If communities don’t give . . . support and respect” to law enforcement, he said, “they might find themselves without the police protection they need.” 

I hope this statement was made in ignorance rather than malice. It is a knife in the heart of decades of painstaking work to develop bonds of trust between police and the communities they serve.

Law enforcement is not a protection racket. It is a sacred charge. We take an oath not to any individual or faction but to the Constitution, or, in other words, to society at large. Because, at the end of the day, law enforcement and the community are the same. The police are the community, and the community is the police.

I served 27 years in law enforcement. I won’t lie to you: Serving as a black, female police officer, I faced barriers both inside and outside the law enforcement community. When I was appointed Orlando’s first female chief of police, one online commenter’s reaction was, “Black bitch — what’s she gonna do?”

Despite the challenges, I loved my career. Modern policing, at its best, is a dynamic, constructive, collaborative and empowering relationship between officers and civilians, predicated on the fundamental principle that in the eyes of the law, all of us are equal.

The attorney general’s words were so disappointing because that modern dynamic was not inevitable — nor is it perfect today.

The origins of organized law enforcement in America are complicated. From the early all-volunteer night watches of Boston and New York, to private detectives rented out to the highest bidder, to the sheriffs, marshals and mobs of the West — there have always been honorable people who enforced the law because it was the right thing to do, as well as those who used the law as a cudgel for their own personal gain.

Race has never been far in the background. During the civil rights era, politicians ordered police violence against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, including my colleague Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). In recent decades, disparate policing of minority communities exploded into wider public consciousness with the Ferguson, Mo., riots and the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Barr referenced certain “communities” that have failed to give the police proper deference, it seems clear he meant black and brown communities — the very communities in which we should be working the hardest to build relationships and cooperation.

Fortunately, despite the attorney general’s misguided priorities, the Justice Department still understands those principles. Six of the officers honored this week were awarded for “innovations in community policing.” Officer Jonathan Plunkett of Irving, Tex., for example, was commended for creating an outreach program to reconnect with the black community following the assassinations of five Dallas police officers in 2016.

Modern policing demands a great deal from the men and women who wear the badge over their hearts. It asks for selflessness. It asks for courage. And it requires, every day, that each officer put the common good before their own personal needs.

The United States’ law enforcement community does not protect and serve in exchange for plaudits or praise. Officers don’t withhold that protection out of malice or spite. They have chosen a career of service and duty, and they put their lives on the line every day because they believe in the greater good.

Barr this week suggested otherwise. He suggested that sworn officers of the law either would or should violate their oaths, for no other reason than simple pique. It is a fundamental betrayal of everything we have tried to accomplish in centuries of reform and growth, as we try to bend the arc toward justice.

Perhaps I should not be surprised by the man who misled the public about the Mueller report, who has politicized investigations and who seems to think of the Justice Department as the president’s own personal protection agency. But I wish I were.

President Theodore Roosevelt said, “No man is above the law, and no man is below it.” But the law can only be as fair as the human beings who enforce it. I was proud to be one of them. Every day, I am amazed by the thousands of men and women who serve, and I pray for them daily. They deserve leaders who clearly understand the true meaning of “Protect and Serve.”

Read more: