LUMBERTON — Within hours of the deadliest day for U.S. law enforcement since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Lumberton police officers joined hands and bowed their heads in the downtown plaza.
They called on God for the strength and courage to do their jobs, the guidance to make the right decisions, and protection for themselves and those they are sworn to protect. They prayed for five police officers killed at what had been a peaceful protest in Dallas the night before, and for the communities rocked by the recent police killings that prompted Thursday’s protest, where hundreds were gathered when at least one sniper opened fire, wounding an additional seven officers and two people in the crowd.
“We’ve got to come together as a nation and to make the violence stop,” Police Chief Mike McNeill told the group of officers — and one stranger, who seeing the service in progress, paused to join the prayer.
For some of the officers, the prayer service was the first thing they did Friday while making their routine, start-of-shift rounds ahead of what was likely to be a somber, tense day.
“It’s never a good thing when a life is taken,” Detective Chuck Leavitt said, “but those are the times we live in. I feel there is a current trend of ‘us against them’ and really we need to work together.”
Officers at Friday’s service in Lumberton said they felt judged for the actions of others, and that often judgments are made about officer-involved shootings before all the facts are available. On Wednesday, an officer in Minnesota fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop, with a woman and a child in his car. Tuesday, Alton Sterling was shot in Louisiana while pinned to the ground. The killings of each man, both of whom were black, were largely captured on video.
The one known Dallas shooter told officers he was upset about recent shootings and wanted to kill white officers. That happened as police tried to negotiate his surrender, and shortly before they used a bomb to kill him.
“It’s bad when anyone loses a life — citizens or police officers — but it touches home that they’re picking us out for something we have no control over,” said Lt. James Atkinson.
“It’s like a battle,” said Sgt. Jerry Kinlaw. ” … They look at us and we didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Other local police chiefs said Friday that they plan to speak to their officers about Thursday’s shooting.
“It’s a bad thing that people have come to do things like that,” said St. Pauls Police Chief R. Thomas Hagens. “We will be talking about what has happened and what we can do to be more safe.”
Fairmont Police Chief Kimothy Monroe called the shooting in Dallas a tragedy for law enforcement and the public alike.
“Lives were lost and lives have been devalued as if they meant nothing. If we as a people are really concerned about the events of this week, let’s discover ways to improve community-police relations and prevent tragedies like the ones that have happened in recent years,” he said.
Monroe cautioned against holding everyone accountable for the actions of the few.
“Hatred and anger only create more divisiveness among our communities,” he said. “We can only improve by coming together as a community to prevent tragedies like that of Dallas.”
McNeill said in light of the shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas, he wants Lumberton residents to remember that emergency responders are part of the community as well. To that end, he encourages Lumberton officers to get out of their patrol cars for at least 30 minutes each day so residents can see the faces behind the dark-tinted windows.
“We’re subject to the same emotions as they are,” he said. “We’re human just like they are. We make mistakes just like they do. Just don’t hold us all to them.”
At least two people on Friday must have received the message of the morning service. Shortly after the service ended, two women, saying they wanted officers to know they were thinking of them in light of the Dallas shooting, delivered flowers and sandwiches to the Police Department.