Demonstrators In Birmingham, Ala., Rally In Support Of Police It's been rough for the nation's police departments over the last several months. Many are dealing with mounting criticism after black men died in encounters with police in Missouri and New York.

Demonstrators In Birmingham, Ala., Rally In Support Of Police

Demonstrators In Birmingham, Ala., Rally In Support Of Police

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It's been rough for the nation's police departments over the last several months. Many are dealing with mounting criticism after black men died in encounters with police in Missouri and New York.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Across the United States police departments have been facing tough questions after black men died in encounters with police. The rallying cry for protesters has been black lives matter. Now, in cities like Seattle and Denver, supporters of police officers are holding their own events with the slogan police lives matter. That was the message at an event yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, as Melanie Peeples report.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN")

MELANIE PEEPLES, BYLINE: It's a raw, gray day as former Birmingham Police Officer Scott Morro stands in front of the city's monument to slain officers, and plays Aaron Copland's "Fanfare For The Common Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT MORRO: That's what police officers are, but they're special also. They're courageous. They have valor, loyalty. Police lives matter.

(APPLAUSE)

PEEPLES: It was a common refrain. And for every police lives matters a speaker uttered, they followed it with all lives matter. It's clear they feel defensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL DAVIS: We're called racists, bigots and a few other names that I can't mention in public.

PEEPLES: Bill Davis is a retired police officer from up the road in Huntsville.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVIS: But we're sworn to serve and protect. Instead, now we have to serve and survive. I know that these times we do make mistakes. Officers are human. We can make mistakes. We do make mistakes.

PEEPLES: And when officers make mistakes, their critics have the luxury of hindsight, says Jefferson County Sheriff Deputy David Crews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID CREWS: Many people love to be Monday morning quarterbacks and judge what we do during a use of force encounter. We have a job that requires us to make split-second decisions sometimes concerning life and death.

PEEPLES: They are not decisions police officers want to make, says Birmingham Police Officer Ed Watkins, a 27-year veteran of the New York Police Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED WATKINS: You know, I don't know too many police officers that leave their house on a daily basis and say I'm going to beat somebody up for no reason. I'm going to shoot somebody for no reason. I've been in three shootouts. I don't know if I got any witnesses here. I've taken three slugs to the vest when my eldest - my middle child, my son is 25 - he was 6 days old and all I could think about because I couldn't get up. I tried to get up. I couldn't. I was watching my weapon, trying to get to it as the fire continued, struggling. All I could think about was my son, my son, my son, my son.

PEEPLES: Pretty much everyone at this rally is either a current or former law enforcement officer, or related to one. Clearly, they're closing ranks. A reminder that law enforcement officers should follow their training, resist second-guessing themselves. As one former police officer put it, it's better to be tried by 12 than carried by six.

Still, young black males have a greater risk of being shot dead by police than whites, according to a recent ProPublica analysis of federally collected data. This issue has polarized people across the country and feeds the perception that a person must choose between being for Michael Brown and Eric Garner or for the police. Criticize them if you will, says Birmingham Police Department Sergeant Heath Boackle. Just remember one thing...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOACKLE: But when you, in the public, forget what we do while you're sleeping, and who are you going to call when you need someone?

PEEPLES: Everyone here, he said, is doing their best. For NPR News, I'm Melanie Peeples in Birmingham.

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