Screen-Shot-2015-06-18-at-10.59.01-PMThe hostile open letter published by FOP Local 614 president Dave Mutchler on Thursday received immediate and well-deserved criticism. Mayor Greg Fischer denounced it, if obliquely, as not reflective of “the sentiments of me or the vast majority of Louisville’s citizens.” Former Metro Council member Attica Scott described it as an open threat to the community. And popular online activists such as Shaun King have called national critical attention to it.

Criticism hasn’t been the only reaction, however. The Bardstown Police Department Facebook account reprinted the letter in full, saying they found the letter to be “so compelling, true, and fact based” that they had to share it.

The letter begins by identifying three separate audiences: “the public we serve,” the “criminal element in our city,” and “the self appointed spokespersons” who are “sensationalists, liars and race-baiters,” and who do assorted bad things “to forward their political agendas.” Mutchler addresses each group in turn.

Apparently Mutchler believes these three audiences are mutually exclusive. The public whom police serve appears to be limited to “those of you that support us” (rather than all citizens) who compose a “silent majority,” a phrase most famously used by Richard Nixon in 1969 to denounce anti-war demonstrators as fringe extremists.

The letter contains a bizarre and troubling warning that this noble group of quiet police boosters may be asked to “rise with us against the small, but very vocal group of people” who resist “freedom, safety, and the ability to live our lives happily and without fear.”

Judging by the next two paragraphs, that very vocal group of people includes not just people who commit crimes, but also anyone who dares to criticize police tactics. That’s a startling threat against a segment of the public the police are constitutionally sworn to serve and protect regardless of their opinions.

The phrase “criminal element” invokes the image of a tribe or a race of people who exist only to break the law. But what are the membership criteria? Is a felony conviction the entry requirement to this class, or will a simple misdemeanor suffice? Depending on where you set the bar, the “criminal element” in this city could include everyone who has ever gotten a traffic ticket. Historically, however, the phrase has been used as a dog whistle reference to urban African-Americans.

And who are the other troublemakers to whom the letter is addressed? Mutchler doesn’t name names, but his ire for “ridiculous demands and anti-law enforcement attitude” is most certainly aimed at local activists who recently held a public meeting to calmly discuss the shooting of Sudanese immigrant Deng Manyoun by LMPD officer Nathan Blandford.

Notably, the local public response to Manyoun’s death has been incredibly tepid compared to the protests and disorder caused by the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md. That’s probably because video footage clearly shows Manyoun swinging a flag pole at officer Blandford seconds before he is shot dead. Unlike in other cases where unarmed black men and boys were killed by police in situations where they posed no threat at all, like Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., or Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Manyoun appears to have posed at least some danger to Blandford’s life.

It is highly doubtful any jury would convict Blandford of any crime, and there has been no indication at all that any charges will be pressed against him. Not even the activists Mutchler denounces have called for Blandford to be prosecuted.

So what have these sensationalist race-baiters done to deserve the FOP’s ire? Jaison Gardner, a longtime community activist who participates in the Stand Up Sundays group discussions, recently made the less-than-outrageous demand for more transparency in police actions through body cameras, drug and alcohol testing for officers who shoot people, and a civilian review commission. Others have simply suggested that police explore new, non-lethal tactics when confronted with hostile resistance instead of immediately shooting to kill. All in all, these are fairly reasonable suggestions.

There haven’t been significant public demonstrations in Louisville since a large, peaceful solidarity march several months ago. There have been no disruptions, no chaos, and no inflammatory demands for open resistance to police. The local media, who Mutchler also makes sure to insult, has largely followed the “no angel” playbook, dehumanizing Manyuon by exposing his criminal record, despite it being irrelevant to the question of whether Blandford acted reasonably at the moment he fired his gun.

Mutchler’s letter is so dangerous because police officers wield tremendous power and privilege. Our life and liberty as citizens are often literally in their hands. When someone claiming to represent police officers puts citizens “on notice” for their “attitude,” promising to meet them “with force” should they dare not comply with orders, it invokes the most terrifying aspects of a fascist police state.

Police are public servants. They answer to all of us as citizens, even those who don’t reflexively defend their every action. They don’t get to decide who in the community they will protect and who they will target for retribution. That’s not how a democratic, constitutional society works.

I assume by criticizing Mutchler’s ill-conceived threats to the public I will be added to his list of “sensationalists, liars, and race-baiters.”

So be it. In a free society we are entitled, right or wrong, to criticize the actions of our public servants without fear of retribution by agents of the government. Those public servants swear an oath to the Constitution, which still includes, much to Mr. Mutchler’s apparent disdain, the First Amendment.

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Joe Dunman
Joe Dunman is a Louisville, Kentucky attorney whose practice focuses on civil rights and employment law. He tweets @JoeDunman and blogs at www.joedunmanlaw.com.