As anyone in law enforcement knows, upholding the peace often comes down to making tough, split-second decisions. A police officer must assess his options quickly, especially when faced with resistance from potentially dangerous individuals. But try as we might, bad things sometimes happen in the heat of a 400-year-old legacy of racism.

It’s a situation every officer of the law will inevitably face: tensions escalate during questioning or an arrest when, suddenly, in the commotion of four centuries of bias against racial minorities in the United States, the situation takes a violent turn. When emotions run high, it just takes two seconds following dozens of generations of systemic social, economic, and political discrimination toward non-whites—particularly African-Americans—for things to get way out of hand.

Our officers here in Ferguson know that as well as anyone.

You don’t want violence, of course—no one does. But sometimes when you’re out there, in the middle of longstanding policies denying minority men and women the most basic human rights, you must take decisive measures. We train our officers to behave professionally and respectfully toward the communities that they serve. But no matter how much training and experience they may have, they are human beings who, in the bedlam of decade upon decade of racist enculturation and deeply institutionalized systems of inequality, may be involved in a tragic situation.

But it’s important to remember that for members of law enforcement, it’s life or death out there. Without any warning, an officer of the law can find himself in the mayhem of formal and de facto segregationist policies such as mortgage discrimination and redlining that made it impossible for people in the most dangerous neighborhoods to live anywhere else. One minute you’re pulling up beside a couple of teenagers walking down the street, and the next minute you’re face-to-face with racial disparity that dates back to the 17th century and undergirds our culture to this very moment.

Every person who has put on the uniform has been there. Out of nowhere, you’re confronted with the enduring shadow of slavery and Jim Crow—boom!—just like that, and you simply react.

So at the end of the day, keep in mind that police officers are doing the best they can, even when unfortunate incidents occur. When you’re suddenly in the middle of an inhuman situation that’s repeated itself over and over and over for 400 years, you have to act fast.

Sadly, sometimes you just don’t have a choice.