What the Paris Attacks Teach Us About Policing in America

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 12:  French troops patrol around the Eifel Tower on January 12, 2015 in Paris, France. France is set
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 12: French troops patrol around the Eifel Tower on January 12, 2015 in Paris, France. France is set to deploy 10,000 troops to boost security following last week's deadly attacks while also mobilizing thousands of police to patrol Jewish schools and synagogues. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The recent terror attacks in Paris should teach the U.S. two things.

The nature of terrorism has changed dramatically. While we continue to worry about dirty bombs in crowded cities, the real threat now is more subversive and unpredictable -- the specter of individual gunmen wreaking havoc in smaller, but deadlier, increments. Terrorism has just become personal.

The second thing we need to recognize is that the most important line of defense in the war on terror may no longer be the U.S. military or drones but local police departments around the country.

Yet relations between police and the civilian population are at an all-time low, a crisis situation that must be resolved urgently. It is no longer just an issue of social justice but of effective policing, without which we will be sitting ducks for terrorists. That requires both sides to come together, set some reasonable guidelines, and get on with keeping our streets safe.

Part of this discussion, of course, must revolve around the issue of police brutality, but the other part of the discussion has to focus on the reality of policing in America, and what is required by cops to do their very difficult jobs.

Nowhere is this more obvious right now than in New York City, where a disconnect between the NYPD and the city has created not only extreme hostility against the police but a pseudo work stoppage amongst cops. The assumed reason for this is the ongoing cold war between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police union, but that is the wrong explanation.

The real reason that the NYPD has pulled back from policing actively is the fear of being criticized and attacked by the public for every little action they take.

The police have two basic functions.The first is to prevent crime. This involves being out on the streets, keeping an eye out for possible criminal behavior, and occasionally investigating someone who may be about to commit a crime. The second is to respond when a crime is being or has been committed.

Both these tasks are vital but in the wake of the outrage over Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the NYPD is understandably uncertain about how to conduct their jobs without every little decision they make being second-guessed by those with no understanding of the real-world challenges of law enforcement, and by politicians eager to win points with the public by scapegoating the police.

This situation is dangerous and could easily lead to an increase in both domestic crime as well as leave us vulnerable to the type of guerilla terror attacks that Paris just witnessed and which Mumbai saw a few years ago. It's perfectly fine to debate the effectiveness of police tactics, but it's not fine to create hysteria by putting the spotlight on only the negative incidents and using that to put chains around the entire institution of law enforcement.

That is exactly what is happening now and it needs to stop.

Here is a simple fact. The police and the communities they serve need each other. Without the trust of the community, the job of the police becomes exponentially harder (as it has now). On the other hand, if a crazed gunman terrorizes our streets, the people who will stand between us and unimaginable violence are the brave men and women of the police, not the protestors marching across bridges or disrupting retail outlets. That may sound harsh but it is also the reality of things.

To reiterate, in the wake of the Paris attacks, America needs to recognize and acknowledge just how critical the police is to our safety and national security, and how urgent it is to restore the relationship between society and the police before it deteriorates further. Hopefully leaders from both sides of the divide can begin this important dialogue and bridge that gap before it's too late.